Political summits, like the recent Jobs and Skills Summit, are intriguing for what they tell us both about our parliamentary system of government and our nation's social and economic organisation. Because they are merely occasional events, they can't replace or even transform our existing system; but they are worth having for what they reveal about its strengths and weaknesses and the hints they offer about possible improvements.
A summit is neither fish nor fowl; neither fully parliamentary nor fully community. When a community summit, led by the government, is held in the Great Hall of Parliament House, it presents itself as a quasi-parliamentary event in which leading community representatives meet government and parliamentary representatives. Not all parliamentary representatives were present because the Leader of the Opposition opted out, but it did include the Nationals' leader.
One way to look at the summit is that it was doing collectively in public what is happening all the time privately anyway. It was an unveiling. Very few, if any, of the representatives present were strangers to Parliament House. Most of them were the heads of major pressure groups and lobbying organisations, mixed in with some high-profile individuals from think tanks and academia. It is their home away from home.
From this perspective this was the underbelly of parliamentary politics on public display. Not "one vote one value" politics, but insider politics. We saw the influencers and opinion-makers on whom parliament and government regularly rely to get things done. Corporate and union leaders sat side by side with other community leaders to advise government on major social and economic issues.
Whatever Parliament decides must be informed by such high-end community opinion anyway. This event reinforced the value of such community authority, expertise and experience to public policymaking.
It was theatre, of course, but not just theatre. It was an opportunity for side-deals and prior deals to be announced. It gave a focus to high-priority public issues and signalled to the community that the government was serious. Putting these leaders together cheek by jowl probably caught their attention and added value to deliberations which would have taken place anyway. This added value is handy, but it is not transformative.
Another way to look at the summit is more positive as an alternative way of doing politics. Fellow columnist, Nicholas Stuart, pointed to the summit as possibly showcasing a "new consultative way of acting". This new way may turn out to be an indication of how the Albanese government will conduct itself. If so, that will be quite an achievement because it will be out of character for the parliament; the jury is out.
Parliamentary politics is rarely consultative enough. It is about majorities defeating minorities and the raw power of numbers. The majority controls proceedings and dictates terms. There are some friendships and individual respect across the divides, but essentially it is winner takes all.
The existence of the Senate does modify this view of parliamentary government. The Albanese government must negotiate with the Greens and the crossbench to enable the passage of its legislation. It also has the option of negotiating with the opposition, but that is an absolute last resort, because government and opposition are pitted against one another relentlessly.
Negotiation and consultation are not the same thing, however. The image of the Senate has evolved. In the distant past the Senate, usually controlled by the government of the day, was a place where legislation was reviewed, often through the work of committees. Senators were seen to be less strictly partisan than their House of Representative colleagues and more inclined to consult one another and to respect each other's views.
The modern Senate is more about hard-nosed negotiation by the government with likely senators, minor parties or individuals, to achieve a numerical majority. The first government priority is to achieve support rather than to improve legislation by serious consultation. Ideas are exchanged, of course, and some useful amendments are accepted, but the main aim is to win the vote.
The most positive interpretation of this summit is that it is a way of doing politics with lessons for both the parliamentarians and the community leaders who were present. At its best it went beyond both the winner-take-all mode of parliamentary politics and the behind-closed-doors style of pressure group lobbying.
It brought the two together in public and offered the possibility of open exchange of ideas, listening and consultation as a possible alternative way.
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It didn't leave the older style of politics behind, of course.
The government still openly sought a consensus, which in the eyes of some sceptics is just a fancy way of saying "majority support" for its ideas.
Non-government parliamentarians, like the Nationals' David Littleproud, still tried to preserve their independence and the Leader of the Opposition, Peter Dutton, played "old politics" and refused to accept this "new way".
Community representatives will probably retain their traditional insider lobbying techniques while publicly listening to others.
Like other past summits the Jobs and Skills Summit will be measured not just by its consultative spirit but also by concrete outcomes. If these don't measure up some sceptics will dismiss it as a distraction or a talkfest. The competitive cauldron of parliament will remain the main arena.
Three cheers are not in order, but summits still deserve a more modest two cheers because our broken system badly needs creative alternatives or at least renewal. Dismissing new ways of doing things out of hand gets us nowhere.
- John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University and a regular columnist.