CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Kevin Rudd's ideas summit looms
, April 12, 2008
Mr Rudd says that government, irrespective of its political persuasion, does not have a monopoly on policy wisdom.Twenty-five years ago, Labor's new prime minister Bob Hawke initiated his historic Economic Summit which brought together different groups for the first time to get consensus on the country's future direction.
The summit brought together disparate and sometimes warring groups, including big and small business, unions, state governments of different political persuasions, bureaucrats, academics and others, to find an agreed path to economic reform.
By and large, the summit was a success and came at a time when Australia had endured a painful recession, was still raw from a recent constitutional crisis, and was a country sharply divided on ideological lines.Stage-managed
Although the Hawke summit was stage-managed and orchestrated to arrive at certain conclusions, all participants signed up to the plans which were made - the notable exception being the fiercely anti-Labor Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
Interestingly, though, Mr Hawke did not return to the summit concept in his long prime ministerial career.
Perhaps he learnt that, even with the best intentions, summits can be unwieldy and unpredictable.
Later this month (April 19-20), a different summit is to take place, but one with many more participants than Mr Hawke's 1983 event.
The 2020 Summit is also one without a pre-conceived goal or outcome - in fact, one where the chair of the steering committee, Professor Glyn Davis, is discouraging attempts to reach a consensus.
"The Australia 2020 Summit will harness the best ideas across the nation, in a forum for free and open public discussion in which there are no wrong answers," Prof Davis said.
There will be 1,000 participants at the Rudd summit, comprising Australia's "best and brightest", including 880-odd selected summiteers, with federal ministers, premiers, senior bureaucrats and carefully chosen members of the public making up the remainder.
Ten groups, each consisting of 100 "ideas" people, will tackle a specific challenge outlined by the Government.
These are productivity; infrastructure and the digital economy; population, sustainability and climate change; rural Australia; health; families and communities; the future of indigenous Australia; the arts; the structure of government; and Australia's future in the region and the world.
The Rudd summit, rushed in concept as it is in planning, has been beset with teething problems, from lack of women on the selection committee to mistakenly holding the event during the important Jewish festival of Passover, thus disenfranchising many of the Jewish community.
In the end, the gender imbalance was restored by having a slight majority of female invitees, and the other problem by staging a separate precursor meeting for Jewish leaders on April 14 in Sydney.
But noses are still out of joint with participants from Victoria (223), New South Wales (254) and the ACT (85) dominating those who have been invited.
The ACT has more participants than Western Australia (67), South Australia (53) and Tasmania (16) and the Northern Territory (32).
Mr Rudd's home state of Queensland, which has a population 80 per cent the size of Victoria's, will send just 113 participants to the Parliament House summit - about half the number coming from Victoria.
Unions feature prominently on the list, though only left-wing unions appear to possess great minds.
The Australian Medical Association and the Institute of Public Affairs - both organisations unfriendly toward Labor - did not get an invitation.
On the other hand, the Rudd Government has invited former Liberal Party minister Warwick Smith to chair the committee on governance, and invited other political opponents such as Queensland Liberal Senator George Brandis and ex-NSW Liberal Premier Nick Greiner.
The federal Opposition leader Dr Brendan Nelson has also been invited, along with Opposition leaders in each state and territory.
The government originally promised to avoid dragging out the "usual suspects", but many appear to have gained entry, including occasional ABC compères Geraldine Doogue, David Marr and Phillip Adams, and academic Robert Manne.
It is hoped that the event will produce something more substantial than a series of platitudes.
But the concept of the summit does offer the possibility of harnessing some good ideas - which are often hidden in academia and research organisations - to be placed at the centre of the national agenda.Public response
The Government has promised to consider everything put up by the summit and to produce a public response by the end of the year.
Mr Rudd has said, correctly, that government, irrespective of its political persuasion, does not have a monopoly on policy wisdom.
And he argues that, in order to thrive and prosper, Australia needs to draw on the range of talents, ideas and energy from across the community.
But it would be also wrong to pre-judge or be too cynical about such sentiments; and even one good idea out of a thousand might prove beneficial to the nation.