CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Will Rudd summit achieve anything?
, February 16, 2008
The forthcoming Australia 2020 summit, if it succeeds, could produce a flowering of the sort of ideas that politicians, in their short-term vision, often shy away from.Kevin Rudd's decision to announce a summit of Australia's "best and brightest" to come up with ideas for the country comes as something of a surprise so soon into his term.
Barely three months in office, and having received a strong mandate from the people to govern, Prime Minister Rudd is casting the net, not into his own expanded parliamentary Caucus, but instead into academia, the bureaucracy and the professions to come up with ideas for Australia's long-term future.
Under the proposed summit, 1,000 of the nation's finest minds will converge on Canberra for a weekend of brainstorming on 10 separate challenge areas for the coming decade.
Each of the 10 groups 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.Talents and energies
"It's time for the nation to come together, to bring forth all of our ideas, talents and energies to deal with this nation's long-term challenges," Mr Rudd said, announcing his summit in Canberra.
"It's time to shake the tree a bit and see what the nation's got to offer."
Mr Rudd has promised that the "usual suspects" won't be coming - which means no union secretaries, no industry group representatives and no lobby groups.
Those who will be chosen to come will be people who have excelled in their particular fields and who have good ideas on offer, according to the PM.
In part, the "shaking of the tree" for ideas is a concession that the Howard Government had left the country running reasonably smoothly.
It may also be an acknowledgement that Mr Rudd's platform for government was in fact quite thin.
Apart from winding back WorkChoices over the coming five years, a staged withdrawal from Iraq and ratifying Kyoto, Mr Rudd's agenda was deliberately modest.
But now he is in government he has to be seen to be doing something, particularly with dark economic clouds gathering on the horizon.
The Rudd 2020 Summit is reminiscent of the economic summit Bob Hawke initiated when he became Labor Prime Minister in 1983 and which he used to form a "consensus" to enact measures to reform the economy.
The 1983 summit brought together business, unions and government in an unprecedented atmosphere of goodwill, which produced some tangible results during the early years of the Hawke Government.
But, unlike Hawke, the Rudd Government has not inherited a divided country, a recession, outdated economic and finance regulations or high government debt. Rather, it has an economy which is running "too well" and a fairly serious inflation problem.
What it does face is a very uncertain international economy, with the United States teetering on the brink of recession.
This means Mr Rudd has to move the focus of the electorate beyond the next few years - which could prove to be bad for the government after a decade of boom times under the Howard Government.
Mr Rudd needs to show that his government is thinking of Australia's long-term future. Whether the general public will accept this when the economy contracts and unemployment goes up again is unclear.
In part, it depends on the quality of the ideas of Australia's "best and brightest" coming out of the 2020 Summit, and the willingness of the government to implement them.
The number of people invited could prove unwieldy, and it may also prove to be impossible to form consensus views from the 10 separate groups.
Melbourne University vice-chancellor Prof. Glyn Davis, who will co-chair the summit on April 19-20, claims the event will challenge entrenched views of the government. But, as Mr Rudd has already made clear, no new idea will be able to conflict with Labor Party policy.Off the agenda
And some things are almost guaranteed not
to come out of the April summit, because opposition to some ideas is so entrenched that they will almost certainly be "off the agenda".
There is almost no chance that economists will advocate the nation-continent of Australia re-building a mixed economy which would include a strong local manufacturing base.
There are also unlikely to be any suggestions of Australia harnessing or turning back the great rivers in its north, or of populating some of the country's vast and mostly empty inland.
Nor is there even likely to be a push for a much larger national population. And there is absolutely no chance there will come suggestions on how to tackle an abortion pandemic which denies the country as many as 100,000 new people each year and which is arguably one of the biggest handicaps to economic growth.
On the other hand, an unfettered weekend of discussion in a spirit of goodwill may surprise everyone and produce a flowering of good ideas which politicians, in their short-term vision, often shy away from.