Thinking Cap

 
 

I was making vegemite sandwiches for my sons’ lunch one Saturday in late February when Glyn Davis rang. He said that the Prime Minister wanted me to chair the Australia in the World panel at the Australia 2020 Summit. My diary said I was committed to be in Honolulu the weekend of April 19 and 20, but I accepted without hesitation. Glyn and I talked about what would be involved in chairing one of the 2020 streams. Our conversation was necessarily brief because we had no precedents to draw on; an exercise of this kind had never been undertaken before in this country, or to our knowledge any other. It would be an exercise in, to quote Deng Xiaoping, “crossing the river by feeling for the stones with our feet”.

Incoming governments often rely on conferring with outside stakeholders and specialists to shape their general approach to governing. Twenty-five years ago one of the first initiatives of the Hawke government was to convene an economic summit in Canberra in April 1983, bringing together political parties, trade unions and business organisations to discuss economic policy. In 1996, the Howard government commissioned an advisory committee of academics, businesspeople and former policy-makers to help it forge a distinctive Coalition approach to Australian foreign and trade policy. But both the Hawke and Howard governments consulted with insiders – people with whom governments regularly confer anyway. The Rudd government’s determination to go beyond the usual suspects, to reach out from the Canberra-Sydney-Melbourne triangle, to ask 1000 Australians to pay for themselves to produce their ideas for the new government, is truly a departure.

In some ways, the 2020 Summit is in keeping with the new mode of Labor governance that has now become dominant at the federal and state levels in this country. Early in the 1990s, the Labor-dominated Brisbane City Council began holding community consultation meetings, taking councillors and their departments out of the citadel of City Hall to talk to the ratepayers about their concerns. Labor State governments had cottoned on by the end of that decade, and State Cabinet meetings travelled regularly to regional centres, and ministers and bureaucrats engaged with queues of ordinary voters. Within weeks of its election, the Rudd government had convened a community Cabinet in Perth; and followed up this year in Brisbane and Adelaide. The community consultation model sends several positive messages about the government that employs it. It is emblematic of a government determined to stay in touch with the electorate; a government closely concerned with the effectiveness of service delivery. Beyond this, the 2020 Summit heralds a government that is determined to listen to Australians, a government interested in new ideas, a government focused on the future. Australia 2020 is not a single event: there is also a Youth Summit, a Jewish Symposium, Schools Summits and Community Summits. Ultimately there will be several multiples of 1000 people involved.

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It’s not just “spin”, as some cynics charge. The Rudd government has been under pressure to “define” itself since long before it won power. This is in large part a pressure constructed by the media, which expects new governments to emerge from opposition with a fully rounded philosophy and approach to government. It is an expectation that ignores the fact that a major influence shaping any government’s distinctive approach to governing is the flow of events. The Hawke government’s deregulation of financial markets and floating of the dollar – two policies now central to definitions of its approach to governing – were hastily-reached reactions to unforseen crises.

In calling the 2020 Summit, the Prime Minister is seeking help to define his government’s approach to running the country. While remaining committed to social-democratic objectives and philosophies, the government acknowledges that there is no off-the-shelf recipe of government it can simply pick up and follow. The challenges facing Australia are too different to simply borrow the Blair/Brown approach from Britain; and Australia and its circumstances have changed too much to simply dust off Hawke/Keating formulas. It is a task of finding new techniques within long-established centre-left philosophies of government.

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