Features | Economy | Oceania

Thinking Cap

I was making vegemite sandwiches for my sons’ lunch one Saturday in late February when Glyn Davis rang.

By Michael Wesley for

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.

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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Take foreign policy for example. Labor has a distinctive foreign policy tradition. It remains committed to the American alliance but is more of a believer in multilateralism than the Coalition. In recent years it has claimed the label of “middle power” as its own, despite a long history of bipartisan agreement on this self-description. The Howard government was also happy to reinforce the Labor Party’s self-promotion as the party favouring closer Australian integration in Asian regionalism. Hence Rudd Labor’s foreign policy platform leading into the 2007 election was based on “three pillars”: the alliance with the United States, multilateralism, and regionalism.

But times have changed too much for the Rudd government simply to take Gareth Evans’ well-defined foreign policy philosophy out of the mothballs. Evans’ multilateralism worked magnificently in a world just emerged from the Cold War and high on internationalist, “new world order” euphoria. Rudd Labor’s multilateralist enthusiasm will have to face up to the contemporary crisis of international institutions. The 15 years since the end of the Cold War have shown the old institutions – the UN, IMF and ASEAN – as sclerotic in the face of demands that they change to reflect new orders of power and respond to new challenges. Meanwhile, the new institutions created during that window of post-Cold War internationalist euphoria – the WTO, APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum – have turned out to be great disappointments. A central problem is that the members of both old and new institutions disagree on their purpose and adequacy. The Europeans, Canadians and Scandinavians are frustrated by the ineptitude of these institutions in responding to situations of human distress, and urge more muscular and interventionist internationalism. The Americans, Chinese and Russians are happy with the current parameters on the action of international organisations. This is a very different stage than Gareth Evans faced.

Neither can Rudd simply pick up, dust off and use Paul Keating’s drive for “engagement” with Asia from where the Howard government discarded it. Keating could work in a pre-financial crisis Asia that was confident and rising. Asia’s own regional impulse had been given impetus by the advent of “new regionalism” in Europe and North America, and by ASEAN’s success in helping bring about an acceptable solution to the Cambodian conflict. And most of the countries of Asia Pacific agreed with Australia that regional associations were a way of drawing China out of its post-Tiananmen isolation and socialising it to the dominant expectations of the region for stability and prosperity.

The regional milieu that faces Kevin Rudd and Stephen Smith is very different. The regionalist experiments of the 1990s – APEC, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN-10 – have stalled amid the diverse expectations of their memberships. The Asian financial crisis stripped away the region’s self-perceptions of invincibility and revealed regional institutions as paper tigers. Meanwhile China has evolved from the reluctant debutante to a confidant and assertive promoter of Asian regionalism. New institutional forms have emerged – ASEAN +3, the East Asia Summit, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – and have become the sites of competition, particularly between China and Japan, for regional leadership.

Even the other “pillar” – the US alliance – is very different in 2008. Alliance dynamics generally have evolved markedly since the end of the Cold War. With the demise of the Soviet bloc, US alliances had to redefine their rationale in terms of upholding general principles of international order. The problem is that the replacement of a specific threat with an open-ended commitment to uphold international order goals has led to mounting disagreements between the US and its allies about the nature of the international order (a treaty against landmines? An International Criminal Court?) and increasingly highlighted the inadequacy of alliance structures to enforce order. After the Iraq War crisis, the US and most of its allies have been left in little doubt that the reliability of alliance commitments can no longer be taken for granted.

These developments mean that if the Rudd government remains committed to its three pillars approach to foreign policy, it will need to fundamentally re-think Australia’s approach to multilateralism and middle-powerism, as well as to the US alliance and Asian regionalism. It is unlikely that the 100 foreign and security policy experts in the Australia in the World panel at the 2020 Summit will come up with definitive answers to these challenges over the course of one weekend. What it will do is begin a conversation about how Australia can best advance its interests in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

The challenge will be to give each of the 100 participants in each of the 10 panels ample time to advance their ideas and discuss those of other delegates, while guiding these conversations towards outcomes that will be of interest and use to the Rudd government. The Australia in the World panel discussions will be channelled along five broad themes: the rise of new great powers and the response of existing powers; globalisation and Australia’s prosperity; managing and combating transnational threats; increasing Australia’s international literacy; and the challenges of development in our region. A range of broader issues – the alliance, regionalism, multilateralism, global warming, global health, promoting religious tolerance – will be captured in broader plenary discussions as well as in the discussions of the panel’s sub-streams. In the lead-up to the Summit, the views of those attending and those not attending will be canvassed and used to further shape and inform the Panel’s discussions.

One of the hardest tasks has been the selection of the 100 attendees in the Australia in the World panel. I received just over 1,800 nominations for the panel. Only one was a prank. Well over 90 per cent of the rest of the nominees were eminently qualified to be invited to the Summit. For nearly a week my dining table was covered by shifting dunes of application forms as I balanced expertise, demographic profiles and geographic spread. No doubt I have many knives in my back following the announcement of the 100 attendees to the Australia in the World panel. Those not invited should not conclude that we thought them unworthy of attending or with little to contribute. Nor should they think they have been judged inferior to those invited. Rather, the list is the result of a series of delicate balances; I hope those who nominated, as well as those that didn’t, feel that they can contribute to the Australia 2020 process.

Australia 2020 will not end at 5pm on Sunday, April 20. It will continue to grow and evolve as the conversations started during the weekend continue, as the government takes up and explores some ideas, as issues raised become part of the national debate. This can only be a good thing.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The vibrancy of a democracy stands or falls on the quality and breadth of its national conversation about public affairs. Judging by the great interest that has already been shown for Australia 2020 from all parts of the country, Australia is more than ready for a broader national conversation.

Professor Michael Wesley is Director of the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University. He Will Chair The “Australia in The World” Panel at the 2020 Summit.