Talk on Australia 2020

Talk on Australia 2020

17 Apr 2008

Joe Camilleri

First broadcast on ABC Radio national on Thursday 17 April

The Prime Minister's planned summit next month, titled Australia 2020, is a creative and timely initiative.

Creative because it promises to unleash the insights and enthusiasm of leading scholars and practitioners. Timely because it is hard to think of a time when the problems facing Australia and the world have been more daunting or the need to identify workable solutions more pressing.

If the truth be told, Australia is not noted for the sophistication or intellectual depth of its public discourse. It is certainly a rare event for Australians to come together to reflect about the future or public policy.

Australia 2020, it is true, will not be our first national summit. Bob Hawke's economic summit, held in the old Parliament House in April 1983, brought together political, business and union leaders in search of a national consensus on economic policy. In many ways the Kevin Rudd initiative is more ambitious. It is also less expected and perhaps less well prepared, which is not to say any less welcome.

It is more ambitious because it will range over a much wider agenda. Some 1000 luminaries will be invited to put forward ideas on 10 areas of public policy. Working in 10 groups of 100, they will assemble at Parliament House over the weekend of April 19-20 to tackle the economy, environment, sustainability, rural industry, health, social inclusion, indigenous people and services, the arts, governance and national security. Kevin Rudd has described the summit as an opportunity to "shake the tree" and see what ideas fall to the ground.

It is open to any citizen, not just those invited to Canberra, to make submissions. All those who have seriously thought about the future should be encouraged to seize the opportunity.

The rapidly transforming world economy, the spectacular rise of the Chinese and Indian economies, the impact of new technologies on work and leisure, the challenges facing health, education and water policy, federal-state relations. These are a few of the issues to be addressed. We have indeed a big agenda on our hands, and we need to think big.

But as we embark on this exercise, we also need to think clearly and sharply about desired outcomes and ways of getting there. We need to ask three key questions:

  1. How will we connect the key areas to be addressed? Education or environmental outcomes cannot be separated from the economy. Health issues cannot be viewed independently of Federal-State relations. How will we cultivate a whole-of-government approach? How will fruitful interaction between the 10 panels be nurtured — before, during and after the Summit?
  2. One panel is devoted to national security. At first sight, this is the one major concession to an international outlook. Yet, there is so much more to Australia's external relations than security — what of development, human rights, the dialogue of cultures and civilisations to name just three fundamental areas of concern? In reality, none of the other nine panels can be adequately considered unless placed in a regional and global context. There is a sense in which the topics to be discussed have been too narrowly conceived. It is a little ironic that, with globalisation on everyone's lips, more has not been done to place Australia — our needs, anxieties and aspirations — within a wider context. Yet a genuinely global outlook now holds the key to addressing the major challenges currently facing humanity, Australia included.
  3. These two questions lead to a third — in some ways the most immediate, yet the most far reaching. If the Summit is to be a meeting of minds, we will have to exchange views, to subject arguments and recommendations to detailed scrutiny. How will this be done? Will those who attend the Summit be mentally and emotionally prepared to listen as much as to speak, to adjust their thinking to the insights of others?

And what will follow the Summit? This will be the time to make ideas and proposals the subject of a wide-ranging community consultation — in one-to-one conversations, in small and large groups, in public forums, in the print and electronic media. We need to involve not just a select number of experts, but political parties, the media, community and religious organisations, and other voices in civil society. And government at all levels, not least the Federal Government, has a key role to play, encouraging, resourcing and engaging with a truly national and sustained dialogue that excites our imaginations and releases new energies for reshaping the future.




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