So You Think You Can Think?
Suddenly ideas are sexy. The Australia 2020 Summit has done for Deep Thought what Australian Idol did for karaoke – what was once a mildly embarrassing hobby best practised under cover of drunkenness is now played live to a national audience.
Like music professors asked to comment on the success of Idol, most of the wonks who went through the last two days can’t quite decide whether to be pleased that so many people are paying attention to ideas or annoyed that serious attempts to grapple with complex, long-term policy problems were sometimes lost amidst the all-singing, all-dancing Summit show.
In the governance group Marcia Hines was played by Maxine McKew, who, after listening to report-backs from groups with ideas ranging from FOI reform to a new Federation Commission, entreated us to put a little soul into it. Kudos to youth summit delegate Owen Wareham who read between the lines, said something like “here’s a sound bite, if that’s what you’re looking for” and delivered a punchy straight-to-camera pitch for automatic enrolment.
I had a lot of sympathy with Ms McKew’s call for more ideas that would capture people’s imagination. True originality is rare – especially when it comes to workable ways to run a country – but with so little time to jam ideas, it was inevitable that we sometimes ended up singing covers. In hindsight it’s pretty obvious that asking a group of clever and opinionated people to decide amongst themselves whose idea was the “biggest” was a recipe for mayhem. We probably would have been better off if the hard-working scribes had whacked our ideas straight on to ABC2’s ticker, and a mobile-wielding audience had texted their favourite policy to the top.
But although many people felt uncomfortable at the amount of detail lost in the translation of hours of feisty debate and carefully crafted compromise into “ambitions” and “priority themes”, there was still an incredible amount of light on that hill.
The constitution group, after quickly establishing that the divine right of kings wasn’t likely to be a feature of Australia’s governance in 2020, moved straight on to ways of ensuring that the process of taking the last steps towards independence works better this time around. Their conclusion? A plebiscite on the principle of severing Australia’s ties with the Crown, followed by a referendum on the model after extensive consultation (with Lyn Carson, Janette Hartz-Karp and others arguing for the use of some of the more representative devices in the consultation toolkit like citizens juries or assemblies).
My “open governance and media” group, which included some very sharp FOI thinkers, came up with a pretty detailed list of ways to protect citizens’ right to find out what their governments are up to. There was general support for reforming media law in the interests of consumers rather than producers of media, but Allan Fels’ recommendation that we “deregulate the electronic media” was sidelined due to a lack of time to debate the details of the Productivity Commission report. Paul Chadwick, ABC editorial policy director, came up with the excellent idea of abolishing Crown copyright (I’d explain why it’s excellent but I’m on deadline and over the word limit – feels like the Summit all over again).
My favourite idea from the weekend goes to the heart of why I think the Summit, for all its flaws, was a great idea – Collaborative Governance. Whether it’s through a hand-picked bunch of self-proclaimed ideas people, a “community cabinet”, or the random selection of a citizens jury, we need to upgrade democracy’s 19th Century plant and equipment if we’re going to make the right decisions on some of this century’s thorniest problems. To this end, one of the “big ideas” that came out of the governance stream, was ourgov.au – a cross between Get Involved, theyworkforyou.com and a whole bunch of other experiments in making it easier for citizens to access government information and participate in decision-making.
As the beleaguered staff at PM&C start sorting through the transcripts and deciding which ideas will get signed to the Kevin 24/7 label, most of the really interesting conversations started by the summit will be continuing elsewhere. Apparently the website that Summit delegates have been using to discuss each others’ ideas is going to be made public soon – so if you’re interested in helping to create a blueprint for a better federal government website, drop by sometime and join the conversation.
Professor Stephen Leeder
The Best Yakfest and Hullabaloo in Town
John Ralston Saul, in his The Unconscious Civilization, writes of the great contribution of town hall meetings, discussion and exploration of political matters, and vigorous conversations among citizens towards the maintenance of a vibrant democracy.
The seemingly inefficient chattering and reassessment that goes on in conversation contrasts with the corporate drive that excludes debate in its quest for technical resolution and fast forward profitable movement. If you want to keep a democracy, keep talking, Saul argues.
The 2020 Summit was the culmination of many town hall meetings – 500 school meetings and thousands of on line conversations, a Youth Summit and a Jewish Summit – and it was full of chatter. It fitted with Garrison Keillor’s description of poetry (as opposed to managerial prose) as:
being on the side of
exhilaration and the stupendous vision, the sight of the stars through the
barred window, the perfection of small birds, the democracy of their chattering
language and of our own yakfest and hullabaloo.
The media coverage of the Summit has been vintage colour-me-cynical Australian-beige. Virtually none has addressed the Summit as instrument of democratic life. Instead, the dull uniformity of articles and clips asserting that no good thing can come from the Summit has been depressing. That we have a prime minister capable of scholarly reflection and grasp, at ease discussing ideas rather than sending them off-shore to an island quarantine station, has largely escaped their attention. Only a fragment of the Summit material has thus far been published and it will be weeks before it all becomes available, but most media have already closed the books.
The single most interesting idea in the Health Strategy Stream for me related to prevention. I learned from the CEO of Woolworths, Michael Luscombe, that Coke Zero and Diet Coke cost one third less to produce than sugar laden Coke. An interesting possibility exists for a conversation with Amatil, of tobacco fame and that now runs Coca Cola, for preferential pricing for the less health damaging Zero.
This, we agreed, was the kind of conversation that the prime minister could lead with benefit with major urban developers, food manufacturers and retailers in order to make it easier for people to choose goods that do not screw up their health. He could convene such a meeting as a follow-up to the Summit, in the spirit of the Summit. Seated around the table seating the CEOs of companies that build our cities, design our parks and cycle ways, determine the style of new buildings, decide upon the walkability of a new suburbs, choose
what food will be retailed, advertise it, run our commercial gyms and more, the PM could say “Ladies and Gentlemen: we have a problem and its called obesity. What are we going to do about it?” Small changes by CEOs ripple into waves – slowly reducing salt, fat and sugar in processed foods, designing mandatory park spaces so that people use them rather than avoid them, developing coherent walkability plans for cities and so forth could all be done at low cost through the combination of commercial, community and political will. Such a forum was recommended.
Fears that the Summit attendees would be a ‘white bread’ congregation were allayed by the diversity of those present. Parliament House felt
less like the headquarters of a major accounting and management consulting corporation. Instead, its major assembly point was more like the packed, grand entrance to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, milling with enthusiastic patrons on a winter Sunday afternoon. It felt like the Sydney Olympics, with volunteer ushers, scribes, and facilitators, crowds, chatter, laughter, youthfulness, optimism and anticipation, and a touch of tinsel. I felt pleased to be alive and delighted to be there.
Associate Professor Lyn Carson
Flying home from 2020 Summit
I write this on the flight from Canberra to Sydney. The 2020 Summit is only an hour old. Already I have a printed report outlining the ideas from Australia’s “best and brightest” and feel pleased to have rubbed shoulders with some very inspiring thinkers.
We gathered as a group of 100 in the Governance stream, a sub-set of the total 1000 delegates. That 100 delegates were split into four
groups of 25 and I found myself in the Constitutional Rights & Responsibility group, among fellow academics, politicians, advocates, concerned citizens and students.
For me, the republic, a bill of rights, reformed federalism are all ‘no brainers’-boxes to be ticked so we can move onto new ideas like reinvigorating governance by putting people at the forefront. I began to feel isolated as I mouthed enthusiasm for my key interests:
inviting randomly-selected citizens to deliberate in mini-publics (like newDemocracy‘s forthcoming Citizens’ Parliament), in order to give Australians a stronger voice in political decision making. The constitutional lawyers would interrupt any mention of citizens’ juries or
citizens’ assemblies to insist on a precise definition for the term citizen. It was going to be a long weekend.
My wildest ideas were clearly not going to be embraced by this group, for example a group of 1000 randomly-selected citizens to consider
the ideas from the 2020 Summit or – heaven forbid – a randomly-selected legislature. I began to note the way in which specialists censor themselves, speaking only of incremental change or not daring to flirt with anything seen as unrealistic. The conversation was too often about what was achievable in the short-term. The co-chair, Maxine McKew, expressed her disappointment when we regrouped amongst the 100 to report back. Only three people thought we had offered a big idea yet the sub-heading for the 2020 Summit was “Thinking Big”.
I noticed that we were following the stages of group development: forming and norming and we had begun to experience the storming phase: frustration with the process and each other. Lobbying occurred. People were negotiating a way forward and process designers were working behind the scenes. I hungered to work with a group that shared my concern for the voiceless.
The next day we entered the performing stage as we coalesced around the idea that enthused each of us: the republic, a charter/bill of rights, open and accountable government and civic engagement. I was able to switch groups and, in the latter group, we worked frenetically to extract the essence of our collective dreams, to accurately express our combined aspirations and goals. We were pleased to offer several wonderful ambitions and big ideas although the detail was eventually lost in the final presentation and written report. Democracy day disappeared and participatory budgets and citizens’ assemblies and juries simply went missing.
However, what surfaced in the final presentation was the top ambition of the civic engagement group and it appeared in a slightly different
form in the final document:
… the need to strengthen
the participation of Australians in their governance: a revolution in community
and government interaction through grassroots and non-traditional community
The Prime Minister in his closing remarks noted that the idea of collaborative governance (the phraseology we had preferred and put forward), was a new one which could involve “rolling dialogues in relation to policies and programs.”
As the plane descends I’m left with the feeling that we worked well together, that we shared many wonderful ideas across ten wide streams and that this navigation, indeed, may really be in the hands of an unusual government. This one seems to be daring enough to dare us to imagine a very different future from that which we thought awaited us. One delegate from a resource-strapped welfare organisation told me that he did not know how to relate to this new government. He’d been trying for so long to get inside the doors, only to find them slammed shut, that he wasn’t sure what to make of one that warmly invited him in.
Let’s hope that the doors remain as widely open and the air as cool and fresh as that which we experienced these past two days.
Professor Jon Altman
What Dividends for Indigenous Australia from 2020?
The Options for the Future of Indigenous Australia stream had the unenviable task of grappling with what is the most intractable issue facing the nation: how to achieve some symbolic accommodation between Australia’s First Peoples and the settler majority that is acceptable to both, while simultaneously closing the unacceptable socioeconomic gaps.
In the stream’s deliberations these two issues were viewed quite correctly as parallel challenges. Despite mischievous reports to the contrary in the national media reflecting the views of some, there was no erroneous slippage in stream discussions into the false practical/symbolic binary. There was an overarching sense of urgency permeating deliberations, it was not about gazing to 2020: the future begins now and many participants felt accountable to their home communities to emphasise this message.
One concern I had prior to 2020 was that the Indigenous stream would be ghetto-ised, but this possibility was addressed by having Indigenous participants judiciously distributed throughout the other nine 2020 streams. There were probably 100 Indigenous
participants at 2020, significant and appropriate over-representation historically unmatched in an Australian occasion of such profile. And many good ideas came from these other streams.
The big ideas that emerged from the Indigenous stream were crucially important rather than new: find an instrument for the formal recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; develop an Indigenous Futures Fund to assist meeting backlogs; and establish an Indigenous
Productivity Commission to hold governments accountable for levels of fiscal commitments and actual expenditure to address Indigenous disadvantage.
There was a big idea that the national lexicon that either pathologises or else seeks to assimilate Indigenous peoples needs to change. The means to such an end saw the call for a revived national dialogue, one that arguably was well underway during the Reconciliation Decade 1991-2000.
Sometimes one needs to revisit past good ideas and their practical implementation.
The Options for the Future of Indigenous Australia stream highlighted three paradoxes for me.
First, some complained that there were no new ideas being articulated which is surprising given the dominant discourse of policy failure:
perhaps the last 35 years have not been all failure after all?
Second, it is difficult to reconcile the recent call for fresh new ideas with the equally recent call for an evidence base to guide policy making: ideas often have no evidence, just cogent argument.
Third, and unsurprisingly given the neglect of the last ten years and the unilateral NT National Emergency Intervention of 2007, there is a
deep distrust of the state and yet a call for the state to set up a statutory commission with teeth to hold it accountable to its Indigenous citizens. I am sceptical that any state is open to such transparent scrutiny.
In my view there is an urgent need for a national Indigenous representative body so that the debate in the national media is not hijacked in
future by an articulate handful with domineering views that may not reflect those of the Indigenous polity.
Overall, I observed a strong call for a new policy framework, one that at once sought to advance Indigenous socioeconomic status to parity, while at the same time actively facilitating options for Indigenous people to pursue distinct and diverse cultural priorities of value to a
There was little discussion at 2020 about trade-offs that might be inherent in such a framework, perhaps because both its key strands are some considerable way off.
One thousand and two notable Australians camped out in the national parliament for two days. As Maxine McKew observed, they looked a lot more like contemporary Australia than the members of the current Parliament.
They occupied every space except, revealingly, the two vacant Parliamentary chambers. Under the indulgent gaze of a remarkable Prime Minster, they consigned to history’s ashcan the shibboleths and icons of Australia’s past – the monarchy, the sovereign states, the dysfunctional health system and much else besides. By acclamation, the modern version of a constituent national assembly adopted and endorsed the republic, a new constitutional order of things explicitly recognising the place of the first peoples (details to be worked out), a “seamless” national economy, a modern national curriculum and a single unified health system. On the way through, the Summit reasserted Australia’s commitment to multilateralism and the primacy of international law and global good governance as cornerstones of our foreign and security policies. New visions and grand plans for education, transport, culture and the arts, family and social policy, indigenous affairs,
governance and rural and regional Australia might have looked as if they were conjured up in a weekend, but in reality they have been years and decades in the making.
Rapidly, methodically and confidently, the Summit adapted and renovated our national structures, priorities and politics to cope with the vast forces that are remaking our world. The Summit of course built this new progressive consensus upon the foundation of certain ineradicable core values — the idea of a fair go for all, the belief that the national interest is more than just the aggregated demands of 20 million individuals and the view that we can and should plan for the future rather than become passive victims of it. With great good humour, the 2020 Summit endorsed the national consensus that has emerged over the last three decades or so that our decrepit constitutional and political structures are no longer fit for purpose. On Sunday 20 April 2008, the old Australian order of things ended.
It was consigned to history without rancour, revolution or bloodshed. The new order came into being in an atmosphere of joy and celebration, cheap wine and boxed lunches. What could be more daggily and happily Australian than that? We need shed no tears as we finally close the book on twentieth century Australia. The future has arrived.