Summiteers treated to mix of showbiz and serious performance


Australia 2020 SummitThe 2020 Summit, like the Olympic Games, has turned out to be a mixture of showbiz and serious performances by elite participants. The Prime Minister was very aware of the former and some of the displays, including the opening session, were very well done indeed. All half dozen performers at the opening, including Matilda House, Sania Nakata, Michael Jeffery, Michael Wesley and the co-chairs Kevin Rudd and Glyn Davis, did well. But later plenary sessions sometimes became self-indulgent and wasteful of the limited time available if intellectual work was the only aim.

It was effectively a one-day summit. This makes the successes remarkable and any failures more explicable. Trying to judge its success is difficult because any evaluation has to take into account its different levels and its different sections. Not only are there different indicators of success but some of the ten sub-sections probably turned out better than others.

The Summit certainly has to be considered as a total experience. The extras were integral to the successes. These included the more than 8000 nominations, the more than 3600 individuals who made submissions, the many local summits, the more than 500 school summits, the Jewish and African summits, the national youth summit and much more. This whole package was an impressive achievement in democratic engagement.

The Summit proper was subject to some of the limitations of venue and process noted in the weeks leading up to the event. The meeting spaces looked as crowded and as ill-fitted for their purpose as those found in many a university. Even the Great Hall was not quite big enough for the plenary sessions. The 40 small groups seemed as variable in their composition and achievement as any group of tutorials in a large first year university class.

Australia 2020 - Plenary However the government did successfully shape the process in the final weeks. The riding instructions from Rudd helped. He asked each section for one big idea, and three policy ideas, including one that came at no cost. Furthermore the work of the facilitators seems to have been of the highest calibre under the circumstances.

But, as demonstrated in the events leading up to the Summit, many participants as well as many observers still struggled with understanding the difference between ideas, policies, visions, aspirations and general directions. The outcomes were a mixture of all of these. This has meant that the strictly hard-headed were probably disappointed just as others were delighted by vision statements. This complicates the first indicator of success, the generation of new ideas. But there were many of them.

Judged against the second indicator of success, energy and momentum, the summit was clearly successful. This exercise in large-scale participation was grasped enthusiastically and much of it was transmitted to the viewing public. For every discontented participant there were probably ten who left with fresh ideas, recharged batteries, better government connections and a wider network of like-minded activists. This is no mean achievement, likely to be especially significant for the B rather than the A list. Within the summit membership there were gradations. For the 25% making up the A list it was just another opportunity among many. For the 75% on the B list it was probably their best opportunity ever to have input into policy making.

The final indicator is what it means for the government and for party politics. In the short term the summit will be good for the government. All the talk of non-partisanship and the reforming centre has effectively taken the wind even further out of the Opposition’s sails. By surrounding Rudd and his ministers with the best and the brightest in such a large community event it has engendered substantial further good will. Many of the government’s general inclinations and directions have been given a stamp of approval and few, if any, have been stymied.

The longer-term is harder to predict. The government has promised a full response by the end of the year. This will be harder to manage, especially as understandably many of the participants have a sense of urgency about their ideas, like foreign aid and climate change. They want action and they want it now. Rudd will have to emphasise the often forgotten 2020 time frame. Implementation must be carefully staggered. Some ideas will have to be delivered over two or even three terms of government if they are not to be brought down by undue speed.

Thinking big doesn’t necessarily mean immediate implementation. But the prevailing culture seeks a quick fix. Balancing these twin impulses means hastening slowly in some instances. Yet such an approach is often contrary to the demands of adversarial politics and the electoral cycle.

Australia 2020

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is Professor of Political Science at ANU and a Canberra Times columnist.
Images courtesy of the Australian Government, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (more here).



submit a comment

Existing comments

This is a very good comment on such an incredible happening in Australia! I agree with John that there might have been some 'wastage', but self-indulgent? Showbiz? "if intellectual work was the only aim"... I suppose I agree with John! I do think that we needed this opportunity to "show off"!!! have a say, congratulate each other on ... being intelligent!?! I feel enormously proud of being Australian!

Nathalie | 21 April 2008  

The 2020 Summit provided the opportunity for all adult citizens of Australia to submit ideas/suggestions to enhance the quality of life for all residents, into the future.

For those who were in attendance at the Summit it was an extraordinary opportunity to express, in vivo, their aspirations. I don't know of any other country where citizens have been afforded such a unique opportunity.

To quote from Hannibal, "We will either find a way or make one!"

Maureen T.Couch | 21 April 2008  

For how long can Kevin put off his job of running the country? What's the difference between a strategist (Kevin) and a tactician (Johnny)? A strategist asks EVERYONE: 'How are we going to plan this?'. A tactician asks HIMSELF: 'What am I going to do about this RIGHT NOW?'.

Kevin's bufoonery can not go unperceived for much longer. Even the naughty but perceptive Maxine (my member) is now referring to Kevin's 'KPI's' (Kevin's Performance Indicators) with wry humour.

claude rigney | 22 April 2008  

Hard headed? Cynical? I'm not sure if I am either really, but I do think that there really was not much to be gained from the weekend offerings of 1000 people.

It does seem to me however that Kevin Rudd, by virtue of his Catholic baptism, must have much of the "spirit" of the modern Church within him, despite his preference for the Anglican Church in his home state of Queensland.

Brent Egan | 22 April 2008  

Similar Articles

'Meaningless' maths gives way to compulsory multilingualism

  • Frank O'Shea
  • 24 April 2008

What Mozart and Michelangelo did with music and art, Maxwell and Euler did with numbers. But students would be better off learning a compulsory second language, rather than maths with little real-world application.


Bricks and mortar don't care for children

  • Daniel Donahoo
  • 23 April 2008

The Prime Minister's proposal for 'one-stop shop' child and parent centres is a big idea, but not a new one. All those early childhood advocates busily patting themselves on the back for getting their issues back on the front page should demand more for the youngest Australians.



Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up