Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been given a standing ovation by the 1002 delegates to the Australia 2020 Summit in Parliament House.
Make that 1001 delegates, at most. While I was in the room, needless to say I was not among those giving the PM a standing ovation. In the latest issue of Policy, I have reprinted an article by Owen Harries on intellectuals, in which he – following George Orwell – notes the propensity to power-worship among intellectuals. This was on embarrassing display yesterday afternoon. For nearly twelve years, this psychological need has gone unmet as the dreaded Howard occupied the Prime Ministerial suite. And now Australia’s progressive intelligentsia has someone as PM who, while carefully not signing up to immediate implementation of their ideas, takes them seriously and flatters their egos.
I was in the productivity stream. At that 100 person level – as opposed to the collective behaviour in the 1,000 person plenary sessions – there wasn’t a smothering consensus. But nor was there much debate. It was more a case of people trying to put their pet topics into the stream statement that was to be included in the summit initial report. By Sunday morning I was bored and disengaged.
What of the actual ideas? From my stream, the one that has received most attention was to let people reduce their HECS-HELP debt by doing community service. That one mysteriously appeared in our stream summary document on Sunday morning, despite never having been mentioned in the group the day before. Nobody I spoke to from other sub-streams within the major productivity stream had heard it before either (I was in the post-secondary sub-stream). Perhaps it came from community submissions.
In any case, as I said last year, it is a daft idea. If we are going to pay people to do community work, why restrict the pool of applicants to people with HECS-HELP debts? And in a productivity stream, surely we should be concerned with matching jobs and persons as well as possible? OK, my hand should have joined all the others that were up yesterday as other stream members tried to make their points. But I will try to redeem myself by working to kill this idea.
A HECS-HELP funded community corp is silly and wasteful, but not nearly as bad an idea as a national curriculum. But there is a political momentum behind that one, and I expect resistance in this kind of forum would have been futile.
From Rudd’s perspective, 2020 did not become the farce it easily could have, he has the progressive intelligentsia happy, and the media coverage is generally positive. But the process was massively inferior to the policy-setting systems we already have. There seemed to be an assumption in Parliament House over the weekend that government consultation was somehow unusual, when in fact it is routine and was throughout the Howard years. The issues to be dealt are normally far better defined, the evidence far more carefully collected and considered, and conflicting views more likely to be heard and discussed.
The best thing to do, from the government’s perspective, is to declare 2020 a great success and never do it again.