First community cabinet meetings, now a 2020 summit. Labor’s approach of government by stunt is shaping up nicely.

This is very clever politics. It looks post-partisan, builds on the positive predisposition most people have toward new governments, and reinforces the impression of fresh thinking and consultation. The nice round numbers – 10 groups of 100, 2020, the notion of the “best and the brightest”, the lack of public expense – it hits all the right buttons. Older voters will naturally be reminded of Bob Hawke, whose summit-led recovery restored our fortunes in the 80s and briefly made Bob look statesmanlike. The Opposition would look cranky indeed if they failed to endorse it.

And The Australian loves it, devoting lots of space to the idea and claiming its own “New Agenda for Prosperity” conference in March will “lay foundations for the 2020 meeting.” Because if there’s one thing Australia has been missing, it’s policy guidance from News Ltd.

But like community Cabinet meetings, the idea is a scam. This talkfest — labelled “wank tank” by 3AW’s Neil Mitchell this morning — is indeed purely for the sake of having a talkfest. Kevin Rudd admitted that the Government’s policies were already set and that it would only “consider” the conference’s outputs.

No word, either, on how the “best and the brightest” would be selected. Such a group self-evidently doesn’t include the State and Territory politicians who apparently are to be invited. As for the rest, maybe interested people can fill out one of those online intelligence tests, the sort where you can find out if you’re smarter than George W Bush. Or perhaps there can be auditions across the country. Make a reality show of it and get people to vote by SMS. That’ll engage Yoof.

Glyn Davis, who based on this evidently won’t be the next head of Prime Minister and Cabinet, has said that he doesn’t want “the usual suspects”. But what odds the lucky 1,000 will be a mixture of academics, business reps, unionists, church types and community group leaders, with maybe a celebrity or two thrown in to represent the Yarts?

This sort of thing taps into the idea, held by many otherwise-intelligent people, that there is some subterranean wisdom, some untapped reservoir of policy profundity, available amongst us that can be accessed if only we’d all set aside our self-interest and work together.

It’s an illusion, one frequently held by the sort of people who complain that politics is too partisan, or that “the system doesn’t work”.

There is no wisdom out there waiting to be tapped. There are only special interests and their representatives, pushing their own barrows. There are only “the usual suspects”. It is the unglamorous job of government to critically analyse what they are claiming, balance it against competing ideas, work out what serves the public interest best, and argue the case for it. It’s called politics, and there’s no escape from it.

If Rudd wanted to make a lasting long-term contribution to good policy in Australia, he’d acknowledge this and address a key problem with it — the access to government that political donations purchase. Let’s see the best and the brightest tackle how to end the corrupting role of money in politics, particularly at the State level. Less influence for vested interests and greater transparency of decision-making would be worth any number of Canberra talkfests.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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