Here’s the problem with Rudd’s 2020 summit: we already have an institution through which the “best and brightest” are supposed to articulate solutions to the nation’s problems.
It’s called an election.
What’s that? You didn’t hear the great ideas presented last November? You didn’t see any brainiacs clashing on the hustings? The whole business seemed more about tightly-scripted soundbites and carefully-sculpted images than principles and policies?
Well, once upon a time, political parties did prepare themselves for power with position papers circulated amongst the membership, motions passed at branch meetings and debates at conferences: a democratic process that gave bright rank-and-filers the chance to argue for the policies they thought best for the country.
But contemporary politicians hate all that messy participation. The Kevin07 strategists ruthlessly identified ideas as weaknesses, potential chinks in the shiny “Me Too” armour through which the Liberals might attack. Symptomatically, when the ALP did attract some high-profile candidates, each suggestion that they might express themselves generated a mini crisis for Rudd and his minders.
In that context, isn’t “Australia 2020” a positive development, a chance to conduct the debates that don’t take place anywhere else?
Au contraire. The summit actually represents another manifestation of the same approach we saw in November 2007.
“Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s declaration that he couldn’t care less about the participants’ politics is admirable,” writes Jane Caro in The Age.
Admirable? If conference delegates were forced to campaign – politically – before a population entitled to vote for those it preferred, a summit might serve to extend political argument outside the cloisters of parliament. Now that would be admirable.
But what’s to admire in politicians using unelected experts to sidestep the political process?
During the twenties, this was called corporatism – and plenty of intellectuals flirted with it. “You can’t discuss anything sensible,” the argument went, “if you have to pander to the great unwashed. We need all the really sensible chaps to sit down and settle matters amongst themselves.”
Experts elected by experts, explained Oswald Mosley. Rudd’s no Mosley, of course. But it doesn’t take much to glimpse the inherent contradiction of 2020.
Let’s say all these smarties do cook up some wonderful new policies together. What happens then?
Either Rudd ignores their recommendations, in which case the whole summit’s a farce, or he adopts them, which – in the immediate aftermath of an election – would be scandalously undemocratic.
The problems facing Australia and the world are political, not technical. There’s no mystery about, say, stopping global warming: the only difficulty lies in forging the social changes required to cut greenhouse emissions. That’s a political issue, the settlement of which entails the active participation of Jane and John Citizen. It won’t be resolved through an unelected conference of their betters.