With a week or so until the curtain goes up, it’s clear that Captain Krudd’s 2020 confab – and yes, if you’re tired of discussion of the government’s major initiative to date, look away now – has already made a contribution to intellectual debate in the country, with a pretty thoroughgoing question of its basic legitimacy. It’s certainly been of a higher order than the summit’s participants, whose sum total of proposals seems to be more taxpayer funding for the high arts, as witnessed by Cate Blanchett and Julianne Schultz’s cliche-ridden grant application oped across yesterday’s Fairfax.
Trouble is much of the most acute criticism is coming largely from the right, cloaked in its usual tone of bitterness and faux populism. M’esteemed colleague Jeff Sparrow being one of the few on the left to point out that state-sponsored selection of the elite is scarcely a democratic or progressive notion, and has some truly nasty antecedents.
One of the reasons the right has had a lot of the running on this issue, is not only because the conference itself is a left-liberal creation, but also because those with a more critical view are so desperate not to fall into “obvious dichotomies” or “knee-jerk reactions” that they can’t get it firmly in their sites.
For similar reasons, what’s also been left out is much consideration of how the thing will work, its boosters wanting to smooth over the issue, and its critics unwilling to give it any legitimicy. Quite aside from the truly bizarre situation of having a separate Jewish summit, the point has been tellingly made by Mark Bahnisch that the whole online distribution of documents etc, of the event has been pretty much run like it was 1994, with the internet a sort of steam-driven add-on to standard mail, telex and semaphore distribution.
Indeed what is really signficant is the way people are talking about this shindig indicates that no-one has really thought out how this thing is going to work, or not. Has no-one noticed that this is a thousand people, in 10 groups of a hundred, convened for a single weekend? Presuming, say, 15 hours of session time, the result averages out to nine minutes airtime per person. Should everyone get their allotted time to raise their own personal obsessions, then the result will be chaos.
Alternatively, the fix will be in, and topics will be set by cliques – principally for a republic and increased funding for the bodies represented by the people attending. These may or may not be worthy causes, but they’re scarcely the new ideas that have been forecast. Perhaps sub-groups with designated tasks are envisaged, but, in any case, with many of the usual suspects from both sides going up against each other, most people can kiss their nine minutes goodbye, unless they have the nous to punch Gerard Henderson or Barry Kosky in the throat.
There’s nothing wrong with the state getting advice from experts and others together to thrash out issues where technical and moral issues mix, such as public health, but a weekend wouldn’t do it. If you gathered say 40 people to talk about Aboriginal health – doctors, patients, academics, activists – and made them thrash it out for a fortnight, then you might clarify a common programme for its improvement, and identify previous errors. But a hundred people for one weekend? It’s a folly.
Left-liberals have dodged this summit up because of a belief among them that the Australian public is afflicted by an apathy substantially deeper and worse than that of many other western publics. Yet 2020 actually renders that worse, turning the very process of creating new “ideas” into a spectator sport, done by experts.
Ideas don’t exist in the abstract – they’re part of moral and political action in the world. People keen on advancing causes such as the republic should have committed to the harder yards of rebuilding a republican movement to advocate it, rather than relying on the legup of a state summit – whose principle effect will be to deligitimise whatever contentious suggestions it comes up with.
Perhpas it’s somewhat apt that the event comes at the same time as Barack Obama’s San Francisco speech. The small self-selecting groups are having a sixth-sense moment: “They don’t know they’re elitists”. The assumption that government arts funding is simply a given, rather than a contentious issue which needs a rethink of its basics, is indicative. Amazingly, these people are doing the Liberal Party’s work for them in reconstructing an enemy for right-wing populism.
What will the invitees, who are “what you might call ordinary Australians” to quote Glyn Davis, contribute? We shall watch with interest.