Kevin Rudd got two very useful things out of the 2020 Summit. One was the photo of him sitting on the floor, earnestly listening: a priceless portrait of the relaxed but focused leader open to ideas.

The second was non-government imprimatur for a slate of progressive ideas from which he can pick and choose.

Because if he wanted a feast of ideas, a lot of summiteers thawed out the frozen leftovers from the Keating era and served them up, declaring they tasted as good as ever. Republic. Bill of rights. Treaty. More money for the Yarts.

And when it didn’t feel like 1995, it was exactly what you’d expect from gathering a group of experts in their specific fields – the same old stuff, albeit with even more motherhood than the most cynical of us had anticipated. The indigenous and sustainability streams, in particular, seemed to produce plenty of rhetoric – much of it about how urgent things were – but few concrete ideas, and the health stream’s proposals seemed like a combination of existing programs – more fruit and less junk food for kids – and the eccentric (a bionic eye – no Steve Austin noises please).

And yes, just about everyone wanted to fundamentally review federalism, or even abolish the states.

Judging by the summit, Australia’s great tradition of clinging to the skirts of government lives on. This was an unmistakeable triumph for right-on progressives, who regard government as the answer to pretty much any question you care to put. Lots of streams wanted national strategic plans. And while there were plenty of calls for streamlining or reviewing the allocation of powers between governments, not one single initiative from any of the groups was predicated on reducing the role of government. In fact 14 new centres, institutes or commission were proposed, including 5 from the foreign policy hardheads in the security stream.

Only a couple of genuinely new, or at least hitherto-underexplored, ideas rose to the surface. Automatic electoral enrolment at 18. A HECS-based Community Corps. Micro-financing for those excluded from mainstream financial services. Then again, perhaps old ideas is sort of what the Prime Minister wanted. The great benefit of the summit is that Rudd can pick and choose from a suite of ideas that have some faint non-governmental origin and legitimacy. The rest he doesn’t have to touch.

Dennis Shanahan today argues that the ones Rudd doesn’t want might grow legs and create difficulties for him. But given the bulk of the unwanted or untimely ideas are from the Left, and will lack any concerted political force behind them, it’s hard to see how Rudd can lose. If he doesn’t want a treaty, he can say he’s too busy dealing with real priorities for working families. He doesn’t have to worry about Brendan Nelson demanding to know when he’ll be putting up a bill of rights.

Not that he has to worry about Brendan Nelson at all, really. Nelson spent the weekend with an immensely pained smile. It might have been because he realised he’d overdressed for the event, but more likely it was the look of someone simultaneously marginalised and skewered. Rudd has the Leader of the Opposition right where he wants him, and it doesn’t look like changing any time soon.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey