If it has achieved nothing else, Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Vision Thingo has given new meaning to the term Mass Debate.
The level of self-gratification that flowed out of Canberra at the weekend reached something close to flood proportions. If we only could have harnessed it we could have dispensed with coal-fired power stations for at least a month.
Most of the inundation came, of course, from the pushier summiteers; those who failed to get a word in edgewise were less effusive. But as they emerged, blinking, to confront the real world, there appeared to be a general sense of catharsis, if not of actual achievement.
Whether this is maintained after the inevitable post-summit tristesse sets in is another question entirely. It will take the government the rest of the year to decide which items on the extensive wish-list are to be translated into reality. The timing is suspiciously convenient; a cynic might believe that the release of the government’s program will take place in the middle of the silly season, thus attracting a minimum of attention.
The same cynic might predict that when the program emerges, it will have more to do with the government’s own politically pragmatic agenda than with the aspirations of the summiteers, most of which will have faded in the public memory in eight months time. But at least Kevin Rudd’s carefully selected best and brightest have not made the task of reconciling the two approaches too arduous.
As most commentators have already noted a lot of the proposals are already part of broad Labor policy, and none that I have seen are seriously incompatible with it. The summit has succeeded triumphantly in what was always its principal political aim: the ALP is now firmly ensconced at the political centre.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
It is a long time since it could be called radical, but now it has become positively mainstream, even establishment. The summit has confirmed Rudd Labor as the one true representative of the Australian people, perhaps even (be still my beating heart) the natural party of government.
In the wake of this apotheosis, any criticism is bound to appear carping, but it must be said that while there was no shortage of ideas in Canberra over the weekend, very few of them were genuinely original and none that I have seen were of the kind which would capture the imagination of millions.
Sure, it would be nice to complete rewrite both the constitution and the taxation act, to abolish the states and have uniform laws and regulations across the country. However, none of these things is likely to happen in my lifetime (nor in yours, gentle reader); Australia is not the place for a revolution, even of the bloodless political variety. The best we can realistically look forward to is a reformed and revitalised federal system in an Australian republic; and most of us would happily settle for that.
Until we see the results of the culling process it is hard to be any more specific, but we can be certain that some ideas will receive more urgent consideration than others. The proposal for one-stop children’s centres is neither original (it was first mooted in England some years ago) nor innovative (it is already widely implemented in Victoria). But given that it has now been claimed by Rudd himself, it will become a priority.
It sounds like a good idea, but there are other matters which could be considered more pressing. One of the disappointments of the summit was the panel on climate change, an area crying out for an audacious and radical approach; its report was sadly timid.
We can only hope that the government’s own advisers are more courageous. If consideration of the summit reports and attempts to integrate them with the governments own program are seen to be delaying reform – or worse still as a substitute for it – the current euphoria will dissipate very quickly.
Rudd is already being accused of being too much talk and too little action; more sizzle than sausage. Comparisons have been made with Malcolm Fraser, of all people. Absurd as the criticism is, Rudd needs to dissipate it as fast as possible. Hopefully the budget will do the trick and convince the remaining doubters that the summit was part of the reform process, not an excuse to avoid it.
But overall Rudd will be well-satisfied. The summit has given at least the illusion of a government willing to listen to the constituents; it has confirmed his mandate for change, endorsed most of his platform and provided him with a springboard for his first term.
And of course, it has marginalised the opposition still further. Once again Brendan Nelson dithered. First he said he thought it was a pretty good move. But when he and his shadow ministers were invited to take part, the hardliners persuaded him that they shouldn’t get sucked in to Rudd’s slipstream.
Nelson then became a critic, albeit a half-hearted one: while off on his own listening tour, he couldn’t bring himself to attack the concept as such. Instead, he niggled about the selection process and the absence of his own old organization, the Australian Medical Association.
But when the summiteers assembled, Nelson played the political groupie; he attended, but only as a hanger on. He was, he announced, a listener; he had no ideas of his own.
He could have put it better. I was reminded irresistibly of another Liberal opposition leader, Billy Snedden, who opened his election campaign in 1974 with the line: “Wherever I go in Australia, people know there is something wrong.”
At least he survived to fight one election. The chances of Nelson doing so appear more remote by the hour.