Greetings, historians of the future! If you are reading this with your bionic eye, then the 2020 conference was a success!

If not, the earlier assessments, most in the tepid to underwhelming range, proved correct.

The day-and-a-half conference appears to have begun with people wearing their favourite idea on their heads and walking around looking for a partner.

It ended with a thousand people, ultimately selected by committee, giving a standing ovation to the prime minister as he announced a range of ideas, including those – such as one-stop childcare – that had been announced before the conference had begun. “Parliament House looks great when there aren’t any politicians here,” said Julia Gillard. Yes, those pesky elected representatives. How much nicer things are when the inhabitants have been chosen in a closed process.

Nothing that resulted really contradicts the notion that 2020, undemocratic in principle and practice, would come up with both a substantially prescribed set of ideas, some useful small ones, and a fair degree of wacky stuff as well.

The republic, a bill of rights, and abolition of the states, were the three big ideas that weren’t simply motherhood statements of the “ensure the lifelong health of all Australians” blather. Of these, the Rudd government only wants to pursue the first and not yet, the second would take a mass movement to force the government’s hand, and the third will never happen.

In the various economy and environment spheres, contradictory demands simply reproduced existing arguments. Thus the environment and rural groups pretty much suggested a quasi-socialist transformation of the society, while the productivity one suggested ever rising GDP and a 2% inflation rate.

The indigenous stream was virtually all motherhood statements, and the creativity stream – Morisette-ironically – was utterly bereft of a striking idea.

So what happens now?

The government will sail along with the program it always intended to implement – a centre-right neoliberal economy with some social market features. The rich-poor gap will increase, access to elite education will remain class-based, funding to indigenous health will not increase to a level sufficient to make a real difference, rural Australia will continue to wither, and a few carbon footprint etc metering initiatives will be introduced, as long as they don’t add to business costs.

Why? Quite simply because the government cannot implement the social demands of 2020 without raising taxes or running huge deficits, and it won’t do either. With a global recession of unknown magnitude likely in the next six months, most of these ideas will gather dust. They could be implemented, if the general public will was there, but it isn’t. The summiteers may believe themselves to be representatives of the people, but harder heads in the government know that the 2007 result was a social contract – restore a fair go in IR, sign Kyoto, get out of Iraq, but no big-taxing vision thing funny buggers – and they won’t break it.

This is not to downplay the positive experiences many of the non-expert/non-hack delegates, such as Nicole Smyth writes of in today’s Age, might have had. But Smyth’s account of sharing a taxi with the head of Woolworths and talking with the governor of Victoria about transport policy expresses both the democratic hopes the summit draws on, and the elitism it tends to reinforce. It’s no criticism of Ms Smyth to say that when a sub-group is referring to someone (her) as “the only normal person in the room”, then a fully democratic process is still a ways away.

However, it is a criticism of David De Kretser to say that if he’s plotting bicycle policy for Victoria he should shut his yap until he leaves office, and just sign the laws the premier brings to him. But one of the anti-democratic effects of the event is that pointing out that we no longer have government-by-decree can be seen as exactly the sort of hung-up, thinking-in-the-box that glorious 2020 was designed to abolish.

No doubt some of the isolated policies will get up, and some good ones have probably gained circulation. But who is to tell what is good, and what is modish?

Ultimately what makes change happen are not good ideas in isolation, but good programs made within real constraints. In that respect, 2020 serves as a nothing but a big series of post-it notes about initiatives that have come up elsewhere. Looking over the social policy I couldn’t see many ideas in the summary that weren’t stuff long before suggested, or in practice, in the UK, Sweden, etc etc.

“Be part of the 2020 summit! Watch it on ABC1 and ABC2”, Aunty’s website said, expressing the paradox of the event. Called from topdown, in the absence of any real groundswell, there is nothing in place to ensure any continuity. The whole idea of the summit was in part to address the atomisation of political and social life and, having been summoned, people will now return to their atomised lives. Lacking the sense of a common historical project – except to have ideas – they won’t coalesce to anything social.

The government will continue to drive the process – if it chooses to at all – as a series of advisory committees, not very different to standard practice. The Greens are the only thing resembling a social movement at the moment, that may have some ability apply a blowtorch, as the big environmental programs go unimplemented.

Apart from that, I honestly can’t see where this would come from, unless the gap between promise and reality is so glaring that it creates a sort of quantum vacuum effect, bringing an active movement of some type into being, to “fulfil the 2020 promises”.

Mind you that bionic eye is a good idea. Probably why someone invented it in 2005.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.