Suddenly ideas are sexy. The Australia 2020 Summit has done for Deep Thought what Australian Idol did for karaoke – what was once a mildly embarrassing hobby best practised under cover of drunkenness is now played live to a national audience.

Like music professors asked to comment on the success of Idol, most of the wonks who went through the last two days can’t quite decide whether to be pleased that so many people are paying attention to ideas or annoyed that serious attempts to grapple with complex, long-term policy problems were sometimes lost amidst the all-singing, all-dancing Summit show.

In the governance group Marcia Hines was played by Maxine McKew, who, after listening to report-backs from groups with ideas ranging from FOI reform to a new Federation Commission, entreated us to put a little soul into it. Kudos to youth summit delegate Owen Wareham who read between the lines, said something like “here’s a sound bite, if that’s what you’re looking for” and delivered a punchy straight-to-camera pitch for automatic enrolment.

I had a lot of sympathy with Ms McKew’s call for more ideas that would capture people’s imagination. True originality is rare – especially when it comes to workable ways to run a country – but with so little time to jam ideas, it was inevitable that we sometimes ended up singing covers. In hindsight it’s pretty obvious that asking a group of clever and opinionated people to decide amongst themselves whose idea was the “biggest” was a recipe for mayhem. We probably would have been better off if the hard-working scribes had whacked our ideas straight on to ABC2’s ticker, and a mobile-wielding audience had texted their favourite policy to the top.

But although many people felt uncomfortable at the amount of detail lost in the translation of hours of feisty debate and carefully crafted compromise into “ambitions” and “priority themes”, there was still an incredible amount of light on that hill.

The constitution group, after quickly establishing that the divine right of kings wasn’t likely to be a feature of Australia’s governance in 2020, moved straight on to ways of ensuring that the process of taking the last steps towards independence works better this time around. Their conclusion? A plebiscite on the principle of severing Australia’s ties with the Crown, followed by a referendum on the model after extensive consultation (with Lyn Carson, Janette Hartz-Karp and others arguing for the use of some of the more representative devices in the consultation toolkit like citizens juries or assemblies).

My “open governance and media” group, which included some very sharp FOI thinkers, came up with a pretty detailed list of ways to protect citizens’ right to find out what their governments are up to. There was general support for reforming media law in the interests of consumers rather than producers of media, but Allan Fels’ recommendation that we “deregulate the electronic media” was sidelined due to a lack of time to debate the details of the Productivity Commission report. Paul Chadwick, ABC editorial policy director, came up with the excellent idea of abolishing Crown copyright (I’d explain why it’s excellent but I’m on deadline and over the word limit – feels like the Summit all over again).

My favourite idea from the weekend goes to the heart of why I think the Summit, for all its flaws, was a great idea – Collaborative Governance. Whether it’s through a hand-picked bunch of self-proclaimed ideas people, a “community cabinet”, or the random selection of a citizens jury, we need to upgrade democracy’s 19th Century plant and equipment if we’re going to make the right decisions on some of this century’s thorniest problems. To this end, one of the “big ideas” that came out of the governance stream, was – a cross between Get and a whole bunch of other experiments in making it easier for citizens to access government information and participate in decision-making.

As the beleaguered staff at PM&C start sorting through the transcripts and deciding which ideas will get signed to the Kevin 24/7 label, most of the really interesting conversations started by the summit will be continuing elsewhere. Apparently the website that Summit delegates have been using to discuss each others’ ideas is going to be made public soon – so if you’re interested in helping to create a blueprint for a better federal government website, drop by sometime and join the conversation.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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