April’s 2020 summit now seems like a time capsule from another era. My photo collection of the weekend, including Governor-General Michael Jeffery awkwardly gesturing to a nearby ice core sample and a lost-looking Brendan Nelson talking to Andrew Upton and newly-hatched Baby Blanchett, could be in black and white, so historical does it seem.

It’s not merely that a looming recession has a way of narrowing people’s focus to the economic here-and-now rather than visions of an Australia entering the third decade of the century. The character of the Rudd Government is now far clearer. The last illusions that this will be an aggressively liberal government have surely been dispelled, if only by the determination of the Prime Minister and his notionally left-wing deputy to forge their own path in defiance of Labor’s traditional supporters. And in the aftermath of the Garnaut Report, Australia’s future can’t be considered without acknowledging the grim reality of climate change that at best will only inflict severe damage on the Australian economy and environment.

None of that changes the fact that many of the ideas that emerged from the summit were valuable, even if at times the whole affair looked like a left-wing party, and suffered from a disconnection between people outside government who have a wholly impractical grasp of what politicians can actually do, and those inside who are too locked into established processes to see the possibilities of change.

The Government committed in the aftermath of the summit to respond by the end of the year. Since then, a couple of other things have intruded on its agenda. The Prime Minister Office wouldn’t provide an update on the response timetable. The end of the year is busy for governments at the best of times; ministers are always eager to get issues through Cabinet before the summer break; this year, major items like TCF and innovation policies have already been delayed, and there’s the small matter of the ETS to be concluded before Christmas. But a shiny booklet like March’s “100 Days” effort is likely in preparation right now, with public servants engaged in the arduous task of trying to link existing government initiatives to summit ideas.

But for a number of the summit groups, the Government can actually declare it has made a good start on implementing the ideas that emerged from their deliberations. These are at the harder end of the summit’s issues. On social policy, where the groups’ recommendations had a rather more liberal and interventionist tone, they’ll struggle to match much of what emerged.

Economy

Filled with businessmen and women, politicians, bureaucrats and bankers, this was the group where the Government would have felt most at home, and its views were already strongly consistent with the thinking of the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, who was co-chair. The group’s big ideas revolved around getting infrastructure right (including a single national body and a simpler third-party access regime for private infrastructure), fixing the federal structure, harmonising regulation across state borders, reviewing tax, developing a more robust policy process and maximising our human capital through reforms like a single national curriculum.

Most of that reads like the Government’s action list for this year, with the establishment of Infrastructure Australia, the setting up of the Henry Review, Chris Bowen’s paper — yet to arrive — on reform of infrastructure access, and the Government’s heavy emphasis via COAG on regulatory harmonisation.

Only on reform of the federation has the Government been backing away; its language on a referendum to take over responsibility from the states has altered significantly and the Prime Minister appears content to pursue “cooperative federalism”, which is really just the traditional trading of bribes for state reforms.

Productivity

Another group – with strong representation from academics and economists — of like mind with the Government. Its proposals centred on an education system more focussed on outcomes for students and better at attracting high-quality teachers, a single national curriculum, better connections between business, education and research, ways to stimulate lifelong reskilling and, like the economic group, a national broadband network. It also recommended graduates be able to repay their HECS debt through community service.

The group’s thinking appears to have had strong accord — and perhaps even been influential of? — Julia Gillard’s emergence as a strong advocate for performance information for schools (much to the dismay of education unions) and making education more attractive and remunerative for top-flight graduates. The Government had already by that stage announced that Barry McGaw would head a National Curriculum Board, although it wasn’t until October that Gillard introduced legislation for a Australian Curriculum Assessment And Reporting Authority.

Gillard had also launched the Bradley Review of higher education in March — something else due before the end of the year. Further moves in tertiary education seem to be on hold pending the review.

“Nothing has happened in higher education policy since 2020,” participant Andrew Norton told Crikey.

“Perhaps policymakers have heeded the 2020 call for evidence-based decison-making, and discarded the misguided proposal to offer HECS remissions for community service. If the government is going to spend money on community service workers, it should select the best applicants for the jobs, regardless of whether or not they have a HECS debt.”

As for broadband, well, ask Stephen Conroy. Good luck getting an answer.

Rural

The rural group — co-chaired by Tim Fischer — was also not too far astray from the economics group in their thinking. This was the group that came close to recommending the abolition of the states as one of its big ideas, but backed away in favour recommending “urgent” harmonisation of regulation across areas such as transport, and a national approach to infrastructure planning and investment.

The group also emphasised greater water efficiency and security, broadly consistent with the Government’s direction of Murray-Darling Basin funding toward irrigation infrastructure investment — mainly in Victoria and South Australia — as well as buying back water licences. And while the Government has a Parliamentary Secretary for Northern Australia (Gary Gray, in case you were wondering), the transformation of the north into Asia’s new food bowl primarily remains the dream of Bill Heffernan and Ian Macdonald.

Tomorrow: where the summiteers and the Government parted company.

Peter Fray

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