The 2020 Summit didn’t lack for ambition. Collectively, it recommended 23 national strategies and frameworks, 17 commissions and agencies, five “bodies”, five councils, a new ministry, two White Papers and eight major reviews. The Health and Communities groups were particularly keen on this sort of bureaucratic paraphernalia.

Okay, it’s a cheap shot. It takes some experience of government to understand that strategies, commissions and reviews don’t solve anything, particularly when they don’t come with money attached. But it’s a relatively common belief that the mere development of a strategy gets you halfway to solving something, or that the establishment of a new body will be a significant step toward fixing the problem it is intended to address.

If this were so, we’d be living in Utopia. One with a lot of acronyms.

The Rudd Government may have hit the ground reviewing but that hasn’t meant it was totally in tune with the collective mindset of a number of summit groups, especially when it had already set its course before April.

Health

In Health, the Government had already, as per its election commitment, established the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission to develop a long-term health reform plan. This was always going to be the main game for the Government in health. The group showed it was thinking along similar lines to the Government with its emphasis on preventative health, although the Government is unlikely to go as far as establishing a whole new agency funded with alcohol, tobacco and junk food taxes.

The group’s proposal to restrict advertising of junk food to children — currently a subject of an animated Senate inquiry — is also unlikely to find favour with any government wary of the power of the commercial TV networks. The group — perhaps in search of the Big Ideas that Rudd insisted everyone produce — also proposed a bionic eye (apparently unaware one was already under development) and a health equivalent of Facebook. Given the apparent inability of Australian health departments to develop even basic electronic health records, don’t hold your breath waiting for Healthbook.

However, Prof Stephen Leeder, who was in the group, is more positive. “The Summit established a strong link between the federal government and the community,” he told Crikey. “This has persisted in the consultative style of many inquiries that have been established. The PM did not promise immediate outcomes from the Summit but rather a report back probably next year early. We have had a decade of non consultative managerial politics. It takes a while to recover. I am optimistic about it.”

Population and Sustainability

The Population and Sustainability group, co-chaired by former Environment Secretary Roger Beale and Penny Wong, was criticised for failing to come up with anything more interesting than a National Sustainability, Population and Climate Change Agenda and the dreaded “whole-of-government approach” to climate change. Perhaps not much should have been expected from a former leading bureaucrat and the strangely uninteresting Wong.

In truth, the group was split over totemic issues like renewables versus carbon capture, population policy and GM food. In contrast, the Government has thrown its lot in with the coal industry, primarily by throwing a lot of money at carbon capture technology development. The group also urged greater use of market mechanisms for water management, although the Commonwealth’s action on water has been primarily focussed on buybacks in the MDB to the extent that the Victorian Government’s anti-competitive restrictions permit it.

Community and Families

The Communities and Families group at the time also drew criticism of co-chair Tim Costello for pushing his anti-gambling agenda. Father Chris Riley, who complained about Costello imposing his own views in the aftermath of the summit, told Crikey:

I think the government was sincere in its attempt to get some worthwhile ideas up. Presently, everything is being hijacked by the economic crisis and I hope this focus does not prevent the government from supporting the most marginalized in our community. Young peoples’ issues certainly haven’t been acknowledged and we are in major trouble with many of our kids.

I stated at the outset that if this summit was not followed up in a meaningful way, then it will have been a waste of time. People should be consulted in line with their experience and expertise, rather than putting all types of people with competing interests and needs in a melting pot — this was fruitless.

There was some limited cross-over between the group’s thinking and the Government’s. In May the Government released a green paper on homelessness, which is evidently an issue close to Rudd’s heart. Rudd has also shown a happy propensity to join in moral panics associated with binge drinking and gambling, even before Nick Xenophon arrived in the Senate. The Productivity Commission’s recommendations on parental leave might yet fall foul of the financial crisis but there, too, Rudd has declared, in his customary way, that it is time to “bite the bullet”.

But the group’s primary recommendation — a national Charter of Rights — is unlikely to go anywhere, and the command-and-control tone of some the other ideas thrown up by the group (“Hold the corporate sector responsible for the community”, a “compact” with the media on coverage of violence, a “new form of national service”) suggests they’ll be left on the shelf as well.

Indigenous issues

The proposals from the Indigenous group tended to oscillate between the extremely practical — the eradication of trachoma among Aboriginal children, possibly for as little as $25m — and the very high level — “establishment of a new philosophical framework through which we negotiate a new definition of our relationship”. The summit was held in the optimistic afterglow of the Apology, rather than the controversy of Jenny Macklin’s recent decision to continue the NT intervention and the suspension of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The need for greater links between the corporate sector and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses and communities was echoed in the Australian Employment Covenant launched in August, although the danger of that initiative being overtaken by rising unemployment across the country must now be worrying.

However, it was the group’s urging of formal recognition of indigenous Australians and a new type of “dialogue””between indigenous and mainstream Australia that seems most in danger of being left behind in the obsession with all matters economic. Some of us suggested at the time that there was a risk the Apology would become a way for white Australians to wash their hands of indigenous issues and “move on”.

It’s not clear that a recession-induced bout of introspection might not have exactly that effect amongst MPs, voters and the media.

Monday: the summit as Progressives’ Frolic, and what it all really meant.

Peter Fray

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