A commendable feature of the Rudd Government has been a willingness to establish reviews and mechanisms with a degree of genuine independence. There’s little risk for a new government in such things, given there are no mistakes from previous years to be uncovered except those of the Opposition. But political hardheads know that establishing an independent project assessment mechanism in Infrastructure Australia, or an all-singing, all-dancing tax review, or a health reform commission with minimal government involvement, can lead to unexpected recommendations, high expectations and self-generated political pressure.

The 2020 Summit posed a similar risk, but it was always going to be entirely manageable given that the only real danger was posed by liberal-minded participants anxious to wipe out all trace of the Howard years. And, judging by the outcomes, there was an bias in the composition of the summit toward the Left, particularly in the Governance, Creative and National Security groups.

Creative Australia

The Creative Australia group — this was before the Henson business that soured many in the “arts community” toward Rudd — was always going to be Luvvie Central, and even before the summit, members were promising to demand more arts funding from taxpayers. In the end group leaders manage to confine the funding issue to a new National Endowment Fund for the Arts including both public and private funding. Other ideas, including Sharan Burrow’s proposal for a 1% tax on the internet, a levy on commercial broadcasters, a levy on foreign films and the reintroduction of death, were kept out of the group’s initial report, although a proposal for a 1% efficiency dividend on government departments to “fund creative endeavours” made it through.

None of those ideas have gone anywhere or will go anywhere. At the moment, as the fight over the Australian National Academy of Music shows, the issue will be to retain existing levels of funding. The Creative group was also big on artists getting more involved in the real world — there were proposals for artists in residence in schools, “across all industries and institutions”, and on boards. This, too, requires funding. The only proposals likely to go anywhere were the no-cost ones like the dreaded, and inevitable, “whole of government approach to the arts, culture, design and the creative economy”, and strengthening the role of creative, visual and performing arts in a national curriculum.

Governance

Some of the Governance stream’s outcomes were strongly in accord with the Government’s views on transparency and accountability. It is already well on the way on FOI reform, including the abolition of conclusive certificates and the establishment of an FOI Commissioner. As with the Economic and Rural Groups, the Governance group also wanted major surgery undertaken on the Federation, well beyond the scope of Rudd’s “cooperative federalism” but in accord with the Government’s emphasis on minimising complexity and harmonising regulatory frameworks. The two-stage model for a republic referendum eventually agreed on by the group might also find favour with the government in its second term, perhaps coupled with the constitutional preamble recognising indigenous Australians, also recommended by the group.

Beyond that, the group took off on something of a frolic of its own. There was a strong push for a Charter or Bill of Rights in one of the sub-groups, reflecting the presence of a number of strong bill of rights advocates. The lack of anti-bill of rights delegates in this instance was a glaring omission, and the group could have done with the presence of a John Roskam or Bob Carr to push back. By the time Paul Kelly, Gerard Henderson and Miranda Devine joined the group on the Sunday to head the issue off, the best they could do was note that a bill of rights had only majority, not universal support. Stranger things have happened, but it’s hard to see Kevin Rudd buying into a Bill of Rights, given his own party is divided on the issue and the only pressure that will come for it will be from the hard Left. There’s no upside.

And the sub-group dealing with parliamentary accountability also went far beyond what either major political party would ever countenance, including dramatic changes to Question Time, a significant expansion in the powers of Senate committees, slowing down the legislative process and bringing non-government organisations into the governance process.

Security

Despite the presence of the top brass, the foreign policy and defence establishment and police chiefs, the Security group produced the most out-there ideas of the entire summit, virtually none of which will find their way onto the Rudd foreign policy agenda. While the group’s emphasis on greater “Asia literacy” in schools would deepen an existing and well-established direction in Australian education, the rest of the group’s proposals came with a heavy institutional and financial cost, with greater foreign aid, a confederation of Australia and Pacific states, a new major powers forum (another one), four new study centres, a peace-keeping centre and a new resource security advisory council.

The group was also big on “soft power” diplomacy and its view of the Australian military was probably best summed up in the proposal that we should ensure the “military operates through respectful engagement, moral standing, leadership by example and encompassing international human rights.” Laudable, and no defence chief would dare gainsay such principles. It just appears to lack the bit about also being good at killing people.

The only subject on which this group and the Government are on the same page relates to nuclear disarmament, given the Prime Minister has revived Paul Keating’s anti-nuclear weapon push — partly, one might suggest, as a way of fence-mending with Japan. It was suggested at the time of the summit that the Government was disappointed with the quality of the ideas it was getting from a Public Service long cowed into mediocrity during the Howard years. In retrospect, there’s no doubting the new Government was genuinely open to new ideas. The problem was, it didn’t really get them — not workable ones, at any rate. They came with lots of money attached, or consisted of calls for national strategies, plans, reviews and commissions that wouldn’t get us any closer to fixing the problems identified.

Moreover, there was an overriding focus on centralism and a strong role for national government. Only the Rural group tried to address greater localism, in part by proposing a massive redrawing of our borders into large regions rather than states. As the government may now find with its local government summit, the most valuable new ideas are local and micro in nature, tailored to meet community needs and fix community problems. Creating a fruitful interaction between the national government and local communities might become one of the most important reforms the Government can pursue as the economy slows. Pity it didn’t play a significant role in the summit.

Peter Fray

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