March 2020


Descent from the summit

By Richard Cooke
Image of Kevin Rudd at the Australia 2020 Summit

Kevin Rudd at the Australia 2020 Summit, April 2008

Looking back on Kevin Rudd’s overly ambitious and thinly detailed Australia 2020 Summit

“Let me show you something,” the governor­-general said. Behind him, a young female scientist stood gripping a cylinder of ice with black-gloved hands. “This ice core, retrieved by our internationally recognised scientists from Australia’s Antarctic Division, provides part of a record of human activity on this planet reaching back some 80,000 years,” Michael Jeffrey continued, as mist billowed over the stage. The core offered up the secrets, he said, of climate change, the earliest stirs of human activity, and a “connectedness … between our past and future” that made the Australia 2020 Summit “especially timely”. The core yielded generous applause. It was a moving piece of rhetorical theatre, and an analogy that made no sense whatsoever.

How was data from a frozen piece of Antarctica “especially timely”? Wasn’t the link between those “past and future” humans, pre and post contact, one of near annihilation? The core – ominous, inscrutable – bridged 3200 generations. The Australia 2020 Summit bridged a period of roughly 12 years, the period between 2008 and 2020. Science-fiction filmmakers tend to eschew the year 2020 as shorthand for the future (Blade RunnerThe Running Man and Akira were all set in 2019, for example) because they think it sounds too symmetrical, too naff. But those qualities of neatness and cliché were just what appealed to then prime minister Kevin Rudd, who had convened the summit when national enthusiasm looked bullish.

Rudd himself was riding high on the back of a rare federal election victory, absolute control over the Labor Party, and a record-breaking personal popularity that he was keen to point out. “Kevin’s power is unprecedented,” an unnamed cabinet minister told The Australian Financial Review, and with power came ambition. “Thinking Big” was the Australia 2020 Summit’s slogan, and when the event is remembered at all, it is remembered for its scale. More than 1000 delegates were invited (not including community consultation attendees or staff  ) and they applied themselves across 10 already blue-sky themes: productivity, economy, sustainability and climate change, rural Australia, health and ageing, communities and families, Indigenous Australia, creative Australia, Australian governance, and security and prosperity. All this was crammed into a single weekend.

That seems hubristic now – it seemed hubristic then – but there was a successful precedent. In 1983, when Bob Hawke began his first term as prime minister, the Australian economy was in recession. Hawke’s response drew together a broad coalition – federal MPs and state premiers from both parties, employers, welfare providers, business groups, unionists and churches – to hammer out an action plan. “What’s needed is something of a miracle,” Jim Waley reported for the Sunday program, and to everyone’s surprise (except Hawke’s), the miracle transpired. In less than a week, the National Economic Summit built a near-unanimous consensus between business and labour (only Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen refused to sign the communiqué). In seven days, the attendees had created the famous “Accord” that still defines Australian economic conditions nearly 40 years later.

But in 1983, the era of technocratic governance was just beginning; by 2008 it was coming to a close. Those delegates of the National Economic Summit were still motivated by an old-fashioned sense of honour (commentators noted when one man in the parliamentary chamber removed his jacket), and were willing to commune through mutual sacrifice. Business lobbyists suggested an executive wage freeze. Unions intimated a reduction in industrial action. It was a can-do nation, about to win the America’s Cup. Ruddism pined after this spirit. Australia had only become a can’t-do nation under John Howard, who had resuscitated a fatal philistine tendency. For the Labor Party, the Australia 2020 Summit wasn’t really about the 12 years between 2008 and 2020. It was about the 12 years between 1995 and 2007.

The wider atmosphere for progressives brooked optimism. Locally, Rudd had defeated Howard and apologised to the Stolen Generations as a first priority on taking office. Overseas, Barack Obama was beginning his campaign for the Democratic Party primaries, a force for change that gathered with every speech. There was refreshed belief in soaring rhetoric, and those who dismissed the summit as a “talkfest” were out of fashion. Politics itself was a talkfest. It was the nature of the talk – its clarity, its empathy, and the participants in the conversation – that counted.

At the 2020 summit, committees were formed to address each of the 10 themes, and each committee’s own talkfest centred on an easel holding a ream of butcher’s paper. This physical limitation meant the ideas were big but also brief. There was not much smoothing process between these scratchpads and the “Australia 2020 Summit Final Report”, and the hundreds of “ideas” it holds retain a bullet-point flavour. “Communities having a say in what happens.” “Abolition of state governments, with them being replaced by regional provinces.” “Legalise all drugs in Australia: this would reduce crime.” “Instigate a campaign to ‘wipe out’ fences from suburbs and a program to bring back the neighbourhood.” A fenceless, stateless, drugs-accepting Australia sounded exciting, but how would it fare in “facilitating market successes”?

Most of the thought balloons had no tether, though there were occasional “big ideas” that were more focused and detailed in their ambition. “Establish a National Disability Insurance Scheme” was a notable success, and Rudd has reached for it ever since to dampen criticism. But beyond this achievement, the foundation of the ABC Kids TV channel and some off-the-wall suggestions that garnered media attention (journalists fixated in particular on promoting stairwells over elevators as a public health measure), few of the summit’s major ideas were new. A republic (this action item received a standing ovation), re-engagement with Asia through language lessons, warmer relations with the arts, efficiencies in the tax system: these were the unfinished business of Paul Keating. This was the real link between the “past and future”: Rudd would finally drag Australia into a cosmopolitan, economically rational, creative and Asia-focused future, via the Hawke–Keating Legacy of Reform™.

Perhaps the true innovation was the style. The Australia 2020 Summit’s deepest impression was an aesthetic one, which was widely mocked at the time. Its enduring image was of Rudd himself, in camel-coloured chinos and an open-necked shirt, sitting on the floor during a brainstorming session, taking notes. Here was horizontal, consultative and modern leadership at last, in a pose of earnest attentiveness. At heart more David Brent than Tony Blair, it was nevertheless a switch-up from Wallabies tracksuits and blue ties. Cate Blanchett attended six days after giving birth, and the puritanical obsession with her breastfeeding showed both that something real was happening, and that Australia wasn’t quite ready for it.

Dotcom culture informed this loosening up, and the easy transmission between actors, civilians and politicians at the summit felt familiar from Silicon Valley and the early days of social media. But beyond the smart-casual dress code, the digital vision was surprisingly vague. There was something called (shouldn’t it be, announced by then News Ltd boss John Hartigan – an online portal where the public could interact with powerbrokers. Hartigan also enthused over a bill of rights, even if his stable of columnists was unlikely to follow suit. Rudd said his own favourite proposal was a locally developed bionic eye, another patly symbolic initiative called “2020 vision by 2020”. (The University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre would later make it a case study called “How not to innovate: The case of Australia’s bionic eye”.)

The visionaries in Canberra for the weekend left invigorated, though this season of sunny optimism proved brief. Melissa Conley Tyler, herself in attendance, later gave a speech to the Australian Institute of International Affairs in which she tried to convey what those heady days were like: “My job is to take us back … to when we had a new Government, a sense of freshness of possibilities; we had not really seen the acronym GFC and life looked rather different for us all.” She gave this speech in 2009; nostalgia is rarely served this fresh. The global financial crisis did narrow ambition, but there was no reason it should. The subprime mortgage crisis was already well advanced by 2007, and Rudd’s subsequent stimulatory spending would have been a good excuse to implement ideas, even expensive ones.

So what went wrong? The Australia 2020 Summit is usually written off as a failure because it produced so little meaningful and lasting policy. It is a disappointment of a piece with the rest of the Rudd years: too ambitious, too thin on detail, too micromanaged and too media-massaged. Journalist Chris Uhlmann, one of the thousand or so attendees, likened Rudd’s approach to a home handyman flitting from one unfinished job to the next, and in the agitated climate of early 2008, that mood was contagious.

Many of Australia’s big-picture forums seem to produce tax reviews as a byproduct, and the 2020 summit was no exception: it prompted The Australia’s Future Tax System Review (also known as the Henry Review), which tabled 138 recommendations. Rudd went on to reject 135 of them. Like the Spooner Committee, the Hulme Committee, the Ligertwood Committee, the Mathews Committee, the Asprey Committee, the Campbell Committee and the Ralph Review, the Henry Review became just another passenger on the moving train of economic policy.

More important were the summit’s cultural ambitions, which ranged to the outer limits of local political imagination. “By 2020 Australia should be a republic with a female Prime Minister of non-Anglo extraction,” the final report concluded, “a bridge between East Asia and the declining west and a country trusted and accepted as part of Asia. There should be seamless interaction between Australia and the Asian region, its cultures and languages.” Today in 2020, Australia is a constitutional monarchy, the prime minister is a middle-aged white man who wears a monogrammed baseball cap, and Asia faces a moat rather than a bridge.

We can measure the failure of what has been called “High Kevinism”, and the success of Howardism, in that 2008 in many ways feels more politically remote than 1996 does. Most of the summit’s themes were apt. The future directions of rural industries; climate change; a long-term national health strategy; Indigenous Australia; skills, science and innovation – these are still the most pressing and complex challenges the country faces. On most measures, they have worsened rather than improved. The prescriptions were ambitious, ill thought out and barely followed up on. They were also stymied by something larger than poor planning: an opposing force.

Robert Manne named it the New Australian Complacency, though it is not really new. Accounting for this headwind, the aims of the summit looked ambitious in the political environment of 2008. In 2020 they look hopelessly naive. National vision, kindred-spiritedness and evidence-based conversations about the public good are all out of favour. Instead, a nation of landlords (and other breeds of rent-seeker), already becalmed, drifts further. “For Australia’s sake, I want the summit conference to succeed,” the freshly ousted Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser said in 1983, with a bipartisan sincerity that has almost disappeared. Political fellow-feeling is at present reserved for corruption and trolling media appearances, and for the cohort of MPs, Liberal and Labor, who are indistinguishable from coal lobbyists.

In the 2020 summit’s initial report there was a line, which was excised for the final version: “It is striking how often through the Summit concern arose that Australia has not been sufficiently clever in using the skills and ingenuity of our people.” Perhaps Australia never was, and never will be, that kind of place. But for a brief moment, and with the help of some of our finest actors, we could play pretend.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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