Australia 2020 Summit – Links (End of Day 1)

When I got home this evening it was around 9AM AEST, so I was able to watch a live stream of the opening of the Australia 2020 Summit. A transcript of Rudd’s opening speech is here. It was at times both stumbling and inspiring; I can easily picture a number of the summit delegates writhing in their seats and thinking to themselves that the PM must be brave or stupid to try and pull this off.

I do agree that there are plenty of good reasons to be sceptical about the summit, but like Andrew Leigh, even so I can’t really help but be more interested in its positive possibilities. I don’t think this is really about the Rudd Government. I don’t believe that we have a an ideas culture in Australia anymore, and this summit is an artificial but realistic way of bringing ideas back into the public limelight of political debate again. Even if only fleetingly. I would not be surprised if this summit spawns a new annual event for Australia should it be successful in throwing a few worthwhile ideas out into the public domain – something already hinted at by Rudd. One thing Australia does not need less of is the focused discussion of ideas.

There are already quite a number of interesting reports out there from the summit, so I thought I would summarise some of them here. I have to say once again that it appears that the best coverage is coming from The Australian. Fairfax, lift your game.

Peter Martin: A nice look at how the discussions actually unfolded for the economics group at the summit.

‘2020 summit city-centric’ (ABC): Covers National Leader Warren Truss’ assertion that the summit was too city-centric. I had forgot that the Nationals had a leader, truth be told.

Danielle Cronin (Canberra Times): Some high-level notes on those who have declined to attend.

Philip Hudson (SMH): Has an overview piece on the summit, notes that discussions between delegates are continuing this evening in Canberra over dinner. Glyn Davis reportedly “excited” about the exchange of ideas.

Annabel Crabb (SMH): Focuses on the summit’s ephemera which is I think a bit unfortunate. Butchers’ paper, blocks of ice and what sounds suspiciously like airline grade food choices.

‘Prosperous and engaged’ AAP (The Age): The following quote from General Peter Cosgrove sounds strange coming from someone who was always close to John Howard with a defence background, but welcome:

“We believe that we should aim for a cultural step where we are the most open and the most diverse culture in the world.”

Alan Dupont sees the proliferation of nuclear weapons to terrorists as one of the key global security issues facing the nation. Also some interesting snippets from David Wright-Neville, Sharyn Burrow and Fiona McLeod.

Katharine Murphy (The Age): Takes a somewhat sceptical view of the summit, and wonders about its nebulous nature and how this ties in with Rudd’s current focus on “vision”. Does Rudd really have a vision? Looks like an interesting read.

David Marr (The Age): Takes an interesting look at how folks have in some cases tried to sell their own ideas to the delegates. Marr is “just going for a yak” though (not the mammalian sort one assumes).

Sid Marris (The Australian): Highlights an interesting idea regarding the adoption of a school by each of Australia’s Top 100 companies. Also some interesting ideas there from Ernesto Peralta (a “peace corp” of retired Australians) and Marion Baird calling for a paid maternity scheme to be introduced.

Paul Maley (The Australian): Covers Brendan Nelson’s reaction to the summit so far. The story seems to want to put words in Nelson’s mouth a bit; probably the defining quote from the Opposition Leader on it all is the following:

“It’s a bit of a schmozzle, but I think there’s some method in the madness.’’

Mike Steketee (The Australian): Covers NAB Chief Executive Ahmed Fahour’s idea for a special loan fund used to provide loans to those normally excluded from sources of finance. This one sounds like an idea that is going somewhere, particularly in the context of Australia’s indigenous communities.

‘Legalise all drugs’ AAP (The Australian): GP Wendell Rosevear had some guts throwing this one out there. Bound to be a magnet for populist criticism, but I think there might be something in the concept of introducing a new category of “illegality” for people with the misfortune to have become addicted to drugs.

Samantha Maiden and Christian Kerr (The Australian): Covers (unsurprisingly given that this is the Murdoch Press after all) Westpac Chief David Morgan’s call for the abolition of inefficient state taxes. Hard to disagree with this assessment:

Dr Morgan backed a major review of tax. “We are paying a very heavy cost for fragmented, unharmonised, duplicative inefficient arrangements between state and commonwealth governments,” he said.

Sian Powell (The Australian): Covers the Prime Minister’s big idea of a one-stop “parent and children” centre from the perspective of a suburban mother.

Stuart Rintoul (The Australian): Takes a look at indigenous issues, including former Federal ALP President Warren Mundine’s strenuous objection to the formation of a publicly funded aboriginal body to replace ATSIC. Brendan Nelson’s views on this were similarly scathing, although the formation of such a body does still remain ALP policy.

Patricia Karvelas (The Australian): Covers Tim Costello’s view that the government should act as a guarantor for struggling renters attempting to buy their own home. We really do need to end the new and destructive Australian divide between renters and owners.

Mike Steketee (The Australian): Steketee for one seems generally upbeat about the summit.

George Megalogenis (The Australian): On the other hand, we have George, who is perhaps the most brutually pessimistic of the mainstream columnists I have read, excepting of course the usual suspects.

Creativity in society and the arts

Cate Blanchett and Julianne Schultz are the co-chairs of the Creative Australia stream at the rapidly looming 2020 Summit, and they have an interesting column today in the SMH that gives some indication as to what we can expect from the summit in this stream. The key link that Blanchett and Schultz seem keen to emphasise is that between the arts and creativity, with creativity being viewed as intrinsically necessary for a society to be prosperous and successful:

Think back to any significant time in the past and the chances are that it is the creative output of the time that comes to mind — from rock art in remote caves to the pyramids of Egypt, Michelangelo’s sculptures, Shakespeare’s plays, Beethoven’s symphonies, the beat of Elvis and the list goes on.

The lasting value and evidence of a civilisation are its artistic output and the ingenuity that comes from applying creativity to the whole range of human endeavour.

While the lasting evidence of a civilisation past does quite often happen to be the artistic output of that civilisation, I think its drawing a long bow to attribute the lasting value of a civilisation to its artistic output. Michaelangelo’s sculptures are timeless and lasting works of art, but surely some of the philosophical and scientific achievements and advancements made by Renaissance-era Italy have been significantly more important for us in the context of the development of modern society.

Aside from that, can we really say that a creative society is necessarily a successful society? I don’t think this is necessarily the case, but one would have to think that the more effective societies across the world, however you want to measure “effective”, have found efficient ways of exploiting the creativity of their people for the collective benefit of the nation. I suppose that is a fairly ruthless way of looking at creativity, but conceptually speaking Australia has a pool of creative talent at its disposal, and we need to consider the optimal path for maximising creativity in circumstances where it serves to in some way better the nation. It’s hard not to see how this can be done without taking some risks and taking punts on people and ideas that might not necessarily work out.

It will be interesting indeed to see how Blanchett and Schultz steer debate in this stream, and to what extent calls for greater public funding of the arts dominate the debate. One of the key challenges for the stream would seem to be to effectively “be creative” on the topic of arts funding; or rather to develop a few ideas for creating greater incentives for artists that don’t necessarily mean redirecting public money from other areas to the arts. Personally I am an advocate of greater arts funding, but one does have to consider whether a grant to a budding scientific researcher or indeed tax incentives for low income earners are likely, on balance, to be of greater benefit to society than a grant to a budding artist with a brilliant idea that may or may not come to fruition for the collective benefit of the country. It’s tough.

Do Australians favour the constitutional status-quo?

What seems to be the immediately obvious answer to this question is “yes”; as most readers are likely aware, just 8 of the 44 (around 18%) referenda initiated to amend the constitution have succeeded in the history of the Australian federation. It also seems to be the answer favoured by James Allan, a Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, who is concerned that the Rudd Government has stacked the composition of the “Australian Governance” group at its 2020 Summit with potential constitutional vandals. Listing “bill of rights scepticism” as one of his primary research areas of interest, and asserting his delight at having moved to a country without a bill of rights (he was born in Canada), Allan notes has a few predictions about what the group is likely to come up with based on its composition:

There’ll be calls for a bill of rights. There’ll be calls for Australia to become a republic. And such authoritative calls could prove mighty useful down the road, especially if that was what you wanted before you started this little charade. Of course, when we play this game, we would have to concede, were we honest, that the group we had assembled was nowhere near being representative of the views of Australians as a whole.

Whenever Australians have been asked, they have recognised that the constitutional status quo is, as I noted above, comparatively excellent. But with any luck we can finesse that uncomfortable truth.

But do Australians really generally think that the constitutional status quo is excellent? Not to the extent that one would think based on the statistic I mentioned earlier, as it turns out. The infamous “double majority” provision that requires that a referendum be supported by a majority of the states (four of six) and a majority of voters in a majority of states acts as an arguably undemocratic obstacle preventing constitutional change. In actual fact, over the history of referenda, the average national “yes” vote is 50.28%, with the median “yes” vote sitting within reach of majority share at 48.84%. Five failed referenda, in particular, would have been passed on majority national vote if the double majority provision was not enforced. In another nine failed referenda, the supporting vote was over 49%, and three or more states voted in majority support.

With respect to a future Australian republic and a possible national bill of rights, there is also some reasonable evidence suggesting that a majority of Australians (or at least more than those in outright opposition) support constitutional change in each case. A deliberative poll was conducted as part of the process when the ACT enacted its bill of rights, with 47.3% of people polled in favour of the proposal prior to deliberation, and 58.6% after. Similarly, Newspoll [PDF] results over the last ten years point consistently to the fact that more Australians support the idea of Australia becoming a republic than oppose it.

In short, despite the nation’s sad history of failure to succeed in constitutional reform efforts, I don’t think it is fair to say that Australians prefer the constitutional status-quo to constitutional change. The bar for success has been set high; perhaps so high as to be occasionally impractical and in bottom-line terms, undemocratic. One thing is certain; it certainly does not hold that because something was a fantastic national document one-hundred years ago is a fantastic national document now. As a nation we should constantly be on the lookout for ways to improve the legislative infrastructure of the country. All things in human society gradually evolve – it is just a shame that this particular part of our society has been so protectively guarded from improving over the course of the last century.