Who's Counting?

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On Friday, Professor Glyn Davis released the list of participants to take part in the Australia 2020 Summit on 19-20 April. Initial media reports highlighted some of the higher profile participants – Claudia Karvan, James Packer and Alisa Caplin were the names mentioned in the majority of stories posted at online news sites. The full list wasn’t available until later that afternoon, prompting some negative comment in the blogosphere.

Over the weekend, most reports failed to note that the list didn’t in fact contain 1000 names. Only 884 people were selected through the nomination process, with the remainder being a list that really is the "usual suspects" – state premiers, opposition leaders and other such worthies. Most discussion has focused on the merits or political allegiances of the delegates – the predictability of some of the selections being mirrored by predictable criticism from the usual contrarian suspects.

newmatilda.com can reveal that a number of the participants named didn’t have to go through the nomination process or submit a 500 word screed on their ideas for Australia. Rather, some summiteers were tapped on the shoulder by the secretariat in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet after having been picked directly by the summit steering committee. This lack of transparency hasn’t been publicly acknowledged, although some of the steering committee did (perhaps unwisely) allude to it early on.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with such an approach, but the sleight of hand involved in concealing it is deeply worrying. It suggests that there are two tiers of participants – those whom the Government and the steering committee really think are the best and brightest, and those who took the thing seriously but are in effect relegated to the second tier.

The ad hoc nature of the summit’s organisation is clear from other stories that have made it into the public domain. The initial controversy about the gender balance on the steering committee has left its scars and the claims about the representative nature of the participants have to be understood in this context. In case anyone missed it, the words "FEMALE" or "MALE" after the name of each summiteer on the list are intended to drive home that point, rather unsubtly. Glyn Davis said on Friday: "There’s 51 per cent female, they come from every state and territory, they are from a whole range of professions, there are people here from electricians through to university professors and everything in between."

In fact, there are a lot more professors than electricians or "stay-at-home mums", and proportionately a lot more professors than the tiny percentage of the Australian population who delight in that title.

Here, again, the ambiguity at the heart of the process rears its head. The rhetoric of the summit has always veered unstably between the idea that those attending will be the wunderkinden of Australia – ideas gurus chosen on merit – and the notion that they will be representative of everyday Australia. We’ve been assured that it won’t just be the "usual suspects" and various news organisations have been able to offer readers or listeners the chance to go. On the other hand, the Kennedy-esque phrase "best and brightest" has been chanted as a mantra at every available opportunity.

Comparisons with Bob Hawke’s 1983 summit have hinted that this affair might be a similar corporatist love-in – designed to yank in various powerful interest groups to a political agenda. There do seem to be elements of that strategy evident in the selection of delegates. The captains of industry such as Heather Ridout and Don Argus, the media moguls and editors and the columnists such as Paul Kelly and Gerard Henderson have never had any difficulty getting government to listen to their ideas about the future direction of Australia, should they have any. Their attendance suggests a desire to make the tent as big as possible, and to co-opt rather than contribute.

Given all the opportunities for e-democracy and genuine inclusiveness that have been missed, there might be legitimate grounds for scepticism as to what will happen to the "ideas" of both the second tier summiteers and the rest of us mob who can submit ours via the summit’s website. Some summiteers have, in praiseworthy fashion, opened up discussion on their blogs for anyone to have their say.

But the remaining unanswered question is the crucial one. Exactly how are the sessions to proceed? It’s arguable that the smaller size of both the 100-strong Youth Summit and the 50-strong Jewish Summit give promise of producing more meaningful outcomes. Anyone with any experience of these talkfests knows that you don’t get sensible outcomes from packing 100 people into a room, and that if you’re going to break the larger cohort down into small working groups, you need a very tight agenda in order to achieve anything real.

Those who will have the real power to shape the outcomes of the 2020 summit will be those who are in charge of setting the agenda, and cherry-picking the submissions to support working papers which will shape discussion. It may well be the case that the communiqué could be written before anyone even lands in Canberra. We may yet be surprised by the outcome, but we shouldn’t be surprised if the 2020 summit produces no surprises at all.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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