One of the most interesting things about the Australia 2020 Summit has been its accentuation of a trend that was already evident: a shift in focus to long term issues and their possible solutions, which I suspect will be one of the enduring contributions of the Rudd Government.
The issue of climate change, in particular, resonated so much for the Labor Party in the election last year precisely because it wasn’t amenable to the symbolic short term fix style of government so beloved by John Howard. Similarly, much of the public’s distaste for the mainstream media relates to its endless focus on the horse race aspects of politics, gotcha moments and the "why haven’t you fixed this yesterday?" style of interviewing so pervasive among the press gallery.
Kevin Rudd’s great electoral strength was to harness the desire for a focus on both big problems and everyday issues which resonated with citizens’ lived experience. Conversely, Howard’s endless blame shifting was his downfall in the end.
The 2020 Summit has been compared with Bob Hawke’s 1983 National Economic Summit, and there’s a similar dynamic at work. Just as Hawke’s Summit sought to lock in support for an agreed economic and social policy program, 2020 worked to bury the culture wars of the Howard era. That issues such as the Republic were so broadly supported – and not just by the usual latte sipping suspects, but by captains of industry, business leaders and other luminaries of the Establishment – demonstrates that the debate really has moved on.
Reactions from the culture wars commentariat, only underline the new irrelevance of the style of political contestation which originated with Howard’s animus against Paul Keating’s alleged elitism. In fact, many of the proposals supported by the Summit are squarely in the centre of the road, and more than capable of attracting a very broad range of support outside the (largely centrist, anyway) ranks of the Labor Party.
It’s been pointed out that many of the ideas articulated at the Summit aren’t "new" and "fresh", but that’s hardly surprising. Public policy doesn’t work like that. Nor is it the point. The Summit was as much about forging a consensus around certain long term issues and moving beyond the "me-tooism" of the election campaign as it was about harnessing the ideas of the best and brightest.
All this leaves the Liberal Party well and truly boxed in a corner, with Brendan Nelson struggling to decide whether to support or critique the initiative. And the spectacle of one of Howard’s most discredited ministers, Alexander Downer, railing against elites while seated next to David Flint in a room full of the blue rinse pearl set really does highlight that conservatism can no longer be equated with "the mainstream".
The focus on the long term also shines a sharp light on the media. Alongside the predictable prattling of the opinion pages, we’ve seen tawdry attempts at humour from the likes of Annabel Crabb. Probably because proprietors, CEOs and media executives were present at the summit, journos have felt under pressure to demonstrate their independence. That they could apparently only do so by flicking the switch to cynicism is telling.
Still, in some quarters, there’s been a greater focus on the real impacts of policy than we’re used to – a welcome side effect of the Summit. We need to see more of that and less of the tedious and stereotyped stock in trade of the jaundiced media elites.
The 2020 Summit has real potential not just to open up a new way of governing, as Rudd envisaged, but also to stimulate some much needed soul searching among those whose vocation is to report on governance and politics.
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