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Ideas summit? More like a Labor love-fest

By John Roskam - posted Monday, 14 April 2008

It’s difficult to be sceptical about Kevin Rudd's summit of Australia's "best and brightest". One of the Government's first announcements about the event was that Cate Blanchett would convene a session. A little while later it was revealed that Hugh Jackman would be attending. (We don't know whether Mel, Nicole, or Russell have been invited - maybe they'll make a surprise appearance.)

Obviously the Prime Minister's media advisers calculated that the sight of Kevin Rudd discussing the nation's problems with Hollywood celebrities would combat his image as a boring bureaucrat. So far those advisers have been proved right.

There's nothing wrong with Labor (or the Liberals) having summits, conferences, and talkfests. Sometimes it is useful to get experts together to debate policy, and occasionally a good suggestion might emerge.


But the timing of the summit is curious. It was only four months ago that Kevin Rudd won an election after he promised he had all the solutions. Obviously Canberra's 155,000 public servants can't provide the answers the Prime Minister needs - if they could he wouldn't need a summit.

The problem with Labor's summit is that 95 per cent of the participants will be in enthusiastic agreement that the Rudd Government is good, that the Howard government was bad, and that the solution to any problem is higher taxes and more government spending.

The Australia 2020 Summit is an exercise in pure and simple politics. The summit will co-opt the country's elite into endorsing the Rudd Government's policies, and in the process the Howard government will be airbrushed from history.

The background papers for the summit give the game away. Although the papers profess "to tell an evidence-based story about how Australia is faring", the evidence they provide is skewed to present the Coalition government in the worst possible light. In among the more than 100 pages of material there's no reference, for example, to Australia experiencing the longest period of economic growth in its history.

If summit participants are to be encouraged to confront the challenges of the future they should at least be told about the conditions of the present. It's impossible to consider Indigenous policy without examining the results so far of the Coalition's Northern Territory intervention. The background papers, however, make no mention of the intervention.

Similarly, social welfare reform is discussed without reference to the single biggest welfare reform in a generation, namely the introduction of "mutual obligation" and work for the dole. And the list goes on.


Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the Iraq war, you'd expect it would be in the section on foreign policy or there would at least be a reference to it. Yet, bizarrely, Iraq doesn't rate a mention.

The summit's background papers cleanse Australian history of the 11 years of John Howard. Trying to ignore the fact that Kevin Rudd's immediate predecessor ever existed might give some of the summit participants a warm inner glow, but such an approach doesn't make for good policy.

All governments play politics; after all, that's the nature of politics. It's naive to believe that when it comes to Labor's summit the laws of politics are somehow suspended.

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First published in The Age on April 11, 2008.

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John Roskam is executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs.

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