Was it the Bold and the Beautiful, or the Young and the Restless? Big Brother, or The New Inventors? By any measure, the weekend’s 2020 summit was an unusual event. Whether it was Phillip Adams embracing Barry Jones, Hugh Jackman singing a duet with Ted Wilkes, or glimpses of Cate (“I did but see her passing by”) Blanchett, there always seemed to be something to surprise. And by Sunday afternoon, even the more sceptical summiteers seemed happy to play Tenzing Norgay to Rudd’s Edmund Hillary.
From my own perspective, the greatest insights came from chatting with Indigenous leader Tania Major about her experiences in improving educational outcomes for children in Cape York. The sessions themselves had policy wonks clashing with practitioners, sometimes producing light, sometimes heat. The group discussing labour market reform was, in the words of one participant, “simulating a failed state”. Yet the final communiqué was surprisingly coherent, proposing a major tax review, a rethink of early childhood intervention, and a new federalism.
Some of the outcomes might have been predicted from the outset. The foreign affairs and defence stream proposed the creation of five institutes, a forum and an advisory council. The journalist-heavy governance stream proposed a reform of Freedom of Information laws. And the culture stream proposed as one of their “low-cost” ideas that an additional 1 per cent of the federal budget ($2.5 billion) be devoted to the arts.
But other ideas were not so predictable. In particular, three small ideas caught my fancy.
The communities stream proposed rewarding young Australians for volunteering in disadvantaged neighbourhoods by providing them with a HECS discount. Such a program might be modelled on AmeriCorps, a US scheme that provides education credits and a living allowance in return for spending a year working with a community sector organisation.
Each year, about 75,000 young Americans participate in AmeriCorps, and many continue to work with the community after their service year ends. Implemented here, a similar program might have practical benefits for underprivileged communities. But its “eye-opening” benefits could be greater still - giving affluent suburban youth a chance to spend a year facing disadvantage in all its complexity.
The health stream proposed the creation of a “Healthbook” (Facebook for your health information) that would allow people to share their medical records with their doctors. Ever had to cancel a doctor’s appointment because the X-rays have not yet been mailed across? Ever moved city and had to start from scratch with a new doctor?
At a relatively modest cost, Healthbook could make medical records secure and portable. Indeed, it might even allow individuals to share their genetic information with doctors, while keeping it confidential from other organisations.
The governance stream proposed that Australia establish a public affairs TV channel - AuspanTV - to provide Australians with first-hand access to policy debates, book launches, and conferences.
Modelled on C-span in the United States, which has 50 million regular or occasional viewers, Auspan would aim to connect Australia to the global community of ideas.
While Canada has two public affairs channels, Australians presently have no dedicated network through which to access local and international speeches, public lectures, and in-depth interviews. Established as free-to-air digital channel, AuspanTV might be an effective means of democratising public debates over the nation’s past and future.
The comparative advantage of an event like the 2020 summit is not in addressing the nation’s most complex problems. For all the good intentions of the summiteers, the event probably did little to advance debates around climate change or defence strategy. But I was struck by how many nuggety little ideas emerged; not just in the official documents, but in conversations between participants, bureaucrats, and politicians. Putting these into action probably won’t change the course of history - but they might yet improve the lives of thousands of Australians.
The other recurring theme that came up in my conversations with other delegates through the weekend was the frisson of happiness that many felt at being allowed “inside the tent”. By definition, summits, community cabinets, and other listening exercises can only invite a few at a time. But those who enjoy permanent insider status should not underestimate the role that such events play in ensuring that new voices are heard.
Andrew Leigh was a delegate in the productivity stream of the 2020 summit. This article was originally published in the Australian Financial Review on April 22, 2008.