I didnt want to let the Summit pass completely without sharing a few thoughts about it from an overseas Australian.
Australians at home may be sick of the saturation media coverage of the 2020 Summit, but for many overseas Aussies these are exciting times. I cant obviously speak for all Australian expats, but amongst the people I know (admittedly mostly liberals), theres a buzz about Australian politics these days. This isnt a feeling just about the Summit, its been a mood captured by the ratification of Kyoto, the apology to indigenous Australians and the appointment of Australias first female Governor General. Though its early days, theres a sense of genuine anticipation in the air.
The Summit encapsulates those good feelings. Yes, it is a talk fest. Yes, we should be extremely dubious that anything substantive will come out of it. Yes, the selection of the candidates was too biased towards academics and other insiders. Yes, more could have been done to involve ordinary people not least, allowing a live message board or chat room to generate debate in peoples living rooms. But the Summit is fundamentally an opportunity to usher in a new way of thinking, to capture a reinvigorated enthusiasm in politics and I applaud that.
A few brief comments on the substance then. The Summits conclusions provide a potential sense of direction for a nation but are vague enough to allow the Government of the day to fill in the detail in any way that it sees fit. I particularly liked the recommendation Create a “seamless national economy” to reduce bureaucratic overlaps and improve competitiveness- which was perhaps the most meaningless of the lot. But I thought this was a wise decision – we dont want national policy coming out from a few hours deliberation.
My second thought upon reading some of the initial conclusions of the Summit is how many of the ideas involve the significant expansion of government. From national preventative health institutes, or creativity and innovation foundations, to all in one childrens centres, too many of the ideas seemed to want to use the wrong delivery mechanism (ie. Government) to achieve change. Its natural for a government organised Summit to be very Government focussed, but the answer in most cases surely isnt Government as provider. Government can be an excellent facilitator but as a deliverer often fails because innovation and flexibility are its weakest points. Instead we need bright entrepreneurs and carefully constructed markets to bring money and brains to crack tough problems.
In addition, Australia is in the fortunate position of being able to copy the work of other nations. Whether it be Nick Gruens idea of a national information policy, or Julia Gillards notion of business adopting schools or the KRudds idea of childrens centres many of these ideas have been tried and tested in the UK and US with varying degrees of success. For instance, the concept of Childrens Centres has a particularly long history beginning with the Perry pre-school project in the US and being most recently tested in the Sure Start programmes in the UK. There are many lessons to learn from these examples, not least the difficulty in targeting truly disadvantaged families, being prepared for long payback times and the difficulty in raising the skills of the childcare workforce. Somebody I hope is on top of this literature if not, please get in touch with me.
Finally, while I hope the Government does find nuggets of gold in this Summit, new and great ideas are not the end of the story. As well as innovative ideas to take Australia forward, we also need much better delivery of the services we have. The schools and hospitals that we care so much about could do with some bold new thinking, but they could also benefit from just doing what they already do, but better. So while its great to engage in some blue skies thinking about what new and expensive programmes we might want, we also need to spend just as much time thinking about ways of improving what we already do and have (the UK has the Prime Ministers Delivery Unit is this my new idea?) and thats what I sincerely hope to see more of in the coming months and years.