Well the 2020 Summit is over. It was a torrent of activity and upon reflection really hard work. But what was it all about? In what is probably going to take a few posts, I am going to reflect upon the past few days and also some of the ideas that came out of the Summit. I’m doing this mostly to try and make sense of it all because, at first blush, and not surprisingly, there were few surprises.
Let’s start at the top. Was it worthwhile to attend? Absolutely, and even above the kudos of being invited and the cost of missing family events and one important birthday. Now, let’s go to the other end of lofty ambitions. Did I manage to get my idea up in lights? The answer: no. Indeed, I didn’t even get an opportunity to air the idea I stated (on removing restrictions on scientific grants) but then again, I have access to other forums for that.
That said, I did get to speak. Not in a main on stream session but in our smaller sub-stream on science, innovation and digital (and what is digital? I still don’t know). I spoke alot. Mostly about other ideas and sometimes to argue against ones I thought would be bad. For most of the time, I was the only economist in a room of scientists and entrepreneurs and from time to time politicians, Industry Minister Kim Carr, Deputy PM Julia Gillard and Victorian Premier John Brumby. For this reason, I can hardly complain about not promoting my own idea. That was of my own doing.
The fruits of our labour are now on the 2020 website in the Initial Report produced at lightning speed. How could this be done? Well, by not really incorporating the final consensus of ideas (at least from our group). For instance, the goal of raising R&D enough to maintain international competitiveness was supposed to be something more specific such as raising private and public R&D to at least double its current level by 2020. And on the ideas our push for a revamp of the maths and science curriculum right from early learning was meant to be encompassed as an idea to hold a national level review of curriculum but got left as having one national curriculum (a very different and hardly consensus possibility that was never discussed). And then there was stuff that came out of nowhere such as “Innovation Australia” that we all did agree to strike in favour of promoting a National Innovation Agenda through COAG (thank you, John Brumby) and also exploring the ideas of having PhD Centres of Excellence along the German model (thank you, Bryan Gaensler). But I am going to leave to a future post how I think a consensus view of the Productivity Stream would look.
For me, the best experiences of the Summit were interacting with people outside of my own stream. I had breakfast with one of Australia’s foremost climate change scientists, talked about governance with some folk, engaged in my usual arguments with Telstra on broadband, and discussed how we could make our health system work better with some doctors. It make me want to take part in what was going on in other streams but then again I had a job to do where I was.
And I wont lie to you, it was really great to be roaming Parliament House when so many famous faces were around. There is something unique about debating about where we were going to sit to eat our boxed lunch and decide the floor would do because Lachlan Murdoch was already down there. Mandawuy Yunupingu, the lead singer of Yothu Yindi, sat down next to me during one session. But, of course, rather than ask him about his ideas all I could think to do was revert to being star struck and tell him how I had imported his band’s CDs to the US when I was studying because I missed Australian music. I got to see who I was taller than and fatter than. I caught a glimpse of Cate and the baby and decided not to bound over a bunch of chairs to introduce myself to the Prime Minister. And I was around when Hugh Jackman told the Summit of his 7 year old son’s idea: “to speed up archaeological digs before they build all over them and it is too late.” (On that score, thank goodness they invited the entertainers, it really livened up one of the main sessions).
In the end, for me I will get just what I expected, a bunch of new connections and hopefully friends who share a common interest in wanting to make things better. I think the Government will get some more ideas, but importantly, will be held to account by those who spent considerable energy in trying to make things better. In the relative disorganisation of the Summit agenda and process, they have formed a coalition of the “best, brightest and now restless” who will not want to let things just be. It will be up to them how they engage with that coalition.
[An abridged version of this post appeared in Crikey (21st April, 2008)]