Australia, let the Enlightenment begin!

If History is the set of stories we tell ourselves to explain the Past, then I guess Society comprises the stories we tell ourselves about the Present — plus the conversations which create our Future. I suspect that’s why certain people seem to be excited by the Australia 2020 Summit: Australia does seem to be starting a new conversation about its own identity.

The other day I quoted an historian who said that the Prussian enlightenment [of the 18th century] was about conversation. “It was about a critical, respectful, open-ended dialogue between free and autonomous subjects,” he said. So I’ll be so bold as to suggest this new conversation will lead to the Australian Enlightenment.

Yesterday I read two pieces which reinforce this idea of a new conversation. The first was Maxine McKew’s First Speech to federal parliament as the Member for Bennelong.

Let me extract (some might say “butcher”) just one thread from a speech that deserves to be read in full, and add my own emphasis:

The seat of Bennelong… provides a near perfect snapshot of how the country is changing. Join the throng on the weekend in the Eastwood mall and you will find that Rowe Street is both a modern-day Babel and a dynamic part of cosmopolitan Sydney…

For some, these changes are unsettling. But there is a younger generation that is entirely at ease with who we are and what we are becoming. Exceptionally well educated, many have secured a second degree from an international university and are multilingual. Some will be in mixed-race marriages. What they all have in common is that they will see their professional lives as crossing borders. They will be citizens of the world, trained here initially but orbiting around the world and working and playing in those places that will enrich them.

They will still call Australia home, but when they are in Delhi, Hong Kong or London, what story will they be telling about home? How do we want the Australian story to look for the coming generation? …

What we need is a new imagining, a revived sense of what is possible. The negativity and the tedium of the culture wars will not get us there.

But look at our history with all its warts and all its failures and you will still find plenty to inspire wonder, hope and optimism. You will also find that, if there is a common animating principle in Australia, it is that we look forwards, not back…

What people want now, I think, is an intelligent national conversation.

The prevailing orthodoxy, to this point, has been that, because we are enjoying such bounty, we are indifferent, to the point of being somnolent, about the bigger societal questions. Well, I happen to think that 2007 demolished that idea. Most of the commentators missed the mood shift. But it is there. It is real. All sorts of people know that politics and policymaking matter. Our national spirit matters. The lesson for me from the past year is that there is a great reservoir of goodwill that lies untapped beneath the surface of our national life, and smart governments will find ways to liberate and direct it.

And behold! Chairman Rudd has proclaimed the Australia 2002 Summit. With hopes in many quarters that it won’t be 1000 of “the usual suspects”, maybe that new conversation can begin.

However the second piece, Mark Pesce’s article How to listen to 21 million voices, reminds us that we need a truly national conversation — all 21 million of us, not just The Chosen 1000 at the summit.

In 1962, T.S. Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions [claimed that] the greatest revolutions in science happen when ‘outsiders’ enter an established field, seeing it with new eyes.

These outsiders make observations which the boffins have simply ignored or discounted, because they disagree with the orthodox consensus. Over time, outsider observations become the new orthodoxy, which is itself overturned when another outsider enters the field. Funeral by funeral, science inches forward.

The Prime Minister has created something of a paradoxical situation: he’s reaching beyond the comfortable bounds of the government bureaucracy with the 2020 Summit, searching for new ideas, yet, because of the nature of the boffin universe, the most revolutionary and far-sighted of these new ideas would be anathema to those same boffins.

The summit is far more likely to confirm conventional wisdom than challenge it.

Mark suggests we could use Wikipedia-like tools to create this national conversation.

The Prime Minister must make clear that the 2020 Summit is simply the tip of the iceberg — that the boffins are only the most visible example of the expertise available to solve the nation’s long-term problems and invite the rest of the nation to participate in a broad sharing of ideas and expertise.

Rudd should promise that the 2020 Summit itself will be captured in video and audio recordings, with photographs and documentation that will all be placed online, in real-time, as the summit is taking place.

He can ask Australians to create blogs which track the progress of the event, noting everything as it happens.

Australians should be invited to use instant messaging, bulletin boards and other systems so that their own questions, reflections and comments could be incorporated into the summit.

The other day I said I’d be setting up the Topic 9 blog to cover one area of the discussion — and that will finally be happening on Friday. But it shouldn’t be too hard to set up the rest — blogs, wikis, whatever tools are most appropriate.

We shouldn’t wait for The Guv’mint to do it, either. Anyone can get the process going. GetUp is a fine example of people who’ve managed to Make A Difference without being “official”.

I supposed I should start talking to people, eh?

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