Australia 2020: The Disillusionment

Photograph of Kevin Rudd from The 7.30 Report

When Chairman Rudd announced the Australia 2020 Summit the euphoria kicked in like a clean hit of a fresh new political drug. After 11 drab years of John Winston Howard, Change! Big, bright colourful change with sparkly bits and the sound of a thousand sitars! But now the euphoria’s wearing off. We’re coming down — and the Main Event is still a month away.

Kevin still looks pretty cheerful, though, doesn’t he. Why is that?

Look back through everything I’ve written so far and you can see the moodswing. “Chairman Rudd’s got a clever strategy going,” my first post began. Another post was headlined Australia, let the Enlightenment begin!, quoting Maxine “Toadslayer” McKew and agreeing that the nation was ready to start a new conversation about its destiny. At the end of February I even nominated myself.

Given Rudd’s claim that his government would be open and transparent, and develop policies based on evidence, it all sounded pretty good.

As days go by, however, it’s become increasingly clear that the potential of the event will be stifled by the political “need” to placate the same old whingeing lobby groups, the same old middle-class middle-aged white men in dark suits (just flick through the Steering Committee) and, it seems, the “need” to pre-load the agenda with specific topics to… well, let’s explore that.

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So who’s ready for the future? Who’s not?

Maxine McKew and I aren’t the only ones who think Australia is ready to start a new conversation about our identity. The Australia 2020 Summit secretariat received 7251 nominations for the 1000 spots. I wish them well with the winnowing — and wish myself good luck with my own application.

The real fun now is seeing who’s actually ready for the future, and who just wants to stifle discussion.

Human rights lobbyist Howard Glenn puts it well, and shows that he’s ready:

Why am I enthusiastic about a relatively small two-day conference in April? Because it is a big gesture which says clearly that we have permission to start thinking about the future again. The flow-on effects are already starting. Schools want to have their own future summits, difficult long term issues are emerging for community debate. And that’s before it’s all really started.

It’s only two days and 1,000 people. Who gets to go is not as important as the fact that it is occurring at all, and that there’s such media attention to the attendance. Some will see it as a revival of the mythical Keating elites; the start of European-style social planning; a talk fest. I see it as the start of a restoration of confidence in Australian culture, identity and ingenuity, and a faith that we can think about future challenges, and find what we need to face them.

So what about everyone else?

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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.

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