whatever happened to 2020?

A piece for Crikey, now reprinted at Larvatus Prodeo

It’s quite astonishing that the public figure who yesterday pointed out that the deadline for Kevin Rudd’s response to ideas from his 2020 summit had quietly come and gone was Peter Costello.

Naturally, Costello has his own agenda. But where were the summiteers themselves? Do none of them care that their ideas have come to nought?

Recall, if you will, the atmosphere a year ago.

In April 2008, the best and brightest burned with summit fever. The invitees boasted in their newspaper columns and radio shows about the size of their ideas. Those who hadn’t made the cut trawled desperately through Wonka Bars for a Golden Ticket. There were debates about whether sufficient women were going and whether the date, on a religious holiday, excluded Jews. Kevan Gosper worried that sportsmen didn’t have a big enough say, Tim Fischer drummed up support in the bush, and The Age ran a competition through which John and Jane Average could win the right to mingle with their betters.

Every country town celebrated its local representatives; every university pumped out press releases boasting about the academics who’d be on board. There was even a youth summit for the kiddies.

Was holding a policy at an invite-only event rather than, say, an election just a teensy bit, well, undemocratic? Hush your mouth, you nay-saying cynic! Wasn’t it a little unlikely — in fact, downright impossible — that this galaxy of celebrities would arrive at consensus on a zillion contentious issues in a single weekend? But… but … but … Cate Blanchett! With a baby!

Back then, the left-liberal consensus was almost total. Why, unlike that mean John Howard, our new PM wanted to listen! After eleven years in the cold, the intelligentsia would be back in the tent, singing happily along with Hugh Jackman.

Here’s how The Age reported the event’s culmination:

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has been given a standing ovation by the 1,002 delegates to the Australia 2020 Summit in Parliament House.

The summiteers rose to their feet as Mr Rudd received the two-day talkfest’s final report from summit co-chair Glyn Davis.

“This has been a very Australian gathering,” Mr Rudd told the closing session.

“Can you think of another country in the world where this could happen?”

“I think the reason it’s worked … is because it’s been characterised by a whole lot of good humour, a whole lot of mutual respect, and a whole lot of very classical, undeniable Australian directness.”

Might not some of that classical, undeniable Australian directness be now put to asking what the hell has happened?

Sure, the more serious of the summiteers didn’t necessarily expect immediate decisions on their pet issues but they bigged up 2020 on the basis that it would provoke ongoing discussion. Well, the most popular topic last April was the republic. Heard much about that lately?

Here’s Kevin Rudd on 18 April, 2008. “What we’ve committed to as a Government is by year’s end to respond to each of the ideas put forward by each of those working groups for Government to consider. And I’ve said that by year’s end, we’ll say what we can embrace and why, and what we can’t and why.”

Or, on the other hand, we won’t.

It often seems like the left-liberal intelligentsia (the people at whom 2020 was pitched) have only two speeds: graze and stampede. Last year, everyone enthused about the summit; this year, no-one — other than Peter Costello — bothers about the government’s response.

Yes, the GFC has come; yes, priorities have shifted.

Nonetheless, accountability still matters. If we don’t hold politicians to their promises, can we blame them for lying to us?

More than that, what does the whole episode say about our political culture? In 2008, the public was assured that tremendously important discussions were taking place, in an event so significant that only the best and brightest could go. Today, the best and brightest seem magisterially indifferent to the whole business. Is it any wonder that so many ordinary Australians pay no attention to public life?


Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. It genuinely does surprise me that they’re not angrier about the way they were treated. I mean, I always thought the thing was a sham. But if you went along with a bunch of good ideas and then got treated like that, wouldn’t you be a bit miffed?

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