By Mungo MacCallum
So the self-styled National Economic Summit has come and gone, and despite the best efforts of its media sponsors to keep its memory intact, in a week it will have faded as the next front page comes along. So before the headlines turn into fish and chip wrappers, let us see what, if anything, was achieved.
On one level the summit must be accorded a success; there was no public brawling, and if any of the participants picked each others’ pockets or nicked any of the cutlery, they did so discreetly. There was a spirit of good will around the talk fest, and a measure of consensus; at the end of the day everyone declared that the problem was serious and urgent, productivity need to be increased, tax reform initiated and a review of retirement incomes considered. The bleeding obvious was more celebrated lavishly, fulsomely: everyone agreed about everything.
But that, of course, was why the summit was in the end, irrelevant. Politics in Australia is not about peace and harmony, it is an adversarial process in which competing ideas and interests have to be debated and hammered out. If it was as easy as sitting down for a day in the board room of KPMG, there would be no problems to solve.
The summiteers started by insisting that everything was on the table, nothing should be ruled in or out. But in fact Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten had already ruled a lot of things out and declared many others to be non-negotiable. They would be fully entitled to say to the summiteers: well, if you’re so smart, why don’t you get yourselves elected to parliament and show us how it ought to be done? But that is not how the summiteers operate. They prefer to stand apart from the bear pit, urging on the combatants as they act as spruikers and critics.
Some commentators who should know better have drawn a comparison with a real economic summit, the one convened by Bob Hawke in 1983. The difference was that Hawke’s meeting was a real summit – one with a top, and the top was Hawke himself. It had an agenda and an aim: to secure and implement the Prices and Incomes Accord.
And Hawke made it clear that no-one was going to be allowed to leave until the job was done. It was not scheduled for a single, comfortable day off; it would take however long was necessary to sign on the dotted line. Some of those summoned began to talk of forming an escape committee; it was banter, of course, but it captured the mood.
Hawke drove most of the process himself as chairman; at times he gave way to his Treasurer, Paul Keating, who may have lacked Hawke’s consummate negotiating skills but was equally determined to keep the delegates to the point. The exercise was not an academic one, a conversation in which various view points could be aired and diverse options could be canvassed: it was about an outcome – Hawke’s chosen outcome. And eventually the job was done: consensus through exhaustion, perhaps, but a foundation which was to underpin the enduring reforms processes which secured the ALP its longest term of government since federation.
And the reason it worked was that it was not a polite and civilised public forum between well-credentialed outsiders but a cold, hard master class in politics, run by the professionals for the professionals. If you are looking for political change, you need the politicians to bring it about. Anything else is just self indulgent grandstanding.
But the summit may not be a complete waste: why not translate some of the universal bonhomie into something more permanent? Many if not all the summiteers expressed scepticism, even incredulity, about the government’s version of economic reality: the analysis, the projections, the forecasts were considered wildly self serving, if not downright dodgy.
So how about employing some of the vast resources available to the participants to provide more sensible alternatives? An independent, rigorous and transparent version of what is going on could be valuable to the public and thus perhaps influential to the politicians. If qualified, honest, impartial panellists could be assembled they could aid the whole process of reform immeasurably through renewing public trust alone.
The agenda would be formidable. Obviously there would have to be a basic reassessment of both government and private spending, and all the benefits and concessions that go with it – how much infrastructure, for instance, is in fact a subsidy to the big corporations to service their roads, railways, ports and harbours?
Do the exports which flow from them really add up to the national benefit or are much of them carved out in company profits, and what proportion of those profits go off shore to the multinationals? And how much tax do they pay, and how much should they pay? The whole question of tax, who pays what and who can avoid it, should be scrutinised at arms length from stakeholders and interest groups.
And then there are the specific questions – a good one to start would be climate change, added as no more than an afterthought by the summit. How much do we really need fossil fuels and what are the positives and negatives of continuing to rely on them – and for how long in the future?
To what extent, if any, should we move towards renewables, and if so what kind? Solar, wind, hydro, geothermal – what is the most desirable mix? And what about nuclear – remember, we’re just talking cost-benefit, not politics. So is Tony Abbott’s Direct Action Plan the best economic solution to reducing emissions – indeed, will it even work? Should an Emissions Trading Scheme be reintroduced, and if so, what are the implications our own economy and what are the implications for the international market? And if we accept that global warming is inevitable anyway, what is the most efficient and equitable way of dealing with the consequences?
Obviously there are plenty of other people pondering some of those questions, but most of them have their own agendas and few are trusted by an understandably sceptical public, tired of spin and propaganda. If the talkfest were to give the voters just a few of the answers they could trust, it might indeed endure past the 24-hour news cycle.
So back from the summit, get back to earth: it’s time to stop chatting and start working.