Summit Roundup

My AFR oped today is on the 2020 summit. Full text below (and remember – contributors don’t write their own headlines).

Some Nuggets in the Dross, Australian Financial Review, 22 April 2008

Was it the Bold and the Beautiful, or the Young and the Restless? Big Brother, or the New Inventors? By any measure, the weekend’s 2020 summit was an unusual event. Whether it was Philip Adams embracing Barry Jones, Hugh Jackman singing a duet with Ted Wilkes, or glimpses of Cate (‘I did but see her passing by’) Blanchett, there always seemed to be something to surprise. And by Sunday afternoon, even the more sceptical summiteers seemed happy to play Tenzing Norgay to Rudd’s Edmund Hillary.

From my own perspective, the greatest insights came from chatting with indigenous leader Tania Major about her experiences in improving educational outcomes for children in Cape York. The sessions themselves had policy wonks clashing with practitioners, sometimes producing light, sometimes heat. The group discussing labour market reform was, in the words of one participant, ‘simulating a failed state”. Yet the final communiqué was surprisingly coherent, proposing a major tax review, a rethink of early childhood intervention, and a new federalism.

Some of the outcomes might have been predicted from the outset. The foreign affairs and defence stream proposed the creation of five institutes, a forum and an advisory council. The journalist-heavy governance stream proposed a reform of Freedom of Information laws. And the culture stream proposed as one of their ‘low-cost’ ideas that an additional 1% of the federal budget ($2.5 billion) be devoted to the arts.

But other ideas were not so predictable. In particular, three small ideas caught my fancy.

• The communities stream proposed rewarding young Australians for volunteering in disadvantaged neighbourhoods by providing them with a HECS discount. Such a program might be modelled on AmeriCorps, a US scheme that provides education credits and a living allowance in return for spending a year working with a community sector organisation. Each year, approximately 75,000 young Americans participate in AmeriCorps, and many continue to work with the community after their service year ends. Implemented here, a similar program might have practical benefits for underprivileged communities. But its ‘eye-opening’ benefits could be greater still – giving affluent suburban youth a chance to spend a year facing disadvantage in all its complexity.

• The health stream proposed the creation of a ‘Healthbook’ (Facebook for your health information) that would allow people to share their medical records with their doctors. Ever had to cancel a doctor’s appointment because the x-rays have not yet been mailed across? Ever moved city and had to start from scratch with a new doctor? At a relatively modest cost, Healthbook could make medical records secure and portable. Indeed, it might even allow individuals to share their genetic information with doctors, while keeping it confidential from other organisations.

• The governance stream proposed that Australia establish a public affairs TV channel – AuspanTV – to provide Australians with first-hand access to policy debates, book launches, and conferences. Modelled on C-span in the United States, which has 50 million regular or occasional viewers, Auspan would aim to connect Australia to the global community of ideas. While Canada has two public affairs channels, Australians presently have no dedicated network through which to access local and international speeches, public lectures, and in-depth interviews. Established as free-to-air digital channel, AuspanTV might be an effective means of democratising public debates over the nation’s past and future.

The comparative advantage of an event like the 2020 summit is not in addressing the nation’s most complex problems. For all the good intentions of the summiteers, the event probably did little to advance debates around climate change or defence strategy. But I was struck over the weekend by how many nuggety little ideas emerged; not just in the official documents, but in conversations between participants, bureaucrats, and politicians. Putting these into action probably won’t change the course of history – but they might yet improve the lives of thousands of Australians.

The other recurring theme that came up in my conversations with other delegates through the weekend was the frisson of happiness that many felt at being allowed ‘inside the tent’. By definition, summits, community cabinets, and other listening exercises can only invite a few at a time. But those who enjoy permanent insider status should not underestimate the role that such events play in ensuring that new voices are heard.

Andrew Leigh is an economist in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University. He was a delegate in the productivity stream of the 2020 summit.

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8 Responses to Summit Roundup

  1. Kevin Cox says:

    Andrew,

    Did you get any instructions on where to send suggestions on how to implement any ideas for no cost to the government?

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  4. Sinclair Davidson says:

    We already have a ‘public affairs TV channel’ its called the ABC (now ABC1, previously channel 2).

  5. Labor Outsider says:

    I have to agree with Sinclair

    Australia already has ABC TV, a variety of ABC radio stations, SBS and anyone with internet access can obtain all the other information you refer to….given the cost of setting up the new station, what is the market failure that would justify the taxpayer subsidy? I imagine the subsidy would also be regressive given that viewers would most likely be drawn from higher earning and higher educated groups…

    As for the HECS reduction for volunteers program, Andrew Norton and Bruce Chapman have already pointed out the flaws in that proposal….people seem to forget that university students already receive a significant government subsidy – repayments have a zero real rate of interest, and in many cases the HECS fee is less than the private return….and as has been pointed out, kids from wealthier families are likely to be in the best position to forgo earnings to volunteers….and you may get a large number of people doing volunteer work for financial reasons, not because they are committed to the principle…won’t that have an effect?

    Andrew, you also mention in your article that those with insider status should not underestimate the importance of hearing new voices. Fair enough. But how many of the participants were genuinely “new” voices? I presume you aren’t thinking of yourself – someone with as much press exposure as you have can only be considered an outsider if you define those on the “inside” very narrowly….And presumably the countless particpants that work for NGOs, lobby groups, industry associations, and universities aren’t new either….

    I’m sorry for the rant, but a more critical appraisal of a summit that seemed to largely be about identifying new ways of spending taxpayers money and extending the reach of government would have been appreciated….

  6. Tim Curtin says:

    Re Labor Outsider: “people seem to forget that university students already receive a significant government subsidy”.

    Really? First, for those who do not qualify for Austudy, there is NO compensation here for forgone earnings while studying instead of earning. So who subsidises whom?

    Secondly, although most economists have difficulty understanding this, above all Bob Gregory and Bruce Chapman at ANU and the equally deceptive Nicholas Barr at LSE, since it is a universally accepted truth that, on average, graduates earn more than non-graduates over their lifetimes everywhere, except presumably at ANU and LSE, that means they unavoidably pay more income tax.

    I have shown for UK, as have Dawkins & Borland for Australia, that the EXTRA tax paid by graduates over their lifetimes vis a vis non-graduates more than recompenses the miserly Commonwealth Government for the pitifully low amounts it outlaid on their HE, especially after the iniquitous and monstrously inequitable HECS introduced by the Labor Insider Government of 1989.

    But perhaps Labor Outsider is equally as unaware as Gregory & Chapman that the income tax rises with income even at flat rates, but even more so with the progressive rates that apply here and in the UK?

    It is also the case that as on average graduates might well spend more out of their higher after tax income vis a vis non-graduates with their lower on average after tax earnings, they also incur more GST at 10% here (or 18% in VAT in England). The total EXTRA tax paid by graduates (on average vis a vis non-graduates) has to mean, for all except the arithmetically challenged “Outsider”, that over their lifetimes, graduates pay back more to the government than it ever stingily spent on their degrees. Could Outsider please explain what public services other than their HE these graduates ever received from any let alone Labor governments other than its paltry spending on their HE (vis a vis non-graduates)?

    In fact, as Outsider might like to consider, it tends to be graduates with their higher average earnings who mostly opt out of the wretchedly low standard public health and schooling systems by heading for private hospitals and, for their children, private schools. They thereby SUBSIDISE the non-graduates who cannot afford such indulgence, by enabling higher per pupil/patient state funding than would otherwise be the case. This is especially noticeable in the ACT, which always votes Labor, but has the highest proportion of kids in private schools anywhere in Australia.

    But of course none of the above made it into the handpicked consciousness of the same Chardonnay set who attended at 20-20 that above all send their kids to private schools and patronise private hospitals.

  7. Patrick says:

    I thought the title was apt, Andrew – or did you think it stated the case too positively ;)?

  8. Pingback: Andrew Norton » Blog Archive » The community corps and student debt, #2

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