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Summit on Australia's future

Australia's prime minister opened a sweeping summit of ideas on Saturday, telling the nearly 1,000 delegates that he expects concrete policy suggestions from their two-day brainstorming.

world Updated: Apr 19, 2008 13:07 IST
Tanalee Smith
Tanalee Smith

Australia's prime minister opened a sweeping summit of ideas on Saturday, telling the nearly 1,000 delegates that he expects concrete policy suggestions from their two-day brainstorming.

"The old way of governing has long been creaking and groaning," Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said at the opening of Australia 2020, a first-time conference meant to involve more Australians in decision making on the nation's future.

The Rudd government set 10 themes for discussion - ranging from health to environment to the arts to Australia's world role - and asked for public input.

Australians obliged, the nation buzzing with ideas in the weeks leading up to the summit. Radio talk shows invited listeners to phone in ideas for discussion, and nearly 9,000 proposals were submitted to the summit's Web site.

Major themes at the summit in the nation's capital, Canberra, are expected to be climate change, tackling Aboriginal discrimination and health.

Following Saturday's opening remarks, the nearly 1,000 delegates - dubbed by Rudd as Australia's "best and brightest" minds - split into 10 panels to cull thousands of ideas and come up with policy proposals to be presented to the federal government. Early discussions in one session raised support for breaking formal ties with the British monarchy and becoming a republic, an idea supported by Rudd.

It is not clear how much public support such an initiative would garner. In 1999, Australians rejected a proposal to replace the monarchy with a president elected by Parliament. The idea dropped off the national agenda until Rudd, a republican, was elected as prime minister last November, replacing staunch monarchist John Howard.

Opinion polls show most Australians respect Queen Elizabeth II but would prefer to have an Australian as head of state. There are disagreements, however, about how an Australian president would be selected.

In the Aboriginal future session, prominent indigenous West Australian Shirley McPherson suggested Parliament seats and government positions should be put aside for indigenous people. "There must by 2020 be a level playing field, and by that we mean there needs to be representation in Parliament and in government," McPherson said.

Critics have ridiculed the summit, arguing that too many ideas will be presented in too little time for in-depth discussion. But delegates believe their time will be well-spent and produce useful results.

Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan called the weekend "a hunting license for new ideas."

"It is an opportunity to stretch out together the economy we want for 2020 and how we as a country put in the hard yards to get there in the long term," he told the economy panel, which he co-chaired.

Rudd called on each of the panels to nominate at least one big idea, plus at least three concrete policy plans. One of those must involve little or no cost. Groups should also identify at least three specific goals for 2020, he said.

"Some of these ideas we will be able to embrace, others we will not, and some we will take in part and change," he said. The federal government has promised to respond to each recommendation by year's end.

Delegate Julian Burnside, a prominent barrister, warned that the reform ideas coming out of the summit would be worthless unless they included a plan to make it illegal for politicians to lie to the public.

"If politicians are able to lie to us, mislead us about what's going on, about what they're planning to do, the whole system will not work," Burnside said.

The 10 panels at the Australia 2020 summit are: productivity; economy; sustainability and climate change; rural Australia; health; communities and families; indigenous Australia; creativity; governance; Australia's future in the world.