Less is more in push for reform
By Craig Emerson
Organisers of the National Reform Summit to be held on26 August face a dilemma: maximise inclusiveness by inviting all business and community representatives, experts, columnists and bloggers who express an interest in participating or seek the strongest possible statement on a reform program for referral to the national parliament. The more inclusive is the summit the more nebulous and less useful will be any agreed summit statement. More than any other decision, making the right judgement call on this quandary will determine the summit’s success or failure.
Agreement to hold a National Reform Summit was dependent on the willingness to participate of a core group or organisations: the three largest business organisations, the ACTU, ACOSS and, with sustainable retirement incomes policy forming one of the four work streams, the two main seniors groups. Since any agreed reforms would affect future as well as current generations, the Australian Youth Affairs Council rounds out the core group of eight. It is this group that will negotiate and sign up to any summit statement.
No one pretends that this core group of summiteers represents the entire business community, all workers, every underprivileged person or all older and younger Australians; far from it. But it draws its membership from a broad cross-section of the community. Moreover, most of these organisations are familiar with dealing with each other, often out of the public gaze, as they have tried before, albeit with only modest success, to reach agreement on particular national policy issues.
Nor does anyone believe that the four summit work streams cover all the important national policy issues. Lifting productivity growth and workforce participation, tax reform, getting the budget right and designing a sustainable retirement incomes policy are vital to Australia’s future. But that is not to diminish the importance of climate change, our hospital system, road funding, Australia’s engagement with Asia or a host of other policy areas. Incorporating these myriad issues into a summit statement would be impractical. Indeed, inviting organisations and experts to speak on them would absorb most of the summit’s five hours of deliberations. Worse, inviting such representatives and telling them there is no time for them to speak would court disaster.
Achieving agreement of the core group to a summit statement is exceptionally ambitious. At this point no such agreement exists, only a willingness to talk and negotiate. A feel-good summit that included a large number of organisations and academics beyond the core group would not feel good for very long. Specific-interest organisations would legitimately complain that their interests were not incorporated into the summit statement.
Cynics have already remarked that this will be yet another talkfest. That criticism might legitimately apply to the Rudd government’s 2020 Summit but not to the Hawke government’s National Economic Summit of 1983 or the 1985 Tax Summit, which achieved a measure of community support for enduring economic reforms. In any event, the National Reform Summit is different: it has not been organised by or on behalf of any government.
Prioritising inclusiveness over outcomes would make the cynics right. A summit statement that tried to be all things to all people would end up being nothing to anyone. A mere statement of objectives and principles of reform would be a disappointing outcome. The summit statement needs to reflect enough agreement on enough specifics if it is genuinely to advance the cause of reform.
For those who cannot feasibly be included in the summit’s tight program the best outcome is a successful summit. Success begets success. There may be an appetite for further processes leading to further successes. But failure occasioned by taking on too may issues and too many delegates would destroy any chance of reaching common ground on a new reform program to achieve opportunity for all in a prosperous Australia.
Let’s prove the cynics wrong. And if those who are not included in the summit need a human sacrifice as retribution this columnist as a summit convenor is reluctantly available.
Craig Emerson is a convenor of the National Reform Summit and Adjunct Professor at Victoria University’s College of Business.