This week’s National Reform Summit produced a 17-page statement agreed by major business groups, organised labour, civil society groups, seniors groups and a representative youth organisation. Some have asked how this was possible. The answer in one word is: trust. During the exhausting weeks of negotiating the statement these diverse groups built up a high level of trust in each other’s honesty and integrity. For Australia’s sake that shared trust among organisations representing a large cross-section of society is the summit’s most valuable outcome.
When summit co-convenor Nick Cater and I approached the BCA and ACOSS about a possible summit back five months ago they reasonably asked for a briefing note on the matters that would be discussed at any summit. I had identified as the four priority areas: lifting productivity growth and workforce participation; tax reform; fiscal sustainability; and sustainable retirement incomes policy. As BCA chief executive Jennifer Westacott later remarked, these weren’t everything but without them we could achieve nothing.
Research institutes were invited to prepare position papers on each of the four work streams. But ultimately, it was up to the eight summit groups to find common ground on reforms in each of these policy areas. My next task was to prepare a first draft of a summit statement. I did so from the perspective of what Malcolm Turnbull has described as the sensible centre. It would be a draft that all groups could consider without rejecting it out of hand.
Leaders of a subset of the eight summit groups – Cassandra Goldie of ACOSS, Dave Oliver of the ACTU and the BCA’s Jennifer Westacott – met privately in early August to consider the initial draft. There was a loose understanding with the five other summit groups that this small group would advance the draft statement to a point where it could be socialised with the full group for its input.
Redrafts of each section began arriving by email and my task was to incorporate them into a revised document for further discussion. It was by now a very different statement but it possessed a quality I could never have given it – a sense of ownership among the small group members.
But by now the track changes on the document were more voluminous than the original text. On the substantive policy issues a reasonable level of agreement was evident, though some important differences in emphasis and priority remained. Fundamentally, it was agreed that Australia had an economic problem trying to make the transition from the end of the mining boom, that fairness could be achieved out of growth but not from a stagnating economy and that all options for achieving growth with equity must remain on the table.
Yet the hardest phase of the negotiations was to follow. The three members of the small group each sought forms of words that would protect them from sensationalist media reporting of the compromises they were contemplating. Since the two national newspapers, The Australian and the Financial Review, were backing the summit, the fear was mainly of adverse reporting by other news organisations. Incredibly, the young people who had been delegated authority to advance the text by the leaders of the three groups began assisting each other in crafting the requisite reassuring and qualifying statements to protect them from media attack.
This process consumed so much time that we probably did not give the wider group of summiteers sufficient time to consider the negotiated text and make their own changes. Understandably, this caused a degree of frustration within the wider group.
The day before the summit four key differences remained. At a full meeting of the summit group leaders these issues were satisfactorily resolved. We had come this far and no group wanted to pull out at the last moment. Now it was time to have the document ticked off. Last-minute amendments began pouring in, as people who had only seen the document for the first time wanted further changes. The 1.00pm deadline for the final agreed document having long passed, I telephoned Jennifer Westacott’s chief of staff, Matt Garbutt, at 4.00pm with seven more changes, having already rejected as too late two changes sought by the BCA itself. The track change function on my laptop failed and by this time Matt had left the BCA’s Melbourne office to buy a new shirt to wear at the summit. Matt asked what the changes were, I said I didn’t have them in front of me but had memorised them. Matt wanted the BCA’s changes accepted as a quid pro quo. I agreed, Matt approved the changes I sought, I typed them into the statement and pressed the send button. All evening I anxiously awaited frantic emails and phone calls from the summit groups about the last-minute changes I had inserted. None came. The statement was agreed.
On summit day the full group of summiteers met at the end of each session, agreeing on additions setting out further work based on the rich array of contributions from the floor, and proving there is more that unites Australians than divides us. As for those young men and women locked up in a room together for days – the ACTU’s Belinda Tkelcevic, Jacqui Phillips and Peter Davidson from ACOSS and the BCA’s Matt Garbutt in his new shirt – they demonstrated that love of country and their fellow citizens is far more important than political posturing. Bless them.
Craig Emerson was a convenor of the National Reform Summit.