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We hoped for better, Kevin

By Lyn Allison - posted Thursday, 1 May 2008


I hate to be a wet blanket on an event that captured the imagination of the country and did produce some good ideas but not a lot turned out to be new in this highly massaged summit. In fact the most preferred idea from the Water subset of the Sustainability stream was “just get on and do it”. We agreed that there were few ideas not already covered in the myriad of current, but yet to be implemented, government strategies.

But we were not there to criticise government. Vox popped participants told us on the big screen how optimistic and excited they were to be helping Kevin find the way - they were the fresh air that came into the dusty halls of parliament. They roamed more or less freely in the corridors of power and into the committee room heart of parliamentary inquiry.

All that inquiry and its hundreds of reports and their earnestly gathered recommendations were put aside to come up with a new set of ideas in a couple of hours.

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Lengthy plenaries with inspiring speeches, warm chats on stage with participants, Hugh Jackman on the roaming mike finding more warmth in the audience and morning teas and lunches in the members’ hall left little time for putting the big thinking to the test in the workshops or the challenge of getting it down on paper.

It must have been exhilarating to sit around a table with people like former Premier Steve Bracks and Governor of Victoria, Professor David de Kretzner whose summiteer badges bore no fancy titles, and to know they too ate with a lunchbox on their knee and were bossed about like everyone else.

There were rules like: no targets, no dollars and “could” would be used rather than “must” or “should” as this was the style adopted by the Summit “Centre”. Hence “We could implement a set of national environmental accounts, including carbon and water accounts, to inform government, business and community decision-making. These could be linked …” We could have a “… national population policy and an immigration program that works truly in the national interest and that is a model for the world” but like the other “coulds” there was no time to consider how to do it.

There was a strict format starting with ambitions and priority themes and ending with the top ideas.

The ambition to dramatically decrease our ecological footprint while continuing to grow our economy and improve our quality of life got up despite Barry Jones’ observation that this was like saying we could grow fatter while getting to be thin.

Disagreements about sustainability were resolved by dropping all the ideas that were objectionable to business because the rule was consensus, not voting. So when the coal lobby objected to the proposal that no new coal fired power stations be built until CCS (carbon capture and storage) was commercially available, proven safe and efficient, and objected to any mention of renewable energy, they were relegated to the “disagreements” section.

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Clean energy - that euphemism for burning coal and the costly process of burying its pollution - went in and it became imperative for the proposed emissions trading system to “… drive a transition to clean energy technologies”. Neat, but an ominous sign that the coal fired power industry is winning its battle for special arrangements in the Emission Trading Scheme to keep them in business while they wait 15 years for their technologies to become competitive with wind and gas.

The Minister’s smart meters idea for water and electricity went in, like so many others already in government policy.

Some ideas went nowhere, like properly pricing water to fund the infrastructure that might be necessary to “… be a world leader in restoring all over-allocated river and groundwater systems to achieve sustainable food and fibre production and resilient communities”.

Rainwater tanks were ruled out by our convenor as more energy intensive than desalination plants! Demand management measures were scoffed at because South East Queensland, it was declared, had reduced consumption by a third when they were told to.

Ideas metamorphosed overnight. Our Water stream said government should buy up more water licenses which turned into: “We could expand the use of a wider range of market mechanisms to acquire water entitlements from over-allocated systems …”

The biggest water idea was to involve Indigenous communities in not making the same mistakes in the now wetter far north that have been made elsewhere. It became “Australia will also have become a global leader in tropical water system conservation and sustainability.”

The Rural stream was more frank and said “Water security can be enhanced by … greater use of high rainfall areas of the north of Australia” and called on the Federal Government to “… commission a total soil and hydrological survey of north and north-west Australia by 2010 to inform future production opportunities”.

Ideas got condensed into what we once called mission statements, like having a “dynamic, innovative and climate resilient water system” but turned out to be code for new and privatised sources of water like desalination.

I wish I could be a more enthusiastic summiteer, but putting 1,000 “brainy” people into the workshop mill did not produce much more than laudable vision statements and ideas that have been around for years.

I worry that 2020 has let the government off the hook. Nothing here seriously challenged the election promises, like the $31 billion in inflationary tax cuts or other ill-considered initiatives, common to both major parties. The ideas that were in any way concrete did not add up to the expectations of a laudable vision and indeed they tended to be even less ambitious than current policy and more in keeping with the former government’s conservative agenda.

“Supporting kids by funding students according to need and encouraging more private investment” and the “Learning for life account” sound to me like pushing more kids out of government schools and a voucher system that even the Howard Government baulked at. Focusing on the connections between “quality teaching and productivity” is surely just more testing and performance pay. “One curriculum” is straight from Julie Bishop’s agenda as is imagining this would free up funds for children in schools.

Ensuring all primary school kids have fresh fruit at least once a week is surely not enough to keep them healthy and it’s hard to see how working with industry would deliver fresh food to Indigenous communities. The government, like the last, has ruled out food labelling and banning junk food advertising to children, and regulating allowable content of unhealthy ingredients would be a minefield. The bionic eye turns out to be not a new idea at all and I frankly hope I never have to rely for first aid on kids trained by volunteers in emergencies like the Bali bombings.

Private philanthropic flows to Indigenous organisations and private school scholarships and health and education compacts for Aboriginal kids also sound very “Coalition”.

We hoped for better than this, Kevin. Go back to the drawing board and to the serious work that has been done by summiteers in their day jobs and by your colleagues in the Parliament and by the many worthy organisations, groups and individuals that put up good, considered public policy.

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About the Author

Lyn Allison is a patron of the Peace Organisation of Australia and was leader of the Australian Democrats from 2004 to 2008.

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