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James Riley

Question: What is a ‘National Reform Summ’? Answer: It’s a ‘National Reform Summit’ without IT!

Both the AFR and The Australian have announced that they are supporting the National Reform Summit that has been proposed by Dr Craig Emerson with support of the Menzies Research Centre’s Nick Cater.

The event, scheduled for 26 August in Sydney at the offices of KPMG, has been described by the Oz as “an unprecedented gathering of business, union, community and policy leaders next month will chart a consensus approach­ to tackling the major issues facing the national economy and federal budget,” and by the AFR as “Australia’s top business, union and social services leaders have decided to meet next month for a national reform summit that will try to end the political paralysis that had seized up policy, demoralised the business community and hit consumer confidence.”

There aren’t a lot of details, except that the cast of characters will be the usual suspects from the BCA, AIG, ACTU, ACOSS, COTA and National Seniors. We are also told that “some of the nation’s leading researchers and policy experts” are preparing papers for the summit – and these include the Grattan Institute, the Menzies Research Centre, the Chifley Research Centre, the McKell Institute, the Centre for Independent Studies and the Melbourne Economic Forum.

However, on almost all the items the summit will consider there are existing review processes recently completed (the 2014 PC Inquiry on Public Infrastructure, the Productivity Commission research Paper on Superannuation Policy for Post-Retirement, the Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda, the Financial Systems Inquiry and the Competition Policy Review) or on foot (the Tax Reform and Federation White Papers and the Productivity Commission inquiry into the Workplace Relations Framework).

The idea of a national summit to address what the AFR’s Michael Stutchbury asserts is the political system’s failure to recognise that “Australia’s enviable modern prosperity is now at risk from the end of the resources boom, falling export prices, entrenched budget deficits, a high cost structure and sluggish productivity growth,” may be worthwhile.

Stutchbury, yearning for “a consensus around the policy responses required to deal with it” claims “leadership now needs to come from the national media, business, union and community groups.”

Yet these are all the voices that are already well represented in national debate. They have so many opportunities to provide leadership that their failure to do so is like a champion golfer failing to sink a five centimetre put.

“Consensus” is missing because none of these urgers seem to have read Fisher and Ury’s Getting to Yes; they exclusively negotiate from a position not principles.

What we seem to be being offered are representatives of the old economy discussing four issues; fiscal sustainability, tax reform, productivity and workplace participation and retirement incomes. No one mentioned so far as participating represents the transformation that is best described as the Digital Economy. There is no one mentioned representing the importance of digital disruption or of start-ups. “Innovation” is listed as just one of six issues in the productivity strand without recognising that innovation, by definition, is the only means to raise multi-factor productivity.

The idea of the summit, we are told by the AFR, has been inspired in part by Bob Hawke’s National Economic Summit in 1983. A vast difference between then and now is that that summit was convened when the nation actually was in recession, and the Government convening the summit had some constructive proposals around which it was seeking consensus. That is not the case with this summit.

This summit is more like the Australia 2020 Summit convened by Prime Minister Rudd, albeit with a more manageable agenda and attendance list. But at least that included a commitment to respond to all the ideas (and a most impressive 262 page document it remains). At least in its formation that summit said it would address the Digital Economy as one of the ten committees was labelled “Economic infrastructure, the digital economy and the future of our cities.” However it was only when the personnel were announced that it was discovered that this committee was no more.

At least the Rudd and Gillard Governments addressed the issues in the National Digital Economy Strategy.

Summiteering seems to be flavour of the month, as Internet Australia has just announced plans for a Digital Future Forum to be convened later this year.

I’m sure all Australians would hope that there might be some productive outcome from the National Reform Summit. But if all that happens is a group of old economy types sit around to discuss exactly how much further neoliberal politics and neoclassical economics should be deployed in not solving anything, then it will just add to the growing folder of irrelevant thoughts.

Photo credit: World Trade Organisation via http://bit.ly/1CzZ1Nj  

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