2020 summit reinforces neoliberal agenda

April 26, 2008

The 2020 summit was two days of political theatre for the new Rudd government. For 48 hours over April 19-20, film stars brushed white-board markers with Australia's richest, and politicians mixed with Indigenous people, unionists and youth delegates.

The establishment media portrayed the talkfest as a focus on the "big ideas": a republic by 2020, a treaty (although called something else) with Indigenous Australians and a bill of rights. Scholarships for artists, more "open government" and PM Kevin Rudd's proposal for "one-stop shops" for mums and bubs, all got a mention.

Parallels have been drawn to the "consensus" politics of Bob Hawke, or the "vision" of Paul Keating. The narrow conservatism of the Howard era has, apparently, been overthrown — at least according to Mark Bahnisch in the online magazine NewMatilda.com.

"One of the most interesting things about the Australia 2020 Summit has been its accentuation of a trend that was already evident: a shift in focus to long term issues and their possible solutions, which I suspect will be one of the enduring contributions of the Rudd government", gushed Bahnisch on April 23.

Tax 'reform'

The reality of the 2020 gabfest was something different. While it may well have been attended by a lot of people with good ideas, their's weren't the ones Rudd immediately started to push.

A day after the summit hoop-la, Rudd's main focus was on tax "reform". "I think it's time we looked at a root and branch reform of the Australian taxation system", Rudd told the ABC's 7.30 Report on April 21.

What Rudd means by "root and branch reform" was made clearer in the April 22 Sydney Morning Herald. It referred to "senior business figures" who attended the economy stream of the summit as saying Rudd had agreed the business tax rate (currently 30% after having been reduced from 50% by successive Labor and Coalition governments since 1983) was too high.

Calls were made from the same 2020 stream to eliminate state business taxes, including payroll tax. The only tax alternatives raised at the summit were consumption taxes, which are paid disproportionately by the poor who spend the largest portion of their income buying basic necessities.

Another "proposal" being given greater prominence is performance pay for teachers — a device designed to pit teacher against teacher in the work force and break down workplace solidarity. And under the guise of extending educational opportunities, the summit also agreed to recommend the extension of the Higher Education Contribution Scheme — an unfair and regressive user-pays system to all tertiary courses including TAFE.

The final summit plenary also argued for sponsorship of schools by the biggest 100 companies (will you have fries with that textbook?) and the idea that students who engage in community-service work be "rewarded" by a reduction in their HECS debt.

Coal industry

In Sydney Morning Herald polls before the summit, the largest number (37%) felt that the environmental crisis should be the number one issue discussed. Yet it was the environment stream — stacked with representatives from the fossil-fuel industry — that made the fewest concrete recommendations. For summit delegate Anna Rose, from the Australian Youth Climate Change Coalition, "the coal industry hijacked climate change discussions at 2020\".

According to Rose in an April 21 NewMatlida.com article, "it became clear at the start of the Summit that members of the coal industry and their 'business as usual' allies had pre-determined their position and approach — and it was one that aggressively pushed so-called 'clean coal' and argued for more subsidies to the coal industry for them to build clean coal plants.

"At one point a delegate argued against reducing Australia's carbon footprint (ostensibly because we have a 'special place in the world' and could provide energy for the rest of the world. I was unsure why we couldn't still do this while reducing our emissions if we move to renewables)."

Delegates who formed the climate change sub-group of the environmental stream (which reportedly did not include any representative of environmental organisations), could not agree to a recommendation against the opening of new coal-fired power stations, let alone to targets for reducing carbon emissions.

Where summiteers attempted to advance a moratorium on new coal-fired power stations, the inherent pro-business bias of the summit scuttled debate. In the end, the most that could be agreed on was the bland statement that, "Australia faces an unprecedented challenge from climate change".

Other recommendations for reforms included regressive taxes. So, homelessness could be tackled by imposing a tax on the sale of houses — further increasing already inflated prices and exacerbating housing stress. A proposal for a national preventative health agency would be funded by an extra consumption tax on tobacco, alcohol and "junk food" — falling hardest on those least able to pay.

Indigenous rights

The 100 delegates of the Indigenous stream were divided according to the April 21 Australian. While 80 of the participants looked for a means to entrench Indigenous people's rights, in the form of a treaty, or constitutional provision, others wanted the emphasis to be more on "practical reconciliation".

Noel Pearson from the Cape York Land Council and Sue Gordon, head of the "intervention" into Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, talked up the need to develop Indigenous business acumen. Gordon told the Australian that she felt that the "rights agenda" had "highjacked" the Indigenous stream.

Indigenous affairs minister Jenny Macklin talked down the idea of an Indigenous treaty much to the chagrin of many Indigenous leaders present.

Bill Moss, a former executive of Macquarie Bank, argued that the only means to develop remote Indigenous communities was by granting tax incentives to big business to invest in those communities, according to the April 21 Australian. There is some irony in such a call given that conservative commentators, including those in the Australian, say the problems in Indigenous communities stem from "government handouts".

The summit allowed some well-w0rn ideas, such as a constitutional bill of rights, out of the cupboard, briefly. However, the governance stream couldn't agree as on whether Australia should adopt a formal constitutional bill, which would require a referendum, or simply a raft of legislative guarantees (which could just as easily be abolished by a future government).

There were suggestions about "open government" and the need to strengthen freedom of information legislation. But the government has yet to agree to any such reforms.

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