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Crawford Providing Australian Policy Leadership

Published in Australian Financial Review, 20 June 2016

About the only thing that has made this mercilessly protracted election campaign bearable is that some significant policy differences, not least on tax and spending, have been debated, mainly a result of Labor – rather courageously, but so far reasonably effectively – abandoning the "small target" approach which failed to carry it over the line in a similarly tight contest in 1998.

But as the campaigns have ground on, with both sides now focusing most attention on scrambling for key marginals rather than any very serious national story-telling, politics as usual has largely resumed. A new road or hospital here, a faster NBN connection or relocated public servants there, an expensive research project targeted somewhere else. Big public policy themes get lost in a welter of disaggregated appeals to sectional self-interest.

That's probably life in election campaigning. But all too often in recent years it has been life in government as well, with policy being shaped – whoever has been in power – more by slogans than substance, and more by transient enthusiasms, knee-jerk reactions and survival deals than systematic prioritising against carefully defined national interest benchmarks.

That is why it is so tremendously important that, somewhere in the Australian system, there be serious and systematic attention to putting good policy back together again. That means, more than anything else, creating a common mindset among all the key players in the national policy debate about what are the current global economic, geostrategic and environmental realities; what domestic policy choices those realities demand; and what solutions should be embraced in the national interest, party orthodoxies notwithstanding. This may not be sufficient condition for quality policymaking but all past experience suggests it's necessary.

National summits bringing together key stakeholders – of the kind very successfully mounted in the early days of the Hawke government, but not very often since – are one way of helping creating that necessary common mindset. Another is to do what the Australian National University is now doing with the Crawford Australian Leadership Forum, which commenced its third annual session in Canberra last night.

Organised in partnership with the Business Council of Australia (which may or may not help to persuade the sceptics that this particular nest of left-wing university vipers is committed to finding common ground) the forum brings together, on an invitation-only basis, 150 of Australia's top leaders – 50 each from three groups who frequently pay lip-service to the idea of greater interaction but too often forget to get around to it: business, the public sector, and the research and advocacy community.

The timing of this year's forum could hardly be more relevant – the Australian election, the beginning of a US presidential campaign unlike any we have seen before in the United States, the stresses placed on the European project from Brexit and refugees, intractable divisions in the Middle East, and growing strategic tensions in Asia associated with China's rise. Beijing's actions in the South China Sea are testing the unity of ASEAN, which has been so central to the management of conflict in our region. And an enormous amount is hanging, both regionally and globally, on how well Chinese leaders, facing the most difficult economic decisions of the post-Deng era, manage the necessary shift towards domestic consumption and services. The implications of all these developments for Australian policymakers will be on the table.

Under our overarching theme of "Global Realities – Domestic Choices", the forum will also address the impact on us of a global geopolitical system under strain from the transformative influence of non-state actors ranging from ISIS to Silicon Valley; an economic system under strain from rising inequality and the apparent inability to deliver of familiar economic levers such as monetary policy and a natural system under grievous strain in the seas and atmosphere.

Sir John Crawford was one of that remarkable group who helped transform Australia after World War II. The reason he had such an important influence on Australian public policy – and has had so much named after him at ANU – is that he moved so easily between the different worlds of economics, politics, security, agriculture, science, the environment and Asian studies. He understood the connections between the things that mattered to Australia as we tried to build a new world. And this is precisely what the Crawford Australian Leadership Forum continues to be all about.