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Opening the 2016 Crawford Australian Leadership Forum

Remarks by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC, Chancellor of The Australian National University to ANU Crawford Australian Leadership Forum, ANZ Opening Gala Dinner, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 19 June 2016


Welcome everyone, on behalf of Australia’s national university, to this third Crawford Australian Leadership Forum and to tonight’s ANZ Opening Gala Dinner.

Let me begin by acknowledging and celebrating the First Australians on whose traditional lands we meet, and paying our respects to the elders of the Ngunnawal people past and present.

Welcome to our distinguished overseas guests – from Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing, Japan, Korea and the United States – who do so much to inform and enliven our discussion.

Welcome to our distinguished homegrown panelists and chairs who will be leading our discussions – and in particular Vice-Chancellor Brian Schmidt, giving tonight’s opening keynote on the theme “Preparing for a Future Not Yet Imagined”.

Welcome to all our other invited participants – leaders all of you from across the business, public sector, and research and advocacy communities. We know you are for the most part much more used to sitting in the arena than the bleachers on these occasions – and this is exactly how we want you to engage, actively and noisily, in this Forum.

Welcome, especially to the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Financial Review who once again are our extremely engaged collaborative partners in this enterprise – whose engagement will I hope also persuade any remaining sceptics that this particular nest of left-wing university vipers of ours at ANU really is committed to finding common ground on the great policy issues with which Australia is wrestling.

And welcome to our extraordinarily generous and committed cast of sponsors: our Diamond Partner ANZ, which is hosting tonight’s Gala and whose CEO Shayne Elliot will be speaking to us later; our Platinum Partners General Electric, Virgin Australia, and CISCO - which has performed some heroic feats in ensuring that we will still be able to engage with our injured originally-announced keynote speaker Bob Zoellick by videolink at our plenary sessions tomorrow and Tuesday, and our Gold Partners PWC and Corrs Chambers Westgarth. Without all of you we simply not be able to mount this Foru – or not without charging Davos-type registration fees! – and we are hugely grateful to you all.

And a final welcome to those who have been working behind the scenes with me over many months to make this Forum come together – above all Forum Director Allan Gyngell, with his indefatigable sidekick Sung Lee – and our Convening Group colleagues the Vice-Chancellor, Jennifer Westacott from the Business Council, Greg Hywood and Michael Stutchbury from the Financial Review, Graeme Samuel, Glenys Beauchamp from the Public Service, Veronica Taylor, and Acting Director of the Crawford School of Public Policy Bob Breunig.

I won’t keep you long from dinner and conversation but let me make just a few scene-setting remarks, particularly for those who have not joined us before, about the concept and organisation of the Crawford Australian Leadership Forum.

The first premise on which we have operated is that there are very big policy issues out there – global realities demanding domestic policy choices - which deserve more and better attention than they have been getting from our leading policymakers: even, dare I say it, in the context of a very competitive national election campaign.

We need to be looking at 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 like monetary policy; and a natural, environmental system under grievous strain in the world’s seas and atmosphere.

Our policymakers need to be sharply focusing on the implications for all of us of a US presidential campaign and possible outcome unlike any we have seen before; the stresses placed on the European project from Brexit and refugees; intractable divisions in the Middle East; and of course all the 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.

But how many of these issues – all of which will be addressed in different sessions of this Forum – have received more than, at best, even passing attention in this election campaign? While Bill Shorten deserves some credit for not just adopting the “small target” approach of some of his predecessors but leading with his chin on some major – especially tax – policy issues, as this mercilessly protracted campaigning has ground on, politics as usual has largely resumed, with both sides now focusing most attention on scrambling for key marginals rather than any very serious national story-telling.

A new road or hospital or rail project 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, and I’m not sure that Labor’s campaign speech today has altered that, any more than will the Coalition’s absurdly-named “launch” next week.

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.

I don't want to underestimate the difficulties of making good policy in this second decade of the 21st century. My political generation – the Hawke-Keating Government did by common acclaim do a pretty good job in adjusting the Australian economy and societies to the reality of an unprecedentedly globalizing world – but current governments have to wrestle with the even greater challenges of an almost unbelievably rapidly digitalizing world, and doing so in an environment where thoughtful, measured policymaking is made incredibly difficult by the crazy demands of social media and a 24/7 media cycle demanding instant gratification.

This 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 – an elite mindset if you like, although some won’t like that phrase – about what are the current global realities; what domestic policy choices these 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.

And this is where ANU and CALF come in. Every great university has another string to its bow in addition to outstanding teaching and outstanding research – and the Australian National University’s obvious value added here (and I suspect Brian Schmidt might say a little more about this later) is the contribution we make to the national public policy debate.

This is very much a whole of University enterprise, but the Crawford School of Public Policy is at the heart of that enterprise, and the focal point for most of the policy-related teaching, research and outreach that the university delivers. And thus it was that we conceived of the idea of bringing together, through the Crawford School, on an invitation-only basis, a cross-section of the country’s leading policy movers and shakers, not in every area of the country’s life, but in three particularly important ones – the business community, the public sector and national politicians, and the research and advocacy community (policy-focused academics from ANU elsewhere and leaders of the nation’s main think tanks and advocacy NGOs).

The ideas is that with this exalted cast we get a serious debate going across at least a cross-section of serious policy issues – and come away not only better informed but with a better idea of how policy consensus might be found, and how it might be delivered.

It is crucial in this context that all our Forum sessions – both concurrent and plenary – be genuinely interactive and not just follow the traditional conference format of panelists taking up large chunks of time in their initial presentations, with short formal Q&As following. We want all speakers to keep their opening remarks short and tight, with all chairs then ensuring that an engaged conversation then follows – not only back and forth with the panel but around the room, with hopefully a ‘two arms’ up rule applying (like the old two finger rule with which we are all familiar in roundtables) to ensure that anyone who wants to respond immediately to something just said, not only by a panelist but another participant from the floor, has a chance of being noticed.

The physical environment of the Crawford School will I hope again help this happen. We have deliberately set a ceiling on our numbers – of 50 participants in each category - and the concurrent sessions will take place in small horseshoe shaped theatres seating only up to 70 or so, and designed for interaction.

And even the Molonglo theatre, with its 200 capacity, is reasonably well designed for genuine interchange. That’s anyway what we are going to be trying to do over the next two days. Whether we succeed is going to be very much up to all of you. But I do hope that by the time we wrap up there will be a buzz in the air –a sense that although there are huge problems out there we have in this community the brains, creativity and energy to tackle them, and as a result of our discussion a clearer-eyed sense of the way forward on at least a few of them than we had when we came in.

Thank you all again for joining us, have a fantastically stimulating next two days, and enjoy the rest of the evening.