Mungo MacCallum- Political Corrections

A summit for every occasion

As Kevin Rudds intrepid summiteers prepare to leave their respective base camps and begin the perilous ascent to Canberra, there are still lesser beings asking just why they are attempting the climb and who will not accept the traditional response: Because it is there.

From the start the project has had its critics. First it was the personnel: not enough women, too many celebrities, a politically-inspired line-up of the usual suspects. A more sophisticated version of this complaint noted the presence of all the major media magnates in important roles: was this perhaps a sinister move designed to deny dissenters a platform? If so, it failed miserably; most of the advance publicity for the summit has in fact been negative.

But while at least some of it can be put down to sour grapes from those who missed out on an invitation, there are some genuine doubts which need to be addressed. One is that the guidelines issued to the various panels appear to be fairly limited: the government obviously has its own ideas about what should be on the agenda and what should not.

Some have cried censorship, but it can also be explained as simple pragmatism: there is not much point in the summiteers preparing extensive reports on things that have already been ruled out. Those who believe it would be a good idea to commit Australia to a nuclear power grid, or to get rid of unfair dismissal laws, or to invade Iraq, clearly need to find another forum. There is still plenty of scope for off-the-wall ideas, and given that it is statistically inevitable that any selection of one thousand Australians will contain a few fruit loops, we should be prepared for them.

But there remains the wider question of whether the summit will result in anything more than a warm inner glow among the participants. It will, of course, be up to the government to decide what, if anything, to do with the recommendations that emerge and in this respect the record of governments is not reassuring. There is a real fear that the summit is no more than window-dressing, with the governments actual course already set.

And there is the opposite suspicion that the government does not actually have a course, and that the summit is a substitute for action. This last does not worry me much. I am old enough to remember the Cold War years, and the regular summits that took place between the so-called big four the United States, the Soviet Union and the bit players, Great Britain and France. These were indeed substitutes for action: but since that action involved blowing the human race off the face of the earth, we found them quite acceptable.

I am not suggesting that Kevin Rudd has any similar ambition. But if a summit does no more than remind his government of the dangers of pursuing policies without regard to the consequences, it will have been worth the money.

The rehabilitation of John Winston Howard has begun. His long time conservative fan John Stone has pronounced him Australias greatest ever prime minister, a claim hotly disputed by the heirs of Sir Robert Menzies and simply derided by almost everyone else.

But even some of Howards most stringent critics have started to suggest that perhaps the Howard years were not quite as bad as they seemed at the time. And they are right. They were in fact much, much worse.

Even to his worst enemy (me) Howard appeared to have one saving grace: he did not seriously mismanage the economy. True, there were worrying signs: the huge blow-out in the current account deficit was always a potential problem, the balance of trade figures were failing to reflect the commodities boom and productivity across the board was slowing. But by and large the old mantra applied: the economy was basically sound.

True, the boom was being squandered: instead of serious reform of infrastructure and the tax system the ongoing bonanza was blown on short term electoral advantage: tax cuts for the rich, welfare hand-outs for the middle class and pork-barrelling for the marginal electorates. But until the very end, there was no real warning that it was unaffordable. After all, the budget was still running at a large surplus, invariably much larger than the treasury prediction. Surely the lucky country would muddle through.

It was only in Howards last term indeed, in his last year that the bills for his governments profligacy and self-indulgence came in. The inflation dragon, tamed with such pain during Paul Keatings recession, was stirring again. As a result interest rates were on the up and up. The level of household debt which Howards complaisant policies had done so much to encourage was becoming unmanageable. And even then, as a final piece of nose-thumbing, Howard went into what he had announced would be his last election with a promise of gigantic, unprecedented government spending, which could only have turned the looming blow-out into a full-scale nightmare. So much for our economic manager.

Howard is now being duchessed by the increasingly irrelevant neo-conservatives of America, who are showering him with compliments, awards and well-paid speaking engagements. Yes, those wonderful folk who brought you the war in Iraq and the domestic recession now present John Winston Howard!!!! By those standards, our former Dear Leader is only a minor disaster. But it should not be forgotten nor forgiven that back in Australia he was the full catastrophe.

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