The Best Yakfest and Hullabuloo in Town.
29 April 2008
John Ralston Saul, in his The Unconscious Civilization, writes of the great value of town hall meetings, discussion and exploration of political matters, and vigorous conversations among citizens in maintaining a vibrant democracy. The seemingly inefficient chattering and reassessing that goes on in conversations contrast with the corporate drive that excludes debate in its quest for technical resolution and fast forward profitable movement. If you want to keep a democracy, keep talking, Saul argues.
The 2020 Summit was the culmination of many town hall meetings - 500 school meetings and thousands of on line conversations, a Youth Summit and a Jewish Summit - and was full of chatter. It fitted with Garrison Keillor's description of poetry (as opposed to managerial prose) as:
being on the side of exhilaration and the stupendous vision, the sight of the stars through the barred window, the perfection of small birds, the democracy of their chattering language and of our own yakfest and hullabaloo.
The media coverage of the Summit has been vintage colour-me-cynical Australian-beige. Virtually none has addressed the Summit as instrument of democratic life. Instead, the dull uniformity of articles and clips asserting that no good thing can come from the Summit has been depressing. That we have a prime minister capable of scholarly reflection and grasp, at ease discussing ideas rather than sending them off-shore to an island quarantine station, has largely escaped their attention. Only a fragment of the Summit material has thus far been published and it will be weeks before it all becomes available, but most media have already closed the books.
The single most interesting idea (in the Health Strategy Stream) for me related to prevention. I learned from the CEO of Woolworths, Michael Luscombe, that Coke Zero and Diet Coke cost one third less to produce than sugar laden Coke. An interesting possibility exists for a conversation with Amatil, formerly of tobacco fame and that now runs Coca Cola, for preferential pricing for the less health damaging Zero.
This, we agreed, was the kind of conversation that the prime minister could lead with benefit with major urban developers, food manufacturers and retailers in pursuit of making it easier for people to choose goods that do no screw up their health. He could convene such a meeting as a follow-up to the Summit, in the spirit of the Summit. Seated around the table the CEOs of companies that build our cities, design our parks and cycle ways, determine the style of new buildings, decide upon the walkability of a new suburbs, choose what food will be retailed, advertise it, run our commercial gyms and more, the PM could say "Ladies and Gentlemen: we have a problem and its called obesity. What are we going to do about it?" Small changes by CEOs ripple into waves - slowly reducing salt, fat and sugar in processed foods, designing mandatory park space so that people use it rather than avoid it, developing coherent walkability plans for cities and so forth could all be done at low cost through the combination of commercial, community and political will. Such a forum was recommended.
Fears that the Summit attendees would be a 'white bread' congregation were allayed by the diversity of those present. Parliament House felt less like the headquarters of a major accounting and management consulting corporation. Instead, its major assembly point was more like the packed, grand entrance to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, milling with enthusiastic patrons on a winter Sunday afternoon. It felt like the Sydney Olympics, with volunteer ushers, scribes, and facilitators, crowds, chatter, laughter, youthfulness, optimism and anticipation, and a touch of tinsel. I felt pleased to be alive and delighted to be there.
Professor Stephen R. Leeder is the Director of The Australian Health Policy Institute and Co-Director of The Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the University of Sydney.
Contact: Andrew Potter
Phone: 02 9351 4514