Gareth Evans: The global 'crockery-breaking' spree is challenging all policymakers, including ours

By The Mandarin

June 28, 2019

Picture: Getty Images

Below is an extract (picked up post-introductions, acknowledgements and welcomes) of Gareth Evans’ opening remarks to the ANU Crawford Leadership Forum during the Opening Gala Dinner held at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, on 23 June 2019.

The premise on which we continue to operate, as we have from the beginning, is that there are very big policy issues out there – global realities demanding domestic policy choices – which deserve better quality attention than they have been getting from our leading policymakers, here in Australia as elsewhere.

The rapidity of change in the global geopolitical environment continues to be extraordinary, and many of those changes (some of which I will be exploring in the opening conversation this evening with Kelly Magsamen, Zhu Feng and Gideon Rachman) have been disconcerting on multiple fronts.

The biggest change of all has been the visible unravelling, that has been occurring with remarkable speed under the Trump administration (though not without help from some others), of the whole post-Second World War global economic and security order – that open, rule-based system, supported by effective multilateral institutions, and arguably also a robust network of balancing security alliances, under which we and a great many other countries (including, I think Beijing would be prepared to acknowledge, China itself) have long survived and prospered.

It remains to be seen whether the crockery-breaking going on – in trade policy, in alliance relationships, in respect for international agreements and institutions – is a necessary prelude to a new era of global cooperation, with new economic and security arrangements ultimately better reflecting and balancing new global power realities, or whether rather we are in for a new age of not just competition but confrontation, with a real risk of deadly conflict along the way.

These uncertainties are creating huge challenges for policymakers here in Australia as elsewhere, as we wrestle with their implications not just for international but domestic policy — the domestic choices Australia faces in areas like growth, jobs, wages and energy, will be directly affected by these big global shifts.

Gareth Evans.

The underlying theme on which we have chosen to focus in this year’s forum is rebuilding trust in the institutions that govern our lives, both domestically and internationally – trust in politics, in the public sector, in business, in the media and in global institutions and norms. We all know instinctively that there is a huge repair job to be done on all these fronts, but there’s plenty of hard supporting evidence now available – in the most recent iteration, in 2018, of the World Values Survey – to which the Australian National University’s School of Politics and International Relations, and in particular Dr Jill Sheppard, is a major research contributor.

Australians actually are among the most trusting people in the world when it comes to each other. We were more likely than any other country surveyed to say that ‘most people can be trusted’. But the love runs out when we are asked about many of our major public institutions. We like our armed forces and universities, and trust the accuracy of our election results, but when it comes to political parties, the media, churches, unions, banks and big business generally, trust is low – and getting lower.

The numbers jump around as the spotlight shifts, with banks and churches more vulnerable in recent times, but the overall trend is downhill. Over the 37 years the World Values Survey has been running, trust in churches, for example, has dropped from 55.7 per cent to 31.4 per cent, and in major companies from 79.2 per cent to 36.3 per cent. But the most disconcerting declines in trust have been in those institutions critical to the quality of our democracy.

In 1981, trust in political parties was an already alarmingly low 16 per cent, but in 2018 it was a desolate 11 per cent. And whereas four decades ago 29 per cent of Australians had either a great deal or quite a lot of trust in the press, this has now fallen to 17 per cent. Most concerning of all is the loss of faith in the parliament itself. Over the same period trust in our nation’s legislature has halved from 56 per cent to 28 per cent. This should give us all reason to pause and reflect. Obstructing every measure put forward by the government may be a path to victory for an opposition. But it may turn into a pyrrhic victory if faith in the parliament itself continues to fall.

Australia is not an outrider in all of this, particularly in declining support for the major political parties – our compulsory and preferential voting systems making this less obvious here than elsewhere in final outcomes, but it is starkly evident in primary votes cast. Ever since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 challenged the prevailing liberal political and economic orthodoxy there has been a shift worldwide towards illiberal politics and populism. Donald Trump is simply an extreme example of a global trend, evident as well in countries as diverse as Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary and Italy, not to mention – as Gideon Rachman will no doubt unhappily confirm – in the mother-home of all our parliaments.

“It remains to be seen whether the crockery-breaking going on – in trade policy, in alliance relationships, in respect for international agreements and institutions – is a necessary prelude to a new era of global cooperation… but these uncertainties are creating huge challenges for policymakers here in Australia as elsewhere.”

But it would be wrong-headed to blame the voters for the declining trust in politics. Painful though it sometimes is to admit – as it certainly was for some of us last election night – there is real truth in the old Australian Labor Party mantra that ‘the mob always gets it right’. In a democracy the voters are the ultimate arbiters. Those who don’t like a particular result have no alternative but to examine the quality of their analysis and advocacy. And it’s not just our political parties but all the other institutions who are facing seriously low and declining levels of trust who need some similar introspection.

This year’s Forum is expressly designed to help stimulate that process, and will be as good an opportunity as we will have for some time to address the malaise so obviously afflicting so much policymaking, and so obviously contributing to the decline of trust in so many of our public institutions.

The Crawford Leadership Forum, now in its sixth year, is the Australian National University’s showcase annual public policy event. The ANU was established in the immediate Post-War years with a strong mandate to contribute intellectually to the development of good national public policy, and we continue to take that responsibility very seriously.

The distinctive contribution that this Forum makes is to bring together each year, through the focal point of our Crawford School of Public Policy, 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 – with no more than around 50 participants from each sector, to keep the scale of the whole event reasonably intimate and interactive.

The idea is that with this exalted cast, and with the help of our international visitors, we get a serious debate going across at least a cross-section of serious current 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.

We are very concerned, as always, to ensure that throughout this enterprise there is genuine interchange between everyone attending, and that other participants feel just as involved as the panelists. It is crucial in this context that all our Forum sessions – both concurrent and plenary, as well the smaller breakfast sessions and more intimate lunches on Tuesday – 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 & A sessions following.

The task of the chairs and panelists is to initiate discussion, not to dominate it. So we’ll have, I hope and pray, from the chairs, no long soliloquies by way of introduction or summary; from the panelists, no big set piece speeches, just short opening statements; and then, as soon as possible, from the other participants, contributions which – while moderated by the chair – riccochet dynamically around the room, with points being answered as they arise, rather than being confined strictly to back-and-forth exchanges with the opening speakers.

Whether we succeed in our aspirations for this Forum, both in terms of process and substance, 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 as a result of our discussion , in relation to all the issues and problems we are addressing, a clearer-eyed sense of the way forward on at least a few of them than we had when we arrived.

Thank you all.



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