A thousand people from the ranks of Australia’s “best and brightest” gathered in Canberra on the weekend and talked. And talked. And talked. 

And, at the end of it, the Government was given a list of “big ideas” which included everything from creating a ‘community corps’ to allow university students to reduce their HECS debts through voluntary work to developing a bionic eye, holding a comprehensive review of tax laws and becoming a republic.

THINKTANK: Tim Costello at the 2020 Summit on Saturday . PICTURES: Courtesy of the Australian Government, Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet.

“I think the challenge now will be for the Government to examine these ideas and turn them into concrete actions."

- Tim Costello

As the dust from the summit settles, the inevitable criticism has come - some delegates voice complaints about not having their ideas heard while senior Liberal figures dismiss the event as a stage-managed ‘Festival of Kevin’. Others, however, are united in seeing the experience as a worthwhile undertaking, not only for those who were at the summit but for the nation.

World Vision Australia boss Tim Costello, who co-chaired discussions focusing on ‘Strengthening Communities, Supporting Families and Social Inclusion’, says that while “time constraints made it an intense experience”, the enthusiasm for the task at hand was “invigorating”. 

“At the start of the summit, I said we had to strive to go beyond parochialism and self-interest and to work together to seek ideas that would bring about widespread change. I really think people tried to do that.”

He said the big ideas from the stream included the idea of creating community hubs in postcodes where health and educational opportunities were lacking and where addiction was manifest as well as the idea of a national development index which would indicate how - in a social, economic and environmental sense - the country was performing.

“I think the challenge now will be for the Government to examine these ideas and turn them into concrete actions,” he says. “(Prime Minister) Kevin Rudd has said he will respond by Christmas time, and I’m confident that will be the case.”

A number of other prominent Christian leaders also took part in the summit, many of them in the same stream.

Archbishop Philip Wilson, president of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, describes his experience as a participant as a humbling one.

“It was humbling because everything came with their one big idea,” he says. “The process meant all these big ideas had to be moulded and shaped by other people’s ideas...Many participants were aware of the cynicism around the exercise, and were determined to come up with real ideas to put into practice.”

Archbishop Wilson was involved in a group which came up with the idea of establishing a national system to provide micro-credit to people who are largely excluded from mainstream financial services to help them achieve home ownership - a practice, he notes, which already operates in countries like Bangladesh.

Rev Keith Garner, superintendent and CEO of Sydney’s Wesley Mission, was also involved in the strengthening communities stream. He describes discussions as “exciting and exhausting” and says many of the issues raised in the stream - such as the challenges faced by the not-for-profit sector, homelessness and the plight of the disadvantaged - “were close to the heart of Wesley Mission”.

“Governments, organisations like Wesley Mission and businesses now need to work together to build an Australia of which we can all be proud, he says. “By 2020, I hope and pray that Australia will be known for the strength of its community, as well as the strength of its economy.”

Lin Hatfield Dodds, president of the Australian Council of Social Service and national director of UnitingCare Australia - the community service arm of the Uniting Church in Australia, says the most exciting aspect of the summit was the “very clear signalling from government that ideas matter, and that they are open to listening”.

Ms Hatfield Dodds, who also took part in the Families, Communities and Social Inclusion stream, says she was delighted the recommendation for the development of a national action plan for social inclusion was adopted as well as that of the establishment of a National Development Index.

She reiterates a point made at the summit that “there is no ‘one good idea’  or silver bullet that will combat poverty and increase social cohesion, but that a raft of integrated ideas needed to be delivered on to adequately address the range and complexity of the issues we face”. 

“This is why I am delighted that the structural enablers of an action plan and a development index got up as they will provide the umbrella processes and structures by which communities can work with government to capture and resource the ideas that will make a difference to Australian’s and Australian communities.”

Hal Bisset, a Victorian-based social policy consultant who worked as a volunteer in helping to facilitate the strengthening communities and social inclusion stream, says the summit was a ‘significant moment’ both for those who were there and for the nation as a whole.

Mr Bisset says that while it could be frustrating for those who didn’t get their ideas taken up, government representatives did make comprehensive notes of all the ideas presented.

“The transcription of the event is incredibly thorough; nobody’s views were lost even though they may may not have been represented in the short report that was released at the end,” he says.

“Every point of view was taken down and the government has undertaken to respond to everything. I’m sure they’ll scour it and they’ll look for the things they think they can use and will be good news for them and obviously the rest will go through to the keeper but they’ll given an explanation as I understand it.”