Our 2020 Summit was a great success

This article was first published in ‘The Australian’ on 12 February 2020

By Kevin Rudd

When I was a boy, I had the misfortune of contracting rheumatic fever. It was a dreadful experience, but it was survivable. For a few decades at least.

When I was 33, we learned the damage to my aortic valve meant that it had to be replaced or I would be pushing up daisies. So I benefited from the generosity of a perfect stranger — a fellow Australian who was an organ donor — who saved my life. Others haven’t been so lucky.

At 50, I was elected prime minister with a mandate to prepare Australia for the economic, social and environmental disruptions of the new century.

We were brimming with enthusiasm and had campaigned on a big canvas including: a mandatory renewable energy target of 20 per cent by 2020, abolishing Work Choices along with its Orwellian “Fair Pay Commission”, and bringing our troops home from the disastrous invasion of Iraq, from which the Gulf’s current turmoil springs.

But we weren’t so full of ourselves that we thought we knew everything. John Howard lost the 2007 election partly because his government had stopped listening and had run out of ideas. We were determined to do it differently. So we brought together a wide cross-section of the nation’s policy leaders and people from all walks of life to ask three questions: where is our nation today; where do we want to be in 2020; and how do we get there?

We invited people from across the political spectrum — left and right, business and unions, corporate and community groups — in a spirit of openness and collaboration not seen for years. We even invited Judith Sloan, one of Howard’s “Fair Pay Commissioners”. The delegates all paid their own way, keeping the cost to taxpayers minimal.

You can imagine this meeting of the minds wasn’t welcomed by everyone. The conservatives played politics as usual, labelling it a “talkfest” — as if opening your mind to new ideas was a bad thing. They couldn’t stop scoring partisan points for even a single weekend.

Sloan wrote on this page on Tuesday that there were no “tangible outcomes” from the summit beyond a tax review. As with many other things Sloan writes, this is inaccurate.

This brings me back to my aortic valve. When we came to power in 2007, rates of organ donation had plummeted. Where Australia had 14 organ donors per million people in 1988, this had collapsed to only nine per million. By comparison, Spain’s donor rate was 34 per million, the US had 27 per million, and France 23 per million.

How could this be? Australia was a world leader in transplant medicine and every study showed overwhelming public support for organ donation. In short, there was a vacuum of national leadership. Australians were suffering and dying because governments had closed their ears and shut their minds.

The 2020 summit was the circuit-breaker. We established DonateLife, the Organ and Tissue Authority, whose staff included medical experts, educators and grief counsellors to help make life easier for donors and their families. Donation levels have more than doubled since then, while the number of transplant recipients has almost doubled. That is countless lives saved or improved.

If this were everything the summit achieved, it should be regarded as a runaway success. But it wasn’t.

We established the Australian Civilian Corps, a rapid deployment force of 500 civilian experts with advanced skills in fields such as medicine, disaster relief, engineering and governance who respond to emergencies around our region. These brave Australians have now deployed to more than 15 countries, not only saving lives but also advancing our values.

Another initiative was ABC for Kids — now called ABC ME — a dedicated free-to-air channel that provides high-quality programs that educate Australian kids about their own society and their place in the world. This is ever more important as children are aggressively marketed to by commercial interests.

We also committed $60m to developing what will hopefully become one of Australia’s greatest inventions, the bionic eye. It may have seemed like a pipe dream back then, but now we have a working prototype that has restored some vision to a handful of blind volunteers.

The single biggest outcome was the National Disability Insurance Scheme, before which Australians with disabilities were locked into a cruel lottery that shut them out of the support they needed to live their lives to the full. Despite recent Liberal mismanagement, the NDIS supports more than 311,000 Australians, almost half of whom are children.

Then there was also the recommendation to put a price on carbon, which was killed off by a grand coalition of the conservatives and the Greens. Otherwise, we would be years into a functioning carbon market and transitioning to a decarbonised future.

All of these were completely overlooked by Sloan in her reflexive reach for the same tired campaign thematics parroted by News Corp columnists seeking to discredit Labor’s record in office.

It’s all too easy to sneer at Australians coming together to discuss new ideas as a newspaper columnist. It’s much harder to sneer when you need a lifesaving organ transplant, a helping hand in the aftermath of a cyclone, or support for a loved one struggling with disability.

These are just some of the 2020 summit’s recommendations that were implemented — all through a process that cost taxpayers very little, without a single $100m rort in sight.