Australia’s future forum looks to a republic, and Asia

SYDNEY (AFP) – An Australian republic, greater involvement in Asia and dealing urgently with climate change were Sunday backed by 1,000 of the nation’s “best and brightest” at a summit for the future.

Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Australia 2020 Summit brought together a colourful collection of business leaders, academics, actors, politicians, environmentalists and scientists to discuss their best ideas for the nation.

Hollywood stars Cate Blanchett and Hugh Jackman attended, as did Lachlan Murdoch, son of global media mogul Rupert Murdoch, marathon runner Robert de Castella and the country’s richest man, mining magnate Andrew Forrest.

Recommendations from the two-day gathering at Parliament House in Canberra ranged from reviewing the national tax system to reopening stairways in towers office blocks to encourage workers to become fitter by taking the stairs.

Other suggestions included an Australian Bill of Rights, an Internet profile page to document every Australian’s health — similar to the online networking site Facebook, and a national school curriculum.

Rudd, who has pledged to respond to every of the 40-odd suggestions by year end, said the delegates’ offerings would be taken seriously.

“I don’t want to wake up one morning in the year 2020 with the regret of not having acted when I had the chance, that’s why it’s important to plan ahead,” he said.

“I don’t want to have to explain to my kids, and perhaps their kids too, that we failed to act, that we avoided the tough decisions, that we failed to prepare Australia for its future challenges.”

In his closing address, the prime minister acknowledged that one of the most popular suggestions from the summit was to break ties with the British monarchy.

“The Australian republic seems to get the thumbs up, unless I misread the mood of the room,” he said, in reference to the sustained applause for the recommendation for a plebiscite on a republic.

Rudd, who said he hoped to use the delegates ideas to “reengineer how we govern this country”, said one of the biggest issues to be addressed was climate change.

“Climate change over-arches all,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you are talking about — direct impact on the economy, direct impact obviously on the physicality of the environment itself and our ability to sustain life.”

Concerning Australia’s role on the international stage, delegates urged the government to strengthen its ties in Asia and the Pacific region, particularly through the improved foreign language education.

“This was particularly and strongly reflected by the view that we have to make Australia’s understanding of Asian literacy and Asian culture almost second nature to us,” Foreign Minister Stephen Smith said.

In the health session, delegates discussed banning the advertising of junk food during children’s television broadcasts and placing a tax in it.

Co-chair of the group, Health Minister Nicola Roxon, said many ideas did not make it to the recommendation stage, but were worthy in themselves.

“One of the out-of-the-box ideas is that by 2020 we would like all sedentary jobs to be redesigned so that at least half-an-hour of physical activity was part of daily work,” she said.

Cate Blanchett, who co-chaired a panel on creativity despite giving birth to her third son a week ago, said there was a place for artistic efforts in sporting-mad Australia.

“By 2020 we want to be celebrating the fact that creativity is central to sustaining and defining the nation,” she said.

The informal nature of the summit, at which the prime minister sat on the floor as he listened to delegates on Saturday, made it a “very Australian gathering”, Rudd said.

The prime minister, whose elected in November ended 11 years of conservative rule, encouraged delegates to stay involved in the debate.

“We understand that the ideas process doesn’t start and finish in one weekend in Parliament House Canberra, we don’t want to stop the flow of ideas, we want to keep this going,” he said.

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