Australian republic and Aborigines top mind summit
Sunday, Apr 20, 2008 By Rob Taylor and James Grubel
CANBERRA (Reuters) - A "Healing Fund" and constitutional recognition of Aborigines, and a push for Australia to sever ties with Britain's monarchy, led ideas on Sunday from a summit of the country's top 1,000 minds.
Sustained applause met calls for a vote on making Australia a republic before 2020, while economic heavyweights, including BHP-Billiton mining chief Marius Kloppers, demanded Australians be fifth on the list of the world's richest citizens in a decade.
"This has been a very Australian gathering," said Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to a standing ovation at the close of a two-day brainstorming meeting charged with finding "big ideas" to improve the country's future by 2020.
"It's been characterised by a whole lot of good humour, a whole lot of mutual respect, and a whole lot of very classical, undeniable Australian directness," Rudd said.
Hollywood actors including Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett, who brought her week-old newborn son, and Hugh Jackman joined scientists, artists, central bankers, industrialists and environmentalists for the power summit at parliament.
Priority ideas, which Rudd's centre-left government will take up or reject by the end of the year, included speeding infrastructure construction to support the country's China-led resource boom and keep economic growth humming at 3.9 percent.
Other ideas included levies on junk food to make the country healthier, designing a bionic eye, and having corporate-backed schools with mandatory arts and creativity classes.
"By 2020, we want to be celebrating the fact that creativity is central to sustaining and defining the nation," said a black-clad Blanchett, handing Rudd a folder of "homework" ideas.
Following a recent Rudd apology for decades of past injustices, Aboriginal leaders called for a formal treaty with white Australians and closure of a 17-year life expectancy divide between indigenous people and the rest of the nation.
"We want to close the gap in all the areas that keep us back and hold us back in terms of our human dignity," said indigenous rights activist Jackie Huggins, calling for a "Healing Fund" paid for from an expected A$20 billion (9.4 billion pound) budget surplus.
Foreign affairs experts called for more engagement with Asia and Pacific nations, while environmentalists suggested carbon-neutral buildings and a national climate plan.
But it was the suggestion for a republic which drew most cheers, although Rudd has called it a second-tier priority for his government. A national vote in 1999 was rejected amid republican infighting over the style of presidency.
"A plebiscite to decide whether to sever ties and secondly a referendum to decide on the model," said Rupert Murdoch's Australian newspaper chief John Hartigan, who chaired one of 10 summit groups.
Rudd, who is Australia's most popular leader for 20 years, said Australian should try harder to be "a force for good in the world" and the summit was just a start point.
"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," Rudd said.
(Editing by Bill Tarrant)