Australia is deeply unsure how it should approach the Asian century and what vision of its destiny it should fulfill. Whilst economically and socially well positioned, the country is nonetheless grappling with the impact of a two speed economy, rising inequality and bitter disillusionment in the political class – all under the shadow of a looming 2013 Federal election. This environment was fertile ground for the ideas and vision of UK ResPublica director Phillip Blond during his return visit last month. Phillip's trip had a striking and immediate impact on the politicians, business and community leaders he met as well as in the media – the consequences of which are still reverberating.
The ADC Leadership Retreat was the opening event of the tour and the trigger for the return trip to Australia. An annual invitation-only gathering of Australia’s top business leaders, senior politicians and experts from a range of fields, the Retreat provides a platform for frank, robust and forthright discussion of the challenges facing Australia. The organisation behind the event, ADC Forum was responsible for Phillip’s previous visit to Australia in 2011 for the ADC Future Summit. Through a keynote presentation and several panel discussions, Phillip examined the future consequences of Western models of development and its claim to progress, leading debates on the future of the EU, modern conservatism and the policy options for Australia.
As Anon Roux head of programs at ADC Forum put it: "Phillip is a generous and fearless expositor of the conservative tradition of the West, having reawakened the vibrancy of its ideological heritage, and the spirit of its forefathers – people like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke. He asks us to reexamine our politics for renewal in the direction of virtue. In doing so he is gaining more than the ear of conservative leaders around the world. By embodying the spirit of Western civilisation, Phillip demonstrates the necessity for a more virtuous and therefore more prosperous future."
Writing on the event, Business Spectator’s Alan Kohler noted the impact Phillip had: “But for me, if there was one dominant, overriding theme over the conference it was that most of the world, if not all of it, is now governed by rich elites who are just out to look after themselves – oligarchies.”
This theme was continued when Phillip was interviewed by Fran Kelly on Radio National’s Breakfast program ahead of his appearance on ABC TV’s Q&A the nation’s flagship public affairs discussion show. Alongside these broadcasts, discussion continued in the Australian Financial Review and in an article penned for the ABC’s Religion & Ethics portal which prompted impassioned and vigorous debate when reposted on opinion hub, The Drum.
Over the course of the week, Phillip spoke at events around the country, including a debate at The Australian Centre for Social Innovation in Adelaide. Video of Phillip's speech and the subsequent panel discussion can be found here. Commenting on the event, the Centre’s director, Brent Caffin said:
"To proponents and detractors alike, the UK's experience in implementing Big Society's reforms has been compelling to watch from our distant vantage point in Australia. It was a privilege to have Phillip with us to get his first-hand take on both the rhetoric and reality of Big Society so that we in Australia might resist attempts to impose austerity measures in lieu of genuine attempts to foster civil society."
After Adelaide, Phillip spent a full day in Canberra, meeting with senior members from both sides of the political divide as well as members of press gallery. Most publicised was his meeting with Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, covered by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Lenore Taylor.
In Sydney, Phillip facilitated a workshop at the University of New South Wales’ Centre for Social Impact with director and former Australian senator, Cheryl Kernot.
“CSI’s informal and workshop-focussed session with Phillip was really valuable in exposing the unanimous feeling in the room of bearing witness to the failure of The Left and the Right in Australia,” Ms Kernot said. “The workshop provided an opportunity to focus on what Phillip called the ‘main underlying anxieties in contemporary Australia’ and what we as citizens might see as potential solutions. Discussions continued well beyond our 135 mins!”
Media interest continued with 612 ABC Brisbane’s morning program featuring an in-depth discussion of Phillip’s ideas with the national broadcaster’s Religion & Ethics Editor, Scott Stephens. This was followed the following week with a conversation between host Steve Austin and Phillip (click here for the full, unedited interview). That evening, Phillip prosecuted his case both on Radio National’s Drive program and ABC TV's The Drum (the panel show companion to the opinion portal).
The final stop on the trip was a breakfast conversation for the Menzies Research Centre. Hosted by law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth, Phillip focused in on the needs of Australia with one of the country’s most prominent former public servants, Professor Peter Shergold. In closing the event, Professor Sheargold said: “There's a great deal we can learn from Big Society, which I think is absolutely of significance both to Commonwealth and State governments.”
Despite its relative brevity, Phillip’s trip generated a significant amount of post-visit coverage – see this article on Crikey here and also a piece in the Australian Spectator. With many requests for Phillip to return, the impact is sure to deepen and extend as the 2013 elections draw closer and another lecture tour looms.
Leith Thomas is an Australian communications consultant and managed Phillip's speaking and media engagements during his tour.