Australian delegates ponder country's future

10 themes for the discussion were set
ADELAIDE, Australia The group of top experts, activists, politicians and celebrities - including actors Cate Blanchett and Hugh Jackman - will cull thousands of ideas and come up with policy proposals to be presented to the federal government.

"The old way of governing has long been creaking and groaning," Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said at the opening of Australia 2020, which is being held in the nation's capital, Canberra.

Australia has been buzzing with ideas in the weeks leading up to the summit. Radio talk shows invited listeners to phone in ideas for discussion, and nearly 9,000 proposals were submitted to the summit's Web site.

The final proposals will be delivered to the government but there is no certainty they will implement any of them.

In a session on Aboriginal issues Saturday, prominent indigenous West Australian Shirley McPherson suggested that a certain number of parliamentary seats and government posts be aside for indigenous people.

"There must by 2020 be a level playing field, and by that we mean there needs to be representation in Parliament and in government," McPherson said.

Aborigines remain the country's poorest and most disadvantaged group. Many of them blame this on policies that existed throughout most of the 20th century under which some 100,000 Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their families in an effort to make them grow up like white Australians.

Also Saturday, a panel voted in favor of abandoning the British monarchy. Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus said he wants the change by 2010, to cheers at the governance panel he participated in.

It is not clear how much public support such an initiative would garner. Australia, a former British colony, has close ties to the English royals and Queen Elizabeth II officially remains the head of state.

In 1999, a proposal to replace the monarchy with a president elected by Parliament was rejected in a referendum. The idea dropped off the national agenda until Rudd was elected as prime minister last November, replacing staunch monarchist John Howard.

Opinion polls show most Australians respect Queen Elizabeth II but would prefer to have an Australian as head of state. There are disagreements, however, about how an Australian president would be selected.

Other ideas that surfaced Saturday included increasing taxes on alcohol, cigarettes and junk food, and abolishing states and territories in favor of regional governments and a federal parliament.

Critics have ridiculed the summit, arguing that too many ideas will be presented in too little time for in-depth discussion. But delegates believe their time will be well-spent and produce useful results.

"We've got some terrific people here and people who are really committed to the future of Australia," said delegate Lachlan Murdoch, son of media magnate Rupert Murdoch. "So the more talk and the more ideas aired, the better we are for it."

Federal Treasurer Wayne Swan called the weekend "a hunting license for new ideas."

Rudd called on each of the panels to nominate at least one big idea, plus at least three concrete policy plans. One of those must involve little or no cost. Groups should also identify at least three specific goals for 2020, he said.

"Some of these ideas we will be able to embrace, others we will not, and some we will take in part and change," he said.

The government has promised to respond to each recommendation by year's end.

Rudd set 10 themes for discussion: productivity, economy, sustainability and climate change, rural Australia, health, communities and families, indigenous Australia, creativity, governance and Australia's future in the world.


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