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Notes from a 2020 Summiteer

3 min read

For me, the experience of being part of the Australia 2020 Summit can best be described as: overwhelming, intense, frustrating and worthwhile.

Opening sessions: overwhelming
Being part of the 2020 Summit was overwhelming and almost a bit much to cope with.

This started with the selection process and continued to the opening reception at the National Portrait Gallery where delegates were reminded that Australia’s history is made today by “history makers” like us. I definitely felt the pressure of expectations of the event.

This overwhelming feeling peaked at the opening plenary session where all 1,000 delegates came together in the Great Hall of Parliament to hear of the many grave challenges that face our country.

One of the comments that stuck with me was that we should “stop looking over our shoulders to find someone who is going to deal with our problems” because it is us, the people alive today, the community leaders, who are the ones who will need to find the solutions.

Stream discussion: intense
After being comprehensively overwhelmed, the summit moved to an intense phase.

We formed our 100 person stream on international issues (“Australia’s Future Security and Prosperity in a Rapidly Changing Region and World” for short) and after a quick pep talk from the Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith were straight to work.

It was – “You have 10 minutes to write some ideas” – then “You have 20 minutes in groups of eight to discuss” – then “You have 30 minutes in groups of 25 to report”.
This frenetic pace was maintained all the time we were in our stream. It was exhilarating, but the pace meant I didn’t sleep much the following week.

The consensus phase: frustrating
Not surprisingly, there were frustrations which included the unavoidable lack of time.

I found the biggest problem was the structure of the facilitation which drove us towards identifying five big issues with three dot points each to report in the final session. Reducing the variety of ideas and opinions to dot points meant that much was left out and many concrete recommendations ended up reported as generalities.

The good news is that a detailed Final Report is being produced to be available at This will be a better record of the quality of ideas produced than the Interim Report or media reporting.

Final result: worthwhile
Finally, I would say without doubt that the experience was worthwhile.

None of the frustrations detracted from the enormous positives of the event. It was an extraordinary opportunity for the community to be heard and to have a role in government policy making. Some of the ideas raised will be adopted by the government and some will not, but it has sent a strong message about the importance of ideas. Crucially, it reminds us that everyone has a part to play in finding answers to the issues that Australia faces.

As the Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA), I am acutely aware of the importance of stimulating debate. The AIIA ( was established in 1933 as an independent, not-for-profit organisation to promote public understanding and interest in international affairs. The AIIA’s simple ideal is stimulating debate on international issues and how they affect Australia. The AIIA operates nationwide with over 1,700 members across seven State and Territory branches and organises almost 200 events per year.

The AIIA was delighted to be involved in the summit and was well represented with myself, WA President Sue Boyd, WA Vice-President Samina Yasmeen and a number of Branch members participating. Past AIIA Research Chair and current Editor of the Australian Journal of International Affairs Professor Michael Wesley played a particularly prominent role as Co-Chair of discussions for the international stream. He gave a well-received presentation to the opening plenary session which will hopefully encourage increased understanding of the importance of Australia’s role in international affairs.

The AIIA strongly supports events that encourage debate and understanding of international relations and I believe the Summit has had a positive effect on encouraging debate on Australia’s role in the world. The AIIA intends to facilitate ongoing discussion on the issues and questions raised by the 2020 Summit, and is looking forward to the positive effect that the Summit has on enriching public debate.

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