Monday, September 01, 2003


Some facts (including a few educated guesses) about the Australian Leadership Retreat

Closed door “think-ins” are, quite understandably, susceptible to conspiracy theories being formulated by those on the outside. The forums’ invariable policy of limited, or nil, on-the-ground media coverage also (if unwittingly) aids the spread of such theories. Prompted by something that Robert Gottliebsen wrote in today’s The Australian (of which more about soon), I’ve combed through everything I could find on the recent (22-24 August) Australian Leadership Retreat, and digested it.

Who went:

There were about 150 invitees and their partners, making about 300 attendees in total. It may be inferred, then, that there is a strong social aspect to the gathering – i.e. that “Leadership Retreat” is an utter misnomer. (Perhaps it is used simply for the purposes of “ticking the right boxes” to ensure the event’s tax-deductibility)

With the event’s being co-staged by the Business Council of Australia, a cross-section of Oz (with a sprinkling of US) business heavyweights was the mainstay – but with senior Oz politicians, as ever, running a close second to the biz-meisters in the overall game. Here, both the Coalition and Labor got a good snout (sorry, look) in. The only pollie outside the cosy duopoly who apparently scored an invite was Democrats Senator Aden Ridgeway.

The other, main category of attendees is described as “Community leaders”. This included a handful of arts and NGO worthies – Simon Longstaff (St James Ethics Centre), Richard Evans and Steven Heathcote (Australian Ballet), and John Bell (Bell Shakespeare). More surprisingly, academia also falls under the “Community leaders” heading – but which turns out to be less of a slight than you might think, as only ONE academic is reported as attending – Ruth Dunkin (RMIT University) – and some would say even affixing this description within Ruth’s laminate-on-the-lanyard is an over-statement.

Finally, there are the miscellaneous attendees. Reputedly, there were economists in abundance, presumably of the private consultant (non-academic) variety. Given the need for such consultancies to be closer-than-conjugally-close to government in order to get (and give) business, such attendances – but no names please! – is not at all surprising. They, being ever eager to please, would also no doubt have proved useful in making up the numbers for rounds of bridge, etc – and despite not actually being “leaders” could obviously be relied upon to be pillars of discretion. A closely-related, and also heavily-anonymous group of attendees would have been right-wing thinktank boffins – only Clyde Prestowitz, of the Economic Strategic Institute in Washington was named. Making up the rest of the odds’n’sods were self-described Davos “newbie”-AND-also-ten-year veteran, Lance Knobel*, billionaire Frank Lowy (plugging his new thinktank), and quasi-journalist Robert Gottliebsen.

Who didn’t go (but pretended they did):

Fairfax journalists Stephen Dabkowski and Allesandra Fabro, that’s who. I stress that this is my educated guess only. The clearest sign that they didn’t go is the high level of generality in their reports, which read mostly like recycled PR-guff. Another clue is that one of Stephen Dabkowski stories has an accompanying picture credited to Michael Roux (who, when he’s not taking quite flattering – if I may say so – snaps of lone academic Ruth Dunkin, is Mr “Welcome to Fantasy Island”, aka the event’s big boss)

In contrast is the unquestionably on-the-ground event reportage by Robert Gottliebsen, who I termed a “quasi-journalist”, above. I used this term because Gottliebsen’s coverage abysmally fails to the test measure of journalistic prurience one would expect, especially given that he was the ONLY journalist there. By this, I don’t mean that I expect Gottliebsen to have filed a “Who slept with who” style of report, but his bland, overview style of reportage clearly indicates that he was not invited as a journalist – rather (as I inferred above), as a sub-leader level, “pillar of discretion”.

What Robert Gottliebsen wrote today

Apart from a disingenuous reference** to last week’s NAB raid on AMP being the first sign of what he was talking about generally, Gottliebsen spewed grandly forth on some specific facets of the young professionals’ brain drain and the related ageing population (aka shortage of taxpayers) looming problem. There’s nothing of any real interest, other than this:

Australia's biggest source of skilled migrants is overseas students. Our universities have a key role in shaping the skills population. At Hayman, the tertiary education community said education was being straitjacketed by Canberra public servants.

Let me unpack this paragraph. The brain drain of Australian-born-and-educated professionals is a fait accompli (Gottliebsen earlier says this is due to high income tax rates). But it’s not all doom here, as there are currently large inflows of “skilled” migrants (who, for whatever bizarre reason, don’t seem to mind Australia’s said high tax rates, one little bit). This is especially bizarre as most of these “migrants” already have a long-term(ish) nexus with Australia, having lived (and usually worked, part-time) here as overseas students.

But don’t mind the parodox of Gottliebsen’s high-taxes = skilled-worker-deterrence argument too much – it gets worse. The said overseas-students-cum-immigrants are not just blissfully ignorant (according to Gottliebsen’s logic) of the unconscionable Australian-tax slug they will be hit with for the rest of their working lives, they are also getting only a “straitjacketed” (= inadequate) education for their big bucks. The poor things! Well, almost – Gottliebsen may be relieved to hear of a relieving balm called “market forces”, which applies to set the fees for overseas students at Australian universities. There are no price caps on these fees for even the twitchiest, straitjacketing-phile “Canberra public servant” – None! Or is Gottliebsen referring to the pesky fact that overseas students at Australian universities are (officially) assessed under the same standards as Australian ones? If so, I don’t think he’s got too much to worry about here.

My final bit of unpacking refers to the “tertiary education community” that Gottliebsen is acting as lightning-rod for. A “community” of one (and then only just)? If so, this would only be a minor fudge, in the scheme of things. I can confirm, though, that despite this paragraph sounding rather Andrew Norton-esque, that Norton himself didn’t score a guernsey for the big do – not unless he (i) has kept incredibly mum ever since, and (ii) was up at 8.45 am on the last day (a Sunday) for a sublime laptop-by-the-poolside blog about inconsequential fluff***.

* This guy reminds me of those geeky persons who hang around uni for far too many years – all for (as cynics might see it) the annual, unfailing pleasure of escorting wide-eyed, comely 18 year olds around the traps during O-week.

** Oh really, Robert? Since it is public record that NAB’s boss was on the island (with you) the week before the raid, perhaps you shouldn’t be big-noting your predictive prowess in quite this way – not unless you want ASIC sniffing around yours and your family’s recent share-dealings, that is.

*** Of course the Melbourne Writers' Festival is a bore (and a seriously over-priced one at that). Four words more than adequately explain why, however: Morag Fraser - Festival Chair

Australian Leadership Retreat 2003 References:,5942,7055137,00.html,5744,7127097%255E16946,00.html

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