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  Issue No 101 Official Organ of LaborNet 06 July 2001  

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Interview

A Little Knowledge

Interview with Peter Lewis

Labor's science spokesman Martyn Evans was the Opposition's key player on the Knowledge Nation inquiry. He fills us in on the process.

 
 

Labor's Martyn Evans

You were the Deputy Chair of the Knowledge Nation Taskforce, how was the report put together?

Kim was very keen at the last National Conference that we should start a process of defining an agenda for a Knowledge Nation. He arranged for Barry Jones to be Chair and myself Deputy Chair - a number of Shadow Ministers who are relevant to it: Carmen Lawrence in Industry; Stephen Smith in Communications; and so on - plus a number of people from outside, who aren't necessarily Labor Party members as such, but who are very much involved in the practicalities of developing a Knowledge Nation. People from the IT industry; bio-technology; academe; and a variety of backgrounds - and they were very important in the process. That committee met a number of times. A few times late last year, and then again at the start of this year, and under Barry Jones's chairmanship we evolved what we think is a fairly effective strategy - an agenda for a Knowledge Nation.

It wasn't about developing finished policies as such, it was about developing an agenda which we could use over the next decade in government, hopefully, to establish the process whereby Australia can transition fully to a Knowledge Nation economy. As Kim said at the launch, we have two choices. We can be a Knowledge Nation or a poor nation. And certainly without that commitment to education and skills and to the development of knowledge-based industries, Australia will certainly be the poorer for it.

The process itself involved a wide range of consultation. We advertised. We put it up on the ALP website. We wrote to individual people we thought would be interested in commenting. We developed a whole range of responses from both industry; the university sector. People like Peter Dougherty in the United States responded, and gave us ideas and suggestions.

The committee then with both its political, parliamentary and outside input, put together that agenda, and Barry very much coordinated that effort. Then, in the process of finalising the document, both from the meeting point of view and also from an e-mail point of view, over the last couple of months we were able to complete the task, in the timeframe that Kim had asked.

What is the single, most interesting idea that came through from the consultation process, that you may not have been expecting to get?

I think we were aware of the general problems involved and where we needed to go conceptually. What the consultation taught us was very much how risky it is not to go down that path. In other words, as Barry said at the launch: "Not to decide is to decide". And I think that is what came through the consultation process. To do nothing is far more dangerous than to actively embark on a process of taking us down a path for a Knowledge Nation, which may involve some mistakes along the way, and some risks along the way.

What is the key takeout you want people that read this report to have?

The importance of the commonwealth and industry on people investing in the Knowledge Nation. That the costs of education; the costs of research and development are not expenses that are avoidable, but are investments that are unavoidable. That is the message ultimately because technologies will change. Dot Coms came and went. The internet is here to stay but it will no doubt evolve in the way people use it. And technology changes rapidly with time these days.

So we aren't about defining specific solutions that we think will last a decade. That was never the ambition. The ambition was to set an agenda for investment which will let the winners pick themselves. Because unless you create the climate in which people can themselves come forward with their ideas; with their technology; with their education and health imperatives. Unless you allow them the freedom to come forward and the climate where they can flourish, then Australia will never reach the Knowledge Nation goal that we have set for it.

There also seems to me to be some sort of challenge to the existing institutions that dominate our society in this report. Is that how you see it?

In a way yes, that is certainly true. If you look at education for example, the American Defence Force established an internet based, university based training facility which actually leads to the award of degrees from American institutions. Now unless our universities and educational institutions tackle this kind of presentational question - unless they get on board with these changes and we act effectively, we will be competing, not with - Melbourne University won't be competing with Sydney and New South Wales, it will be competing with Harvard and MIT and Cambridge and Oxford, and these are the choices which people in Asia and Singapore and Malaysia and Indonesia are looking for. An international standard of education.

And indeed, even Australians who are looking for an international standard of education, they will now have the option of not just choosing an Australian university, but indeed increasingly of choosing any university in the world. So we have to be competitive with that.

We are competitive, can be competitive on a global basis, but unless we act quickly, we won't have the infrastructure to allow us to do that. So the underpinning of these things - for example that particular area - and that doesn't mean to say that communications or education, or the internet is the only area of the Knowledge Nation by any means. It is just one component. But to use it as an example: Unless government ensures that the communications industry makes broadband and technology available almost universally; and unless the educational institutions come to understand that their competition is throughout the world, not just within their own city, or perhaps within their own country, those are the risks they face of becoming globally irrelevant, and sliding on the globally competitive scale.

That applies across the board, not only in education, but in health care and in many of the other content-based industries which will dominate the economy in the next 50 years.

How do you fit this report into a Labor-ist framework?

Clearly Labor is about providing opportunity for people, regardless of their economic situation, and indeed those at the top end of the income scale have always had access to a global education and to the kind of resources which equip them to compete in these economic environments as they change. Whereas those at the low end of the income scale have been very much constrained by the access which they have to education; the access which they have to information; and the degree to which they can be participants in a democratic environment because of their limited access to information resources, and to the law, and to court decisions and the like.

So Knowledge Nation at its broadest will certainly empower those individuals who have previously run the risk of being left out by economic circumstance. I think it is very much consistent with Labor philosophy in delivering that equal opportunity, regardless of income and regardless of location. And even though in a purely economic sense - in the past you might have been deprived and Labor would have sought to address that by an investment in public schools and so on, now we have the opportunity to address that even more effectively by investment in educational infrastructure, and we can offer the high wage, high skilled jobs that our constituents, and those in the Labor movement would want for themselves and their children.

But do you think the sort of message to your average Labor voter: "You have got to become smarter", is the message they want to hear?

No, it is not about them becoming smarter, it is about society becoming smarter, and about society working in smarter ways. That is the agenda, and I think Labor people, members of the workforce, have always valued and treasured education and eduction opportunities, not only for themselves, but particularly for their children. And so I think they will value this kind of extended educational opportunity and the empowerment which it brings, not only to them personally, but particularly and importantly to their family and to the next generation. So, I certainly think that they will value that opportunity of a Knowledge Nation and at its core we do people an enormous disservice if we don't ensure that these opportunities are available, because otherwise, if Australia misses out on this opportunity, then the jobs that are left to their children will not be the kind they would want for them.

Have you been disappointed with the media response - the spaghetti and meatball dismissal of the whole report?

To some extent. One knows that the media will often focus on trivial issues which people like Kemp will promote on behalf of the Government. But I think that the fact that the Government's only response has been to ridicule one particular diagram out of a very substantial and large report shows they don't perceive and understand the complexity of this debate. I think says a lot about our opponents, and unfortunately, while I think the Labor Party would want to see this agenda picked up by everyone because of its importance to the community, the fact that this is the response of the Government says a lot about them, and a lot about their lack of understanding of Knowledge Nation as an important agenda issue for the next ten years.

Finally, how difficult has it been to put what is basically a call for cultural change into a policy document?

Well, of course at this stage, it is not such a policy document as it is an agenda document. You always have to start somewhere. Kim started with a vision last year about how he would evolve a political philosophy of a Knowledge Nation in the context of the next decade of political development in Australia, and having had that idea it had to be implemented in some practical reality. So that at the start was the definition of the agenda and the broad framework, which is what the committee and taskforce have done with this document here.

It is now up to the Shadow Ministry and to the parliamentary Labor Party to translate that into practical policies which we can put forward as specific policies at the next election, to begin the process, and at elections subsequently. We don't see this being resolved in one election, or indeed in two elections. This is an agenda for ten years. The costs can be significant over that period, and obviously have to be funded in an economically responsible way, so we will do that in stages.

And that is what the next six months will be about, is defining the policy to put forward at this election, but with the expectation that over the next five years there will be further policy development to come.


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*   Issue 101 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: A Little Knowledge
Labor's science spokesman Martyn Evans was the Opposition's key player on the Knowledge Nation inquiry. He fills us in on the process.
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*  Education: Theory and Practise
Whether or not you agree with the priorities for of Barry Jones’ Knowledge Nation Taskforce, Julie Wells argues its boldness has to be admired.
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*  E-Change: 1.1 Email Nation
In the first of a series of articles on politics and the new economy, Peter Lewis and Michael Gadiel argue network technologies are reshaping the fundamentals of society.
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*  Economics: Banking on the Goodwill
Given their history, Evan Jones wonders whether banks can really claim to be "just like any other business"
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*  International: A Deathly Struggle
In this dispatch from PNG, a trade union leader briefs us on the situation following the shooting of seven students at an anti-privatisation rally.
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*  History: Enlarging Human Personality
Mark Hearn argues that Lloyd Ross's post-War approach to Workplace Democracy seems contemporary by today's standards
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*  Satire: Shit is a Four Letter Word
Australian TV drama is lame and gutless just look at the ABC's Love is a Four Letter Word, says Tony Moore
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*  Review: Tribute to an Artist
Dalgarno painted the seagulls circling the seafarer like flies buzzing around the face of a bushman. Thus did the artist depict the maritime worker.
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