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Australia 'ideas summit' yields wide-ranging proposals

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TANALEE SMITH | April 20, 2008 02:11 PM EST | AP

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ADELAIDE, Australia — Celebrities, activists and politicians put forward dozens of proposals for the country's future on Sunday, ranging from a health agency funded by a junk food tax to incentives for Australians to work in rural communities.

The first-of-its-kind summit was touted as a way to include citizens in the governing process. About 1,000 delegates came up with more than 40 proposals after two days of brainstorming.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has promised to respond by the end of the year, but there is no guarantee any of the ideas will be implemented. Rudd praised the event as "a very Australian gathering."

"I think the reason it's worked ... is because it's been characterized by a whole lot of good humor, a whole lot of mutual respect, and a whole lot of very classical, undeniable Australian directness," Rudd said.

One group proposed the development of a bionic eye, a so-called "cure" for blindness. The proposal is part of a drive to promote research and translate that research into commercial and clinical benefits.

Other ideas included the establishment of an Aboriginal treaty that would detail their status and rights, establishing a national "carbon bank" to monitor the nation's greenhouse gas emissions and boosting Australian television content.

The summit called Australia 2020 that ended Sunday was touted by the ruling Labour government as a way to harvest the best ideas for the future from Australians across the nation.

But critics have derided the gathering, held Saturday and Sunday in Canberra, for trying to cover too much ground in too little time, and some delegates complained that their ideas were not being heard.

Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop said many would be watching to see if the summit yields anything practical or was just a big show.

"Obviously people have come along with genuine ideas that they want to put forward, and I think the test will be what the Rudd government does with these ideas," Bishop told Channel Nine television news.

The committees worked off of nearly 8,000 ideas submitted by Australians after a government call for public input. Many of them shared themes of environmental sustainability and strengthening civil society.

The committee on Australia's security and prosperity in the world highlighted the need to increase understanding of the country's Asian neighbors.

"We have to make Australia's understanding of Asian literacy and Asian culture almost second nature to us," said Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, who co-chaired the committee. "This is a most important thing we can do, not just from an international relations point of view but also from our young school children's point of view."

Delegates also tackled the problem of the country's decade-long drought _ the worst in Australian history _ which has cut production of many crops ranging from wheat to wine grapes.

The lack of rain has increased concerns that irrigation is permanently depleting major rivers, and some scientists argue that farmers should move from the south to the tropical north.

"Australia will also have become a global leader in tropical water system conservation and sustainability," the delegates said.

Other proposals included breaking ties to the British crown and establishing an Australian republic; creating a national preventative health agency funded by taxes on alcohol, cigarettes and junk food, and delivering fresh fruit to primary schools once a week.

Specifics of the proposals have not yet been released publicly but were summarized by participants and in an initial report issued by the summit.

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

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On the Net:

http://www.australia2020.gov.au