Thinking game seen as serious business

By COLIN JAMES

The end of history? Civility? Are these proper subjects for a chief executives' retreat? Where's the bottom-line gain?

Ask Greg Lindsay, the indefatigable founder and director of the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS), an Australian think tank. Lindsay got 70-odd chief executives to pay big bucks just to think. There wasn't even time off for golf on the Hyatt Coolum's manicured links.

That suggests some chief executives - in Australia at least - do have an intellectual life beyond the balance sheet. One even demonstrated knowledge of Hegelian philosophy (a rare skill shared, incidentally, by New Zealand Labour Party president Mike Williams). Lead papers were kept short, promoting a high level of participation in discussions.

Star attraction was the American social theorist and writer Francis Fukuyama, who argued (see article on the Dialogue page, August 8) that his "end of history" thesis, first developed in 1989, still held, despite the rise of Islamic terrorism, or "Islamo-fascism", as he calls it.

This session on "big ideas", which also involved Daniel Pipes, a leading American Middle East scholar, and Canterbury University's world-renowned sceptic, philosopher Dennis Dutton, was one of six sessions over two days which introduced chief executives to topics and ideas unlikely to dominate boardroom or executive suite debate.

Other sessions dealt with: population policy in an age of mass movement (a poignant topic in the wake of the Tampa episode); higher education (the least successful session, since it degenerated into a turf war between protagonists); free trade, which ran along predictable lines; civility and social rules; strategic imperatives, including some discussion of Australia's possible involvement in American intervention in Iraq; and civility.

It was topped by a stirring opening address by Aboriginal lawyer Noel Pearson demanding action against drugs for destroying his people and tailed with an off-the-shelf mumble by Prime Minister John Howard, who declared the CIS had "broken officials' monopoly on advice" with its research and publications.

The "civility" session was for some chief executives the most arresting. Titled "The spectator in the breast of man: self-regulation and the decline of public conscience" from a dictum of Adam Smith, it introduced participants to a new CIS programme led by Professor Peter Saunders, a British social scientist now working at the institute. The project apparently has had little trouble attracting funding.

The session went well beyond manners. Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott (en route to the Deputy Prime Ministership) banged on about the family in politically incorrect tones that would have been music to the ears of Peter Dunne's new parliamentary mates. It also strayed into the fraught territory of corporate social responsibility, with mixed responses.

A measure of the pull of the gathering was that Abbott attended almost all of it. So did Defence Minister Robert Hill, who spoke on Iraq. So did Australian Labor Party shadow foreign minister Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat and one of Labor's new breed. Federal Treasurer (and Prime Minister in waiting) Peter Costello and Labor shadow trade minister Craig Emerson, an emphatic free trader, delivered lead papers.

The Labor presence softened the meeting's potential to be just another right-wing gathering. So did the active involvement (in the civility session) of Peter Botsman, director of the left-leaning Whitlam Institute think tank who declared afterwards he found it fascinating.

Could it happen here? Lindsay tried and failed a decade or more ago to get a branch running here. The Business Roundtable, which hosted Fukuyama to deliver its annual Sir Ronald Trotter lecture on Monday, does the sort of background research the CIS does.

Roundtable chair Murray Horn, who is trying to reposition the Roundtable as a constructive participant in a much-changed political debate, was at the CIS retreat. Horn, a former Treasury Secretary, has a doctorate so arcane few can understand it.

So who knows what lurks beneath the surface of our crop of bosses? But to meet just to think? Hmmm.

* ColinJames@synapsis.co.nz

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