Opinion piece by Ralph Ashton, Executive Director, Australian Futures Project
The pathetic horse-trading and internal political bickering of the past 10 years that exploded to the surface again last week is no way to run one of the world’s great modern societies with so much promise ahead.
The soap opera of dysfunction in Canberra is emblematic of a wider problem for Australian society. Australia is behaving like a spoiled brat.
What’s at stake is significant. And it’s not just in politics. Religious institutions have abused children and hypocritically run from the consequences. The finance industry has ripped off its clients. Our national cricket team has descended to cheating. Vested interests have repeatedly and cynically pursued their narrow benefit at the expense of society at large. And much of the media has lost its attention span and rigour and now can’t help but foment the sensational.
So far, we’ve escaped serious consequences. But when a country’s leaders and institutions behave this badly, something has to give.
Yes, we have envious living standards and have had an incredible run of economic expansion. Yes, we are a highly successful multicultural society that by and large looks after its needy.
But we’ve squandered a once-in-a-generation mining boom. We’ve failed to undertake any serious reform since the 1990s. We’ve spent our reserves fighting the global financial crisis. And we’ve failed to increase our productivity.
The future the public wants goes begging. And the issues Australia’s most respected experts say are crucial for our future lie unattended.
Among the top 10 things Australians most want for their country are that we care for our elderly, disadvantaged and future generations; have affordable housing,effective healthcare, economic growth and a high level of honesty and accountability; that we provide employment opportunities and wait for it … have effective government. Canberra, are you listening?
Experts have been telling us for at least a decade that if we want to maintain our living standards, we need to make progress fast on tax reform, affordable housing,climate change and energy, early childhood development, indigenous disadvantage and equality for women. We must address the mental health and obesity crises and increase our engagement with Asia. We need to equip our workforce with skills for future jobs, invest in infrastructure, prepare for our ageing population and kick-start our stagnant productivity.
Not much of that is contentious. So what have our governments, leaders and vested interests been doing? Not much on any of the above. And often the opposite.And what have we as voters, consumers, investors, and superannuants been doing? Largely, standing by. We’re creating a society we don’t want.
Our democratic system that safeguards so much that is special about Australia is at breaking point. And those that would tear it further apart – from the right or the left, from the top or the bottom, and usually representing only a minority – have no viable alternative on offer.
This is not a game. We’re playing with fire. Australia now has a choice. Grow up and take advantage of the cultural and economic opportunities that lie in front of us.Or crash back into a self-indulgent malaise.
As a society, we need to reach consensus on what we want to become as a nation and what we want to avoid - and what we genuinely disagree on.
Then let’s focus our precious democratic effort and resources on achieving the first, avoiding the second, and respectfully - but with conviction, coherence, and consistency - arguing about the third. Let’s call out people who subvert the democratic process to suit their own narrow vested interests or to drive their egoistical(often juvenile) ambitions.
If our leaders are incapable of leading, others must step up – in small and big ways, in our neighbourhoods and on the national stage, in our personal lives and in our professional positions. It’s time for civic courage.