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We Need To Change Our Present For The Future

16/12/2015 5:52 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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'Tis the season to be jolly, as they say.

Or, excited, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull repeats on cue, like a Santa Claus 'Ho-Ho-Hoing' through the local shops. His change of tone since ending Tony Abbott's Prime Ministerial reign is a relief. Turnbull's optimism is a breath of fresh air after years of Abbott's negative focus on what the future won't include, as opposed to what it might.

Converting this excitement into gifted policy is a greater challenge.

It is an exciting time to be an Australian. We've had nearly a quarter century of uninterrupted growth. Several of our cities are among the world's most liveable. Workers benefit from hard-won protections and a minimum wage. Communities boast high levels of cohesion and are among the most multicultural on Earth. And our health and education systems are envied the world over.

Yet such excitement risks being rose-tinted.

Wage growth in Australia is the lowest since records began. Long-term unemployment is the highest in nearly two decades. More than a quarter of Australians in prison are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. They are descendants of the original Australians, about whom our Constitution is still silent.

We continue to lock up children fleeing persecution. We've agreed a goal to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, yet we're ranked third-last in the Climate Change Performance Index. And Australians of Islamic faith are wrongly lumped together and told to shape up or ship out almost daily. One's excitement about being an Australian shouldn't be contingent on their postcode or religion.

We're better than that.

The previous authors in this Secret Santa series have asked us to consider how exciting the future could be. Imagine, for a moment, being abroad in 2030. You're asked about your sunburnt country, Australia, and proudly describe a place where:

  • Culturally and linguistly diverse young Australians all feel they belong;
  • Teachers get students to think for themselves and ask difficult questions about Australia's place in the world;
  • Gender equality isn't an aspiration, it's a given;
  • Farmers, supply chains and markets reinforce a virtuous cycle of productive, profitable and sustainable produce;
  • Original Australians, and their descendants, are truly recognised;
  • Universities have a knowledge footprint revealed by better social outcomes across society at large;
  • Australians with a disability flourish at work and in the community;
  • Art and culture is healthily funded, showcasing the essence of Australia;
  • Your rights, like being able to marry your beloved or not being arbitrarily detained, are protected by a Bill of Rights;
  • Cities are bastions of decarbonisation, innovation and unity; and
  • Mental health and wellbeing is valued as much as physical health, and invested in accordingly.

This is a picture worthy of Australia. This century can be the most exciting one for all Australians provided we turn these ideas into a present for Australia's future.

To be sure, these are complex and uncertain days. Growth is tepid. Individuals can mobilise terrifying violence in our neighbourhoods. Automation is changing the face of work and, with it, how we forge careers. Inequality grows the world over, not least down the road. Changes to our environment have outpaced our most agile leaders.

Perhaps the most dangerous development, however, has been the impotence of our institutions. Too often recently they have let Australians down, failed to live up to their promise, or renewed themselves to do so.

The transmission belt of ideas into policies and actions has stalled.

Australia's institutions must get better at thinking and planning long-term. Much of what we have done to prepare for the long-term has been applauded around the world. Save for climate change, we have been a leader in this respect. But Australia's capacity to safeguard the long-term has become a mirage.

Australia has nothing like the National Planning Commissions of China, India, South Africa; has not experimented with bespoke institutions to safeguard the interests of future generations; or contemplated a cross-party "Committee for the Future" as in Finland to provide longer-term assessments of policy and regular horizon scanning to understand the impact of new technologies and policy opportunities. Our Intergenerational Reports have been derailed or gamed by short-term politics.

We will exacerbate an intergenerational deficit unless we lift our sights and face up to the question of what sort of society we wish to pass on. What is the nature of the capital are we bequeathing to future generations?

Focusing on current constructions of output and growth without considering broader drivers of sustainable wellbeing and shared prosperity may provide comfort but ultimately mislead.

Path dependency will not help Australia to translate the excitement of this century into policies that can transform the lives of all Australians.

It's time to embrace the long term now.

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This blog concludes the Secret Santas for Australia series produced by the Centre for Policy Development.

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