18 September 2015

(Hoping for a) future

I can despair over climate change, the breakout of wars, today's article saying life at sea has halved in the last 25 years, refugees and lots more, but maybe I am too fatalistic. For all's sake, I hope so. I got a little uplift with Turnbull rolling Abbott, and I await with just a little hope the outcome of Paris. So perhaps I am not the best auditor of a session by two new (class of 2013) Labor MPs, launching their new book, Two Futures : Australia at a critical moment, arguing for long-term thinking by imagining two possible visions of Australia at 2040. Ben Oquist introduced Clare O'Neil and Tim Watts. Both young and presumably hopeful and, to my eyes, strangely similar in appearance to the two Green deputy-leaders. Maybe it's a generational thing. Abbott has just been rolled by Turnbull who at least recognises science and climate change, although will have internal disagreements with the right of his party, but this didn't feature much. Instead we heard of the longer term (are things looking up? A session on politics that isn't trumped by today's, admittedly significant, activities?). Ben Oquist succumbed, saying Abbott was really a good communicator (unlike Turnbull's argument). I agree. Abbott's problem was overreach. Repealing the carbon tax was not enough; he had to go to war with environmentalists with led to backlash. (In my book, not one to do things by halves ... or sensibly). But Clare and Tim avoided the daily matters.

Clare started, introducing the first three of the six themes of their book. 1. Equality / egalitarianism. There's a gap between rhetoric and reality. The wealthiest 9 Australians have the same wealth as the bottom 4.5 million. Technology and other forces will increasingly influence wealth by 2040. How can Australia respond? She specifically argued for early childhood education (and I read in today's Canberra Times that 15hours of free early childhood education will be provided to all children in ACT - just what Clare was arguing for, even the 15 hour minimum). BTW, some countries have 100% of 3 year olds in early childhood education; Australia has 175; apparently it's well supported by evidence. 2. Climate change. Old Bar is a coastal NSW town where 1m of sea front is lost per year. Residents want a sea wall; there's argument about who pays; for sale signs proliferate near the water. This is climate change arrived. (For just one more confirmation of our unsustainability, see "We've wiped out half world's marine life in one generation" in Canberra Times 17 Sep 2015, p.6) Clare also spoke of green jobs (1m new green jobs internationally; -2K jobs in Australia; not sure of the measure, perhaps annually under Abbott?). 3. Growth / economy. In 1980, Lee Kwan Yew predicted Australia to be the "poor white trash of Asia". Then Hawke, Keating and Howard, reform and mining, but now Government has little left to reform other than innovation policy, and as for supplying jobs to Asia, our education is dwindling as Asia soars.

Tim did his bit on the next 3 themes. 4. Democracy. "It matters" (sadly appended: "for economic matters". I think yes, and for more). Australian political institutions have responded well in the past, but now? There's now deep dissatisfaction; what major reform has recently survived Parliament? (Perhaps NDIS announced that very day; previously, GST). Talk of bigger ideologies, tailored solutions, possible reforms. (My thought is conventions and goodwill will salve much of this, but they talk of reform). 5. Technology. Connectivity and digitisation has radically reduced transaction costs. There's good and bad; employment becomes atomised. A suggestion is computational thinking. (My thought is increased productivity is good: the problem is how to share the benefits).6. The world. Geopolitical / geostrategic changes are big! Australia previously had external guarantors for security (UK then US). By 2040, several regional nations will be stronger than Australia (he mentioned Sth Korea, Japan, India, Philippines, Vietnam). Commit to joint security, role in ASEAN, develop soft power (eg, Abbott defunded the Australia Network; as I remember, Howard sold off Radio Australia transmitters - bought by the religious right; the Union Jack and the Queen remain as our soft power symbols).

Then questions. A new Australia Network required; new technology needed to aggregate political involvement; business involvement in Asia needs to be developed; learn from NZ (a popular position with the recent flag process); be skeptical with new ideas, reinvigorate the old (I was amused by a related comment of "Labor as road kill"); means of boosting voting enrolments; how many pollies think or are interested in the long term?; dealing with business involvement in the political process (Tim suggested the main issue is direct political campaigning by business [not sure I agree] which is a tall ask to deal with; rather there's a need to broaden political involvement/discussion).

Well, it was just a touch of what is argued in the book. I felt a little alienated; I worried that magic fixes were sought where disrespect of conventions and hard-bitten politics seems the core problem. But things move on. Good to see some pollies are thinking of these things and the 2040 timeframe seems an apt scope for vision.

Clare O'Neil and Tim Watts are newly elected Labor MPs (2013). They discussed their new book, Two futures : Australia at a critical moment, at a Politics in the Pub. Ben Oquist introduced them on behalf of the Australia Institute.

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