The 2019 election campaign having begun, I wish, on behalf of Australia21, which I chair, to draw attention to a number of issues that require proper attention and debate in order to enable Australian voters to make an informed choice about the candidates and parties they wish to support.
The early days have been dispiriting because to the extent that important issues have been canvassed, too much of the commentary has been ideological rather than analytical, there has been a great deal of disinformation, and such detail as has been offered does not demonstrate that the measures proposed will be sufficient to resolve the issues to which they are directed.
The following matters must clearly be central to the 2019 campaign, because business as usual is not an option:
- Climate change
- Murray-Darling Basin
The public well understands that these are important, and the positions of the various protagonists are well understood. I don’t intend to rehearse the arguments here, but Australia21expects that each political party bring forward evidence-based policy for addressing each of them, together with specific action steps to be taken within the life of the next Parliament.
Less well understood is the critical importance of the following issues to Australia’s future:
There is a steadily growing disparity of income and wealth in Australia. Rectifying this is not simply a matter of social justice, important as that is: it is bad for the economy as well. An important reason for the economy’s lacklustre growth is the slow growth of wages, with the consequence that ordinary Australians find it increasingly difficult to access their daily needs and the retail sector faces weak demand.
Measures to address this would include ensuring that the minimum wage is a living wage, and ensuring that every child, no matter what their socio-economic status, has equal access to quality education, from pre-school to university.
Australia21, in collaboration with The Australia Institute, has issued two reports on this important issue: Advance Australia Fair: What to Do About Growing Inequality in Australia(2014) and A Fair Go for All Australians: Urgent Action Required(2018).
- Closing the gap
Insufficient progress is being made in “closing the gap” between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians. The Parliament receives regular reports setting out the state of play on the various health, education etc. gaps that are measured, but there is little point in monitoring these unless our leaders are prepared to take firm and purposeful action to close the gaps within a timescale that will make a meaningful difference to the life and prospects of the current generations of indigenous people.
We believe that the creation of an indigenous voice to Parliament, as proposed in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, whether by Constitutional amendment or by legislation, would be an important first step in the direct engagement of the indigenous community in drawing up appropriate measures to “close the gap”.
- Illicit Drugs
It has been demonstrated many years ago that the “War on Drugs” has failed and the development of serious policy reform in this area is long overdue. The direction of reform must be to treat personal consumption of illicit drugs as a social, psychological and medical problem, rather than as a matter for the criminal law. Drug policy as such is the responsibility of the States and Territories, but the Commonwealth is the party to the relevant international treaties, and the Australian Federal Police and customs authorities have an important role to play. Also, if we want to have a unified national approach, it will be necessary for the Commonwealth to take the lead.
We would like to see whichever party is elected to office on 18 May convene a National Drugs Summit before the end of this calendar year.
- Early childhood education
Every child deserves the best possible start in life and there is abundant literature demonstrating the importance of access to education in early childhood. We cannot expect that those who miss out on this opportunity will somehow miraculously catch up in the course of their later schooling. This is one of many areas in which the private interest of the child (access to education) aligns with the public interest of the society (a better educated, more highly skilled workforce).
- Reversing the cuts to research and development funding
In the modern world research and development, including curiosity-driven research to find out what makes things tick) are the foundation of national competitiveness and economic growth. We cannot expect to remain a high-income society if we are not operating on the technological frontier.
- Gonski 3.0
The resources of the Commonwealth, States and Territories must in sum be applied on a needs basis to equalise, as far as it is possible to do so, the opportunity of every Australian child to reach their educational potential. We need our political leaders to demonstrate that they are prepared to take action to unwind the maze of special deals that get in the road of this.
- A world-class NBN
We do not wish to rehearse here the rights and wrongs of the decisions that have led to the current state of play with the NBN, but clearly it is not fit for purpose for the intent of wiring the country up for the 21stcentury. This is not about downloading films or online video-gaming: it is about the needs of industry – including industry in rural and regional Australia – and about social needs like remote delivery of medical services, keeping older Australians in their homes longer, etc.
- Risks we need to address if we are to survive and thrive in the 21st Century
In addition to climate change there is a range of interlinked-mega threats that stand in the way of our desire that the children born in 2019 will be able to live peaceful, prosperous ways to a ripe old age.
The ten interacting and intersecting threats are: human population growth, food insecurity, ecosystem destruction, depletion of the resources on which our societies depend, threat of nuclear war, uncontrolled technology and artificial intelligence global poisoning, pandemic diseases and, above all, the self-delusion that we can somehow escape the consequences of our actions.
Unless we address ourselves to these threats, and the linkages between them (we must make sure that measure to improve the situation in one area do not make the situation in another worse), decision about where to locate the next urban freeway will hardly matter in the long run.
Further information about these interlinked threats may be found here.
- Empathy and compassion
It should be a matter of conscious public policy that empathy and compassion underpin everything we do in the public sphere. The new evidence base underpinning the perspective taking of empathy, and the motivation of compassion have a contribution to make to policy development. Recent Royal Commissions have demonstrated how strongly human motivations drive behaviour. Humans have a powerful competitive and acquiring motivation, which tends to turn off other motivational systems that link to caring and supporting others. So developing a compassionate mind-set is important because it has been shown that, this mind-set organizes our motives, emotions and actions in ways that are conducive for our own and other people’s wellbeing. Recognising the needs and aspiration of every human being necessarily implies refraining from demonising any social group – refugees, the unemployed, the poor, the homeless, etc.
To find out more about our work in this area and join the Mindful Futures Network, see here.
- Restoring public trust in our political system
It is widely acknowledged that trust in our political system is at a low ebb and in danger of breaking down completely. Many of us are dismayed at what passes for political debate, the antics at Question Time, the robotic repetition of talking points during interviews, and the disinformation that goes unchallenged in the mainstream media. There is a widespread perception that many Parliamentarians make unwarranted use of their Parliamentary entitlements, that donors get preferential access to power holders, and that many appointments to public office, including to attractive diplomatic posts, are made on the basis of political alignment rather than relevant qualifications and skills.
We need to hear from each of our political parties what they propose to do to address this most fundamental issue.
Whatever issues are actually debated, we expect our political leaders to behave with the dignity of mature adults, to show respect towards each other, to debate the substance of the issues their opponents bring up, and to treat the electorate with respect by having due regard to the facts and all the relevant evidence (no cherry-picking evidence, no lies about what has happened in the past etc.). The signs from the first few days of the campaign are not promising, but we live in hope.
Paul Barratt AO is the Chair of Australia21, a think tank for the public good. He is a former Secretary to the Department of Primary Industries and Energy and the Department of Defence. He is an adjunct professor in the School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at the University of New England.