Winter is coming: Australia lacks a long-term vision and desperately needs one
Sixty years ago, my father boarded a boat from Italy to pursue a better life in Australia. He arrived with nothing more than a suitcase full of possessions. In just a single generation, our family secured financial stability — and opportunities for a better life — that would never have been accessible in Italy.
However, in the past decade, Australia has had as many prime ministers as Italy. We have become a political joke. My fear is that our recent political instability and merry-go-round government has laid the foundation for a future where the next generation of Australians will consider leaving Australia to pursue a better life elsewhere.
Our political leaders have tragically embarked on a toxic negotiation against themselves. Seemingly focused on winning the battles for prime minister and government, our politicians have lost sight of what these roles really mean — to lead our nation to greater social and economic prosperity.
An increase in party in-fighting and political one-upmanship has allowed personal ambition to triumph over national progression. Our politicians have pursued staunch ideology in favour of the pragmatic execution of ideas to deliver tangible benefit. There have been several government stalemates, with Prime Ministers unable to bring warring tribes together.
Simply put, Australia lacks a long-term strategic vision. And we desperately need one.
Let’s consider some examples where Australia could not succeed where other countries have.
PLAYING TO LOSE
Over the past 30 years, Norway — a country with one-fifth the population of Australia — has built the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, valued at over $1.5 trillion, from its oil reserves. It’s true that one day the oil will run out, but the return on the fund will continue to benefit the Norwegian population, and Norway’s oil piggy bank is currently worth more than the GDP of Indonesia.
The Petroleum Fund was established in 1990 to counter the effects of the forthcoming decline in income, and to smooth out the disruptive effects of highly fluctuating oil prices.
Progressive, smart, future-looking.
By comparison, Australia’s equivalent the Minerals Resource Rent Tax was useless. Riding a once-in-a-generation mining boom, which prevented Australia from plunging into recession in the Global Financial Crisis, we did not exert strategic or political savvy.
In scrapping the mining tax, Treasurer Joe Hockey called it “a testament to a failed Labor government, failed economic policy, failed taxation policy and a failed treasurer.” Tony Abbott called it a “stupid” tax.
Sadly, it’s a fact that the success of Norway is testament to the inept management of our own country. In Australia, an “obvious source of revenue was turned down for short-term political expediency and then abandoned entirely”.
INNOVATION NATION? COMPLACENT NATION
We have not become Malcolm Turnbull’s “Innovation Nation”. Rather, we have become a Complacent Nation. Seemingly oblivious to a potential future of economic pain, we ride the prosperity of the past and blithely believe “she’ll be right.”
In some ways, this attitude is understandable. Australia has not had a recession for nearly 30 years. Millennials haven’t experienced war or serious economic hardship (though, of course, many suffer hardship individually). How can we intrinsically know what we need to fight against if we haven’t experienced it?
Our young talent often pursues greater career opportunities abroad. While Melbourne and Sydney (and sometimes even Perth) are touted as startup hubs, our immature technology ecosystem has not been groomed to support the development of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) companies. We cannot compete on a global scale.
For example, consider South Korea, a country which invested massively in the rapid pursuit of industrialization and technology. It has experienced one of the largest economic transformations of the past 60 years — despite the fact that when the Korean war ended in 1953, it had a similar GDP (gross domestic product) per capita to North Korea. While the North has barely grown since, with a 2016 GDP of USD 16 billion, in that same year South Korea became the 11th largest economy in the world (larger than Australia), in terms of gross domestic product.
Perhaps it is this close proximity to its hostile neighbour, whose borders bristle with nuclear weapons, that has focused South Korea’s resolve and determination to succeed. By comparison, Australia, an island without land borders and secure in its isolation, has sunk into complacency. We take our peace, freedom from threat, and economic luck for granted, engendering a sense of self-satisfaction.
The South Korean government focused on long-term thinking and innovation to develop world-leading industries. And it’s this kind of thinking that has made it the powerhouse that it is today.
CLIMATE ACTION: VISIONARY THINKING FOR THE ECONOMY AND ENVIRONMENT
A forward-looking approach to industry is not the only feature lacking in our current leadership. The world faces a huge threat from climate change and our politicians lack visionary thinking.
No matter where you sit on the political spectrum, no one can argue that pollution is good for the environment and the planet. If you do think it’s good for the planet, go visit a city like Jakarta (28 million people), New Delhi (20 million people), or even LA (4 million people, with a lot of cars) and breathe in some hazy smog-filled air and let me know how you get on.
I believe unequivocally that climate change is an urgent and massive global priority. I’m scared, for myself, and for future generations.
While Australia is one of the highest per-capita emitters of carbon dioxide annually, with our small population, we emit only about 1.1% of the world’s carbon dioxide. With this relatively small contribution to global emissions, the reality is that Australia cannot change or save the world itself — 98.9% of the world’s emissions are from elsewhere.
Our limited direct influence, however, is not an excuse for inactivity. Nor should economic concerns about addressing climate change force us into a false binary choice of environmentalism versus economic development. We can have it all.
ScoMo says, “Bill Shorten wants to end the weekend … [An electric vehicle] won’t tow your trailer. It’s not going to tow your boat. It’s not going to get you out to your favourite camping spot with your family.”
This is the equivalent of saying “stick with your horse. That new automobile is too slow, not nimble enough and won’t get you where you need to go.” ScoMo is wary of the future and the uncertainties he perceives in new technology.
Morrison also states that the average price of an electric vehicle is $28,000 more than a non-electric car. That is true — today. We’ve all seen technology prices drop significantly while offering better performance — phones, computers, cars, solar panels — and car makers are about to assault the market with electric vehicles. Mercedes Benz has just announced that by 2039 they will make their entire fleet carbon neutral. We are at the start of the technological innovation cycle — price and performance will only improve from here. Five years ago, there were barely any electric cars. In the next decade, all car manufacturers will have electric models at comparable or cheaper prices.
ScoMo misses these crucial points, playing the fear card instead.
For Labor, Shorten presents himself as a climate change champion. He offers emotional comfort for the urgency of climate action, but unfortunately, the data shows that no matter what Bill does, Australia will have barely any effect on saving the planet, and only appease our moral ego.
Labor and Liberal both miss the point that embracing greentech is as much an economic decision as an environmental one. According to Prof Ross Garnaut, Australia can be the superpower of the post-carbon world economy. The opportunity lies in Australia aggressively moving to a greener, renewable, and sustainable energy sources, with significant investment in our capability to become a global leader in clean technologies. The world is moving towards renewables, and price/performance curves are trending exponentially downwards. We can realise the economic opportunities of renewable growth and become a green nation. We need this bold leadership.
THE WAY FORWARD
Trying to make people change their minds doesn’t really accomplish anything. It is when people realise that change is in their self-interest, they’ll follow.
Advocates of radical climate action will not change the minds of those who think action will handbrake the economy. Vegan activists breaking into farms don’t inspire meat lovers to burn their barbeques. People don’t like being told what to do, especially when there’s no empathy for their plight.
In a world of 24/7 news cycles, where everything is politicised, the coach in me says we need empathetic visionary leadership.
We need to shift from trying to convince people to change their minds, to presenting a vision for a better future where people’s goals and self-interests can be realised. Our leaders need to stand by their truth. Australians will either jump on board with them, or they won’t.
An obvious place to start is by rewarding bold leaders electorally, rather than punishing them in the polls. Parties abandoning their leaders in fear of electoral wipeout is a bad idea.
While we have had the Industrial Revolutions, we have never had the revolution of, for example, artificial intelligence, which is the most disruptive technology we’ve ever created. We cannot base Australia’s future prosperity on our ability to dig resources out of the ground. Living with the views of the past is untenable. We need progression.
At the same time, it’s fine to say that we need more infrastructure, more innovation, and better healthcare. We need a lot of things. What we need most is a governing vision of how to deliver these things.
The only way this can realistically be achieved is through strong, future-focused leadership where ideas trump ego.
We need to make hard choices about what we stand for. Are we a state-heavy Nordic style social-democracy, or more like a South Korean-style technology-focused society, where government spending priorities optimize the conditions for innovation rather than social welfare, or something else?
When voting this weekend, I will be left wanting. I want to vote for a vision of Australia I believe in. I want to know what our leaders stand for.
I do empathise with our leaders. It’s a damn hard job. We have wrongly become accustomed to reactive rather than proactive policy and we need to change. We need boldness and bravery. We need our leader’s truth to triumph over their desire to grab one more vote. We need the stability, strength and opportunity that my father found here half a century ago, so that, just like him, our children can thrive and prosper.
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I’m Carlo and I’m a medical doctor turned entrepreneur, executive coach, and speaker. I focus at the intersection of health, business, and innovation, working with individuals, teams, and organisations who seek high performance. I’m based between London, San Francisco, and Perth and enjoy the snow as much as the sun. Reach out to me at www.carlo-bellini.com or email@example.com