From an oration in honour of Jim Carlton AO at the University of Melbourne 25 March 2019.
I want to talk about what I’m going to describe as a mission – Australia’s next long wave of reform. It is this third wave of reform which must bring us to a compact on the big ideas which will drive policies and programs at all levels of government and within our national community for a generation. It should give effect to consistent Australian attitudes on government and democracy, described by Rebecca Huntley in the latest Quarterly Essay, citing research by the Centre for Policy Development (CPD) prominently.
I hope this third wave may have something of the impact we experienced from the second wave.
In the late sixties, we started a long national conversation. Over fifteen years, economists, some journalists, academics, government economists (mainly from Canberra), leading business and union figures, and a few parliamentarians began to debate how to energise Australia and open it to the world.
But we are now established on a descending path of trust in our parliamentary and political institutions.
- 70% of Australians don’t think their elected representatives are serving their interests.
- 75% of Australians believe our politics are fixated on short-term gains, instead of long-term challenges.
- Just 20% of Australians think the only responsibility corporations have is to create value for shareholders.
We have reached a point at which general public support for the second wave of reform has dissipated. Yet we are, in aggregate, prosperous and something of a national economic success story. Why, then, are so many Australians grumpy?
Well, seen from a community perspective, the proceeds of economic activity have shifted from families to business:
- With wages stagnant, the outsourcing of Commonwealth service delivery to the private sector (such as employment services, aged care, and VET) has failed, and it is clear that Canberra knows this.
- The reduction in value of key benefits, such as those received by the unemployed, has left large numbers without dignity and hope.
- Social housing for those displaced and impoverished by Commonwealth reforms was neglected, while we led the world in rising house prices.
- The Commonwealth has been very late to recognise the consequences for our large cities of rapid population growth, flowing from the time of Peter Costello’s Intergenerational Reports.
- Too many corporations have become rent-seekers, with little serious commitment to investing in R&D, product and service innovation, and staff training (all of which are in aggregate decline across the private sector).
- Until recently, many of these corporations have been at the heart of deflecting attention at the political level from what most Australians believe is must-do reform in the third wave – urgent attention to decarbonising our economy.
Democracy’s triple helix
You may be familiar with the concept of the triple helix, used to model university-industry-government collaboration.
I want to use the triple helix as a metaphor for critical relationships between the strands of Australia’s democracy, on which the future of our country depends.
Firstly, institutions, which embody the health and vibrancy of our representative democracy, its parliamentary expression, and the professional and ethical public sector agencies accountable to parliament through ministers. Trust in these institutions sustains legitimacy. But this extends beyond public institutions. Royal Commissions and inquiries into the Banks, Aged Services, Child Sexual Abuse, and now VET tell us that private and community institutions matter too.
Secondly, big ideas, which respond to long-term challenges and give birth to major policies and the effective program initiatives which define what governments do in the community and the economy. Those ideas also define how government works in concert with industry and civil society. Nation building and then economic thought reflected different sets of critical big ideas. They were right for their time.
Thirdly, delivery: the efficacy, honesty, and accountability of public administration and the institutions of which it is comprised, and the quality of their services.
The axis of the triple helix is the legal foundations, conventions, values, expectations, democratic practices including public discourse, and the acceptable path to the future on which most agree. Taken together, these are accepted by the community as the rules of the game — the boundaries defining what is acceptable.
We know quite a lot from CPD’s attitudes research over the past two years about the public’s view of the axis of the triple helix. And it isn’t captured by the slogan ‘Aussie Rules’ carried on the front page of The Economist last October. Even that article articulated the growing uneasiness Australians feel about the future.
The results of CPD’s attitudes research suggest to me that, to a varying extent, institutions, big ideas, and delivery are now weak reflections of the axis of our democratic system – the views and expectations Australians have of their democracy.
Importantly, the axis of Australia’s democratic system is not the same as the axis of the American democratic system. It’s not the same as the ever-shrinking axis of Britain’s Brexit democracy.
What we have found is that Australians don’t want to blow up their democracy; they want to save it. When Australians are asked what they think is the main purpose of democracy, the answer twice as popular as any other is “ensuring people are treated fairly and equally, including the most vulnerable in our community”. This is actually the Australian story from times past, and it remains valid.
In my view, a big problem is the absence of agreement on the big ideas to drive the next long wave of policy reform designed around an Australia in which citizens aspire to live.
Certainly, institutions and delivery need reform, but this is best done in the light of agreement on where we are to go — the light on the hill, and where that light is.
There is much around at the moment on improvements to the systems and processes of Australian democracy. I think some of the suggested reforms have value, but will not in isolation solve the problem. Much of it is embroidery at the edge of the real debate we need to have.
To be clear, we’ve reached the end of a nearly 50-year policy cycle, dominated by ideas derived from macro- and micro-economics. Community sentiment has swung away from the primacy of light-touch regulation of markets, the unexamined benefits of outsourcing, a general preference for smaller government, and a willing ignorance of public sector values and culture as a means of underwriting commitment to the public interest and the needs of communities.
Instead, there is growing acceptance of an increased role for government, including involvement in service delivery, effective regulation, and bold policy initiatives. Australians want government to be active and collaborative players, not just investors or market fixers. We know they support reinvestment in the delivery of essential services. Interestingly, local government is now trusted more than the Commonwealth Government.
The changes ahead will be comparable in their breadth to our national experience of economic and social reform from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. That period of immense change transformed Australia. Just like then, we’re going to need fresh ideas, big, bold ideas which can drive new policies and the programs to foster sustainable economy and increased wellbeing across society.
You may have heard of Mariana Mazzucato, an economist CPD hosted for her first Australian tour last year. Mariana’s work on the entrepreneurial state and public value has struck a chord worldwide, with, for example, Martin Wolf, Theresa May, the EU, and even new American congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Mariana made a big impact in Australia, speaking to around 2000 people, and briefing the heads of the CSIRO, Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Chief Scientist, senior public servants, and the Shadow Economic Team.
Mariana doesn’t just speak of bold ideas. She speaks about missions and moonshots. It’s another way, perhaps a powerful way, to describe the light on the hill and a story about Australia in which all of us can believe. A mission is something we can all buy into, not just watch.
Mariana’s work urges governments, industry, and the community to identify core ‘missions’, and go for them. Her missions framework doesn’t pit government against business or the community. It doesn’t speak about picking winners. It picks the willing, those in our society who believe in an improved future for all Australians who are prepared to chance their arm (and balance sheet) to arrive there. Interestingly, philanthropic foundations have already started to play a role in helping shape possible missions and underwrite a collaborative model to achieve them.
My view is that Australians want government to seek tailored, smart, creative solutions, which draw on the experience of civil society, business, and the public. They want missions. They want government to admit it doesn’t have all the answers, and organise the search for them, working across departments and other levels of government, industry, and the community to find the best entry points.
It’s precisely this framework we need to think about Australia’s next long wave of reform.
What are our missions?
Tempting as it is to invent a set of big ideas to frame the third wave of reform, I can only mention those things I believe to be strong candidates.
- Decarbonising our economy.
- Equipping our workforce and businesses with the capabilities to succeed in the new digital era.
- Finding a new configuration of national security and diplomatic relationships for Australia, as China and the US struggle for dominance in our region.
- A new emphasis on successful integration of new national, ethnic, and religious communities into an Australia which has dropped the ball on settlement. To this, we must add our shameful failure with respect to empowering indigenous communities and embracing the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
- An approach to national economic development which emphasises goals of national competitiveness, regional integration, and a full embrace of the region and its peoples in all their diversity.
- Subsidiarity, driven by a respect for individuals, families, and communities seeking to find comfort and support in local connection within new approaches to governance and service delivery.
In fact, I want to suggest that subsidiarity is one imperative to underpin success. I see it as a means of providing new respect for communities at the local level, while equipping them with resources, strategies, systems, and opportunities to work within local community, and business networks and systems of democratic accountability.