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Mature debate on our future needed, not Tea Party-style militancy

by Matt Browne and Tim Dixon

Populist short-termism is threatening Australia’s glowing economic potential, write Tim Dixon and Matt Browne.
From outside, Australia seems stuck in a moment of diminished ambition and rancour. Consumer confidence is down and the national mood is sullen. For visitors and Australians abroad, it’s almost incomprehensible.

Unlike others, Australia is not cramped by economic decline, high unemployment, chronic pollution, regional conflicts, disputed borders or the burdens of history.

Even Australia’s tyranny of distance is now becoming, as The Economist has said, an “advantage of adjacency”. And the Australian character – egalitarian, adaptable, with a sunny disposition and a natural curiosity – has just what it takes to succeed in a globalised age. Every nation has its opportunities and its own reasons for optimism, but Australia’s potential truly is exceptional.

The mining boom, for example, might be the most favourable outside economic event in the nation’s history. It’s also probably the last great boom Australia’s fossil fuels will bring. Either way, it has created real possibilities that have barely registered in the national psyche.

This is where a mature debate about Australia’s future is needed. In itself, selling resources does not increase Australia’s wealth – it just converts an asset into cash. What is Australia going to do with the proceeds, and who will benefit?

Australia could make big steps towards a clean energy economy with only small sacrifices. It could put a share of the proceeds into a wealth fund for future generations – as other resource economies have been doing: Norway, Kuwait, the UAE, Chile and even Russia and Nigeria. A wealth fund set up with oil revenues two decades ago by Norway – a much smaller economy than Australia – now exceeds $500 billion, a magnificent endowment that gives Norwegians a ”Plan B” if the nation’s fortunes suddenly change. Australia could also tackle growing social disadvantage at its roots, with large-scale investment in schools and infrastructure across its city fringes.

Each of those steps requires deliberate choices and a sensible national debate. But the state of Australia’s daily news cycle is making such choices harder, with its focus on short-term grievances, partisanship, polls and sideshow politics. Is there any wonder many Australians are feeling deeply frustrated? Politics has turned inward, just at the time when Australia should be looking out and getting things into perspective.

Instead of working through a larger, long-term vision – as an opposition party preparing for government might – Australia’s conservative parties have taken a page from the US Republican playbook, embracing one negative, short-term populist campaign after another. Australia is now on course to become the only advanced economy outside the US where rejecting climate science remains a mainstream part of conservative politics.

Australia stands at an intersection. Can Australians be convinced to forgo short-term benefits to secure greater prosperity in the future?

California’s referendum last November over Proposition 23 shows voters can still reject short-term populism. Polluting industries poured millions into a proposal to delay cuts in greenhouse gas emissions until the economy was back to full employment. But Californians said no – 62 to 38 per cent – because the debate was framed in terms of embracing the clean energy jobs and industries of the future.

Meanwhile, under the influence of the Tea Party, Kansas voted last November to make gun ownership a constitutional right. It’s not the kind of issue that will build a better future – but it was clever politics. Kansas embraced it lock, stock and barrel, 88 to 12 per cent. The Tea Party militancy of states such as Kansas is now infecting Australia’s Coalition parties and many opinion makers – parochial, inward-looking and uninterested in the economics of the future.

Will Australia follow the road to California or to Kansas? Sometimes we make the best choices by pressing the fast-forward button and imagining ourselves looking back, years from now. The course of events that takes us to 2030 is unknown. But there’s little doubt that the countries best placed will be those who are open, tolerant, diverse, highly skilled and less dependent on carbon fuels. Australia can be all those things – and become the country everyone else wants to be.

This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald 15 July 2011

About Tim Dixon

Tim Dixon

Tim Dixon is the chief political strategist at Purpose.com in New York, where he works across Purpose’s US and international projects, building new movements for progressive change. Tim worked as senior economic adviser and chief speechwriter to Prime Ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, and to Labor Leader Kim Beazley, between 2005 and 2010. Tim is also a former lawyer and co-author of Australia’s leading economics textbook. @dixontim

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