The future we want is more likely to be delivered by us than by our politicians.
In this election, will Australians get what they want for the future? No, because that’s not what they’re being offered by the major parties. They will have to build their preferred future by other means.
Federal and state politicians rarely, if ever, ask us what we want for the future. Even the good ones simply tell us what we can and can’t have and expect us to take what we get – as though it’s their money we’re spending, not ours.
If we’re lucky, every now and then a decent leader will come along with some degree of longer term vision – a sense of what should really matter in the long run – and their election platform might contain an offering of some things we really need. Some promised gifts may even materialise after the election, at least in small measures. But even if we get that brief shot of luck every now and then, the offerings themselves are never based on what we the people really want. They’re not based on what we can imagine and aspire to as the best possible future. Indeed, how could they be, given that political parties at the federal and state levels never ask us about that?
Nevertheless, over the last decade a number of research organisations and community groups have been asking Australians what they want for their future and we have freely given our answers. These answers have been shared openly and they provide the pieces of a picture that we can now assemble of a future in which everyone can find a space to live their life as they determine to be meaningful and fulfilling. These shared answers have provided the insight into what we really want.
And when these shared pieces are assembled, what becomes apparent is that, when it comes to the future, Australians – regardless of any political, cultural, economic, gender or ideological differences – are staggeringly similar in their aspirations. We all want the same things for our kids, nieces, nephews, and anyone dear to us who is born next in our communities. We all want wellbeing and security and the same opportunities to attain those fundamental conditions. We may disagree about what we want in the present. But the fact is we tend not to disagree about what we want as an ideal for the longer term.
Noting that agreement – the fact that we cohere most strongly as a society when we lift our sights above the short term party political agendas and think longer term – a draft of a consolidated vision of our particular preferred national future has now been assembled by one of those myriad research organisations, Australian Community Futures Planning. They have pulled together the various pieces of the picture of our desires shared openly by these different agencies and community groups over the last decade, and have put them in one place so that Australians can step back and consider it all. It’s called the Vision for Australia Together, and what it paints is a simple picture of the sort of life we have said we wish to be able to lead as a cohesive nation and the country we wish to live in by 2050 or sooner.
This draft Vision for Australia Together is not the ad man’s one liner that the average politician would seek to rely on. It looks nothing like a campaign slogan. But it’s not long and turgid either. Our desires for the future are as straightforward and practical as they are similar, and given the right space to express ourselves, we have no difficulty in imagining and articulating the world we want our kids to live in. Dullards we are not when it comes to our dreams, and it turns out that brevity is possible when everyone agrees – but it’s meaningful brevity, not the ad man’s brevity that serves us ill at every election.
This wondrous agreement on a preferred future for the nation, even though it’s only a first draft, sets out a clear destination of safety, wellbeing and security in straightforward, practical terms. It also shows what our nation and country can become along the way if we integrate our efforts and follow the safe routes to the described destination. Since it’s the best version of our nation that we can imagine at the moment it is, by definition, ambitious. But it’s by no means unachievable.
Even so, this particular Vision is not what’s on offer in this election, not by a long shot. It is certainly not on offer from the two major parties, the Coalition and Labor.
For instance, the draft Vision for Australia Together strongly suggests that Australians would prefer a nation assured of enduring peace, but both major parties have offered belligerent strategies and arms escalation that will be more likely to result in enduring war.
We would prefer an economy that doesn’t produce greenhouse gases, but both sides are offering one that will still produce so much it will cook the planet.
We would prefer a government we can trust but we are being offered one that has no commitment to a binding code of conduct (neither the Morrison government nor the Labor Opposition have supported a tightening of the ethical standards to which federal politicians may be held to account).
We would prefer a universal health care system – one where everyone has equal access to the best standard of care – but we are being offered one which privileges the wealthy and is looking more like the American privatised health system every day.
We would prefer an education system that provides equal opportunity but we are being offered one (at least by the Coalition) which privileges private schools, particularly the wealthiest ones, and which is restricting access to tertiary education, simply by making it unaffordable.
We would prefer an aged care system which provides home care packages and supervises the standard of care in service delivery but we are being offered a system (at least by the Coalition) where we are more likely to die waiting for the home care package and more likely to die of neglect in an aged care home.
We would prefer an economy in which we can find secure and sufficient hours of work but we are being offered a neoliberal management system for the economy which has over the last decade delivered unnecessarily high unemployment, low wages and low productivity – and all with unnecessarily high debt.
We would prefer a country with a much smaller gap between rich and poor but we are being offered a taxation and wealth distribution system designed specifically to embed continuing growth in inequality. That same neoliberalism which has been forcing us to suffer extended periods of high labour underutilisation (averaging 13.7% per annum between 2009 and the end of 2021, and which is still above 10% in 2022) is also the system which has slowly embedded smaller shares of national wealth for the bottom 80% of wage earners and a huge drop in the proportion of young Australians who can afford to own a home.
Those neoliberal policies – of small government, poorly regulated markets, privatisation of public assets, corporate greed, regressive taxation, exclusion from welfare, exclusion of women from the workforce and withdrawal of affordable education for all – have not delivered the growth, jobs, productivity, better wages, security or the housing we need. They have delivered inequality, growing poverty, hunger and homelessness.
And yet that is the paltry offering that the Morrison government in particular is seeking to persuade us will work better soon, even though at no time since the Global Financial Crisis have these policies resulted in an improved standard of living. Verification of this sad fact is plain to see in The State of Australia 2022, a new report providing Australians with their first comprehensive picture of our wellbeing and security as a nation and our preparedness for the future.
This report has assembled a large data set which now functions as Australia’s first comprehensive National Wellbeing Index and it uses the data to check whether we are moving towards or away from the draft Vision for Australia Together. The results are clear. We are not moving toward the Australia described in the Vision. We are moving towards its polar opposite and have been moving that way steadily for well more than a decade. From this perspective, Australia must be seen as a nation in decline.
If the draft Vision for Australia Together reasonably describes the future we really do want (and there’s no reason yet to think it doesn’t), then we are headed into deep trouble.
How deep? Well, not so deeply yet, that it can’t be turned around.
There are some important data in The State of Australia 2022 that suggest there is extensive human capacity and, which is more important, human will – deep human desire – to reverse our current course and track back towards the future described in the Vision for Australia Together. The evidence of that will is there in the data of the report, although it’s not easy to see amid all the other very painful statistics about our damaged society, environment, economy, governance and the decline of our wellbeing and security.
The data and results in The State of Australia 2022 indicate that Australia has three big strengths which, if well organised, can still swing our fortunes towards the sort of life we have imagined is possible. The first is our wealth as the 13th richest nation on the planet – although that is not worth much without the other two strengths since it can be so easily squandered.
The second strength, as it turns out, is in our own attitudes. These show a strong predisposition to reverse growing inequality, solve climate change, build back better after the pandemic, create an inclusive economy particularly for participation by women, work peaceably and cooperatively with the rest of the world and, perhaps most importantly, address the faults of our founding as a nation and our denial of an Indigenous heart. The results show a degree of desire for these things that has not been evident before. The pandemic seems to have pushed Australians into a convergence on what is most important. It appears as something of a rejuvenation – a coming together after a shock.
Tapping into that new national will may be a challenge but that is where the third strength comes in. In the internet age, Australians now have free access to an open and orderly process by which they can build on the first two strengths more efficiently than they could until now – by becoming more efficiently and effectively involved in their own democracy, planning safe routes towards a better future and monitoring that we are on track. This is called National Integrated Planning & Reporting and it can help us rise above the short term political agendas. With this tool, Australians can build their own plan for the particular future they prefer, then loudly and coherently tell politicians what they want and how they want to get it. No need to wait for the luck of a political saviour.
The data in The State of Australia 2022 show there is now a significant mismatch between what we want and what we’re being offered by those short-sighted, totally out-of-touch politicians who are willing to use our democracy without a sense of decency or obligation to us.
If Australians wait for politicians to lead us to our truly preferred destination, they are likely to be waiting until it is too late to make that future a reality, even if a makeshift repair of their unethical conduct occurs in the next election with the possible growth of diverse voices in parliament. A more durable repair of our democracy will require more organised participation by us, by we the people. National Integrated Planning & Reporting gives Australians a means of speaking with a coherent voice. Now is the time to start using it if we want the decent leaders to hear.