Books, Non-Fiction, Reviews

Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment (book review)

| |

This is a welcome, often ambitious and sobering book, written by two of our youngest members of parliament: Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts. Both are first term parliamentarians, from the ‘the Class of 2013’. Both are appalled by the state of our parliamentary system and by the parlous state of our political dialogue. Together they have come up with a set of proposals which, if implemented, just might help save Australia from mediocrity or worse.
9781925240214All through the book, the authors pose relevant questions that help focus the reader’s mind on the key issues. For example: “Will Australia lead the world in the development of new energy technologies and embrace the possibilities created by the transition to a low-pollution economy? Or will we fail to adapt, leaving the worst-off in our society vulnerable in a degraded environment and a second-rate economy?” or “Will Australians be in the vanguard of the Digital Revolution, creating new ways of producing goods and services, and reshaping our government? Or will the majority of people be excluded from the benefits of this revolution, competing for jobs with robots and algorithms that drive down their wages and conditions?” or “Will Australia become a Southeast Asian power, trusted by great powers for its expertise and influence? Or will the nation decline in its international standing, its voice lost among the clamour of ever larger and more powerful neighbours?” The answers to these and many more such thought-provoking questions will define which of our potential “Two Futures” we achieve by 2040.
O’Neil and Watts between them represent over 383,000 Australians. They are both married with young families and carry a heavy parliamentary workload. They send and receive over a thousand emails a week and attend and speak at parliamentary and community events. Despite that, they have made the time to ponder the big questions and come up with good arguments as to why and where we need to affect change. The authors have chosen 2040 as their target date to achieve reform, and over six chapters they present well-researched arguments as to how we might progress towards that target – either in a positive manner or (by continuing on our present path) in a series of depressing, declining steps. It is worth touching on each of these chapters to show the breadth of their thinking and concerns.
Democracy: Surveys have shown that Australians have steadily lost confidence in our form of government and political leadership. As result, well over one million voters have withdrawn their support from the major parties since 1983. The authors propose a number of initiatives to counter this. For instance: “that a portion of every parliamentary week be dedicated to citizen’s business, in which Australian citizens directly propose topics for debate by their elected representatives.” (A sort of parliamentary Q&A.) The topics would be selected by online voters, using peer voting of the kind found in several social media sites.
Inequality: Despite the perceived rise of the middle-class, we are less equal than we have ever been. “In the late 1980s the wages of the top tenth of income earners were about five times larger than than those in the bottom tenth; now they are eight times larger.” At the same time housing prices have grown so fast that large numbers of young (and not so young) are getting locked out of the market. Much needed changes in the tax and superannuation regimes can go some way towards alleviating this; and the authors place great emphasis on improved education and technical training (from an early age).
Technology: Online technology has revolutionised the way we deal with government – whether it is applying for a license, making a medical claim or dealing with a government department. The authors recognise that we will continue to see enormous technological change in the period under review, but they make the important point that it will be “our values (my italics) and how they guide the decisions we make” that will determine what our society looks like and how it behaves in 2040.
Climate: Using 2040 as a target date, the authors remind us that we are currently looking at a global temperature rise of around 2 deg, perhaps more. We already know this will mean a rise in heat-related deaths, more bushfires and rising sea levels. But this will be nothing to the regional instability that will be caused. Millions of people will be looking for resettlement as their low-lying lands are inundated. A few boat people will be an irrelevant issue by comparison. There is still a great apathy in the Australian electorate on the practical issues relating to climate change. This “she’ll be right” attitude can only be addressed by strong political leadership.
Growth: A future cabinet that included ministers for “Early Childhood Education”, “Asian Engagement” and “Climate Change” could see decisions made by those ministers as being more crucial to the nation than decisions by the treasurer. As the population ages, we need more young settlers. A larger migrant intake would provide more workers for every non-worker. But we will have to attract those workers, as we compete against Canada, the USA and the United Kingdom.
Finally, the authors reiterate that we have at least two possible futures. One is the pessimistic result of doing little more than we are doing between now and 2040. The other requires dynamic and visionary leadership and a strong sense of place in the region. What actually happens is likely to be somewhere between the two, but with more young politicians like O’Neil and Watts, and if they can retain their enthusiasm and foresight, and bring the necessary pressure on our leaders, then we have a slim chance of pulling ourselves through.
Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment
By Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts
Foreword by Laura Tingle
(Text Publishing Company, 2015, 244pp.)
You can buy the book here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *