A recent ABC Big Ideas program 'Imagining Australia in 2030' (first broadcast 19 April 2012 but repeated on 24 Jan. 2013) discussed Australia's social and economic future and recent policy trends.
Various panellists represented a range of views and concerns. Eva Cox continued her longstanding claim that Australia is moving away from its collective direction in the 1960s and 1970s towards an individualist society. The Australian's George Megalogenis countered by arguing that protectionism during the 1960s and 1970s proved incapable of addressing Australia's declining economic plight and high unemployment levels by the early 1980s.
But common sense tells us that both collective and individualist impulses remain evident within Australia's policy mix and society, albeit constantly evolving within a world of competitive nations still struggling for resources and the influence of certain ideas.
While only a fool would assume all is okay, there are many examples that offset negative economic and social developments. For example, I remember when many more Australians had far less opportunity to purchase quality and cheaper consumer goods. I also remember state governments outlawing homosexuality until the 1970s with reforms of criminal law continuing until 2003 when NSW brought the age of consent for same-sex and opposite-sex conduct into line.
The truth is that Cox does not have a monopoly on historical analysis or ideas about how to create a fairer society.
Australia's recent economic policy choices may have reflected much greater pressure to adhere to freer trade, but were also promoted as part of a concept deemed more capable of promoting peace and prosperity between nations. This remains the case, despite ongoing immense inequality between nations and the recent disaster of the global financial crisis which reflects the ongoing reality of imperfect policies within a competitive world.
In an era where more nations have greater opportunity to encourage economic production and attract vital investment, Australia's distribution of public resources has increasingly focused on greater efficiency and accountability.
While Cox even gloated of a time when she did not have to compete for public funding, all public resources are now under greater scrutiny. Gone are the days when my mate could take a three hour daily lunch in his Australian Taxation Office job. Gone are the days when another friend could turn up to his Australian Public service and do nothing for two years before retiring at 55 on a $55,000 annual pension. And gone are the days when few questions were asked of dole recipients, providing an easy opportunity for fraud.
Without dismissing any legitimate economic and social concerns, including unprecedented environmental degradation caused by human activity, Australia's relative material well-being today was aided by recent reforms in line with the demands of an increasingly international economy. This included significant labour market deregulation and taxation reform.
This does not mean that Australia avoided major economic and social problems. For instance, a growing proportion of Australians face home unaffordability, especially in Australia's major cities. George Megalogenis also points to the increasing casualization of the workforce with less than half of jobs now taken by male full-time workers leaving many underworked men in country towns and poorer suburbs.
But there are no easy fixes for Australia by 2030, albeit that Australia can still point to fewer economic and social problems than most other nations. While Australia will benefit greatly from the export of minerals and fuels to Asia, it will need to remain internationally competitive in terms of labour costs and taxation levels. Hence, the plea by federal Greens MP Adam Bandt for Labor to increase taxation to boost social welfare services may fall on deaf ears for some time yet.
In terms of wealth creation, and despite the Reserve Bank's Glenn Stephens suggesting that the world now paid greater attention to Australian economic success, Australia now has fewer options in regard to balancing our productive capacity and consumption. The public is much less willing to empty its pockets given Australia already has one of the largest levels of household debt. Governments have far fewer public assets to sell. And governments, still conscious of winning enough public support through social welfare assistance (including health and education), are struggling to free up enough vital resources to help fund vital infrastructure and possible other needs.
Chris Lewis has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world. He is currently an Associate at the University of New England Centre for Local Government and provides research assistance for several professors at the Australian National University.