If you want an alternative to the Abbott future for Australia, this book is for you. It has the ideas and policy approaches with which to bombard politicians and opinion-makers.
The publisher, the Centre for Policy Development (CPD), was established in 2007, a progressive think-tank that grew out of New Matilda
, providing an important counter to right-wing think-tanks such as the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) and the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA).
This IPA article
is an example of what we are up against and why this book is so important.
In its six years of operation, CPD has already influenced Labor policy on health and its members regularly attend conferences, write articles, and make appearances on The Drum
on ABC News 24. A young organisation, CPD is already making its mark. The people involved and who have contributed to this book help explain why. Many of the authors, experts in their field, you will know: for example, the editor Miriam Lyons; Eva Cox on welfare; Ian McAuley on restructuring the economy; Jane Caro, well-known from the ABC’s Gruen Transfer
and a strong proponent of public education, one of two authors on education; and Geoff Gallup, former WA Premier, on a national vision and strategy.
I come to this book after 30 years of policy work in Aboriginal affairs, covering issues such as education and training, economic development and ‘development approaches’ to service delivery. I understand policy, and implementing policy, and the interplay of economic and social issues as they affect everyday lives. I know and like what this book is about. Pushing Our Luck
presents a wide ranging picture of the changes needed in our economic and social structures if we are to maintain our ‘luck’ into the future. Its approach matches my own experience linking people and economics, not considering the two as somehow divorced.
Such a linkage was stated strongly by the OECD in 2005
... children of poor parents have less chance of succeeding in life than children of rich parents: a widening inequality of income risks leading to a widening inequality of opportunity. Because of these factors, a failure to tackle the poverty facing millions of families and their children is not only socially reprehensible, it will also weigh heavily on our capacity to sustain economic growth for years to come.
Despite that, our governments appear not to have come to grips with the concept. This book does and deserves attention; and deserves to be put under the noses of our politicians.
The ‘Introduction’ (by the editor, Miriam Lyons) asks the question why Australians feel financially insecure when economic indicators suggest Australia is at or very near the top of the league of developed countries. There is rising inequality and governments are providing fewer services, placing more risk and uncertainty back on the individual. The economy of the nation may be travelling well but many people are working longer, often in less secure employment, and not seeing the benefits of our economic success.
Returning to the old Australian concept of a fair and egalitarian society is part of the answer. Lindy Edwards pursues this in Chapter 9, ‘Welcome Home: Preventing the next culture war’. She asks for more emphasis on Australia’s democratic history: the radical path we trod in the late 1800s and early 1900s, giving women the vote and allowing ordinary people, not just an elite, to be elected to parliament. She relates the story of an early member of the Australian Parliament making a speech with holes in his suit pants because it was the only suit he had. The fact that Australia had the world’s first Labo(u)r government was no accident but a result of our founders ensuring that ordinary people were drawn into the political process.
The idea that human societies are not chained to repeating history and that we can create a better world runs deep in the Australian tradition. In recent years we have lost sight of how rare that philosophy was, and still is.
She calls her approach ‘egalitarian nationalism’ and presents it as an alternative but inclusive national narrative to that of multiculturalism. It is also highly relevant to the rest of the book as such a shift in our national narrative could create greater acceptance of the alternative policy proposals.
In both the health chapter (Chapter 3, ‘Getting better: prescriptions for an ailing health system’, Jennifer Doggett) and the education chapter (Chapter 2, ‘Getting past Gonski: every child deserves a good school’, Chris Bonnor and Jane Caro), the authors show the increasing divide occurring in access to services, with the well-off using private schools and private hospitals while public systems remain under-resourced.
In education both higher and lower achieving students are becoming more concentrated in separate schools. The authors support the Gonski approach to increase funding to those schools most in need but suggest neither the Coalition nor Labor is committed to taking all the steps necessary for equity and opportunity.
It is amazing that we are still discussing inequality in education. I have, from a time when we did believe in equality, Tom Roper’s 1971 book The Myth of Equality
. In the subsequent 42 years there have been many changes in our education systems but Roper would recognise the same failings. We have not provided the funding necessary, nor adopted the policies that would change it. I agree that much needs to be done, perhaps even more than suggested by this chapter.
Eva Cox’s chapter on welfare (Chapter 4, ‘Putting society first: welfare for wellbeing’) argues for welfare payments that provide a reasonable income, not a minimalist safety net, and that pushing people into employment should not be the driving force behind welfare support. She refers to our current job market offering fewer secure jobs with predictable hours as a problem that our welfare system must address.
International literature refers to such work as ‘precarious’ employment and it is covered in detail in Chapter 6, ‘Taking the high road: a future that works for workers’ by Lisa Heap. Australia has an increasing number of workers who are casual, part-time, on fixed term contracts and similar forms of non-standard employment that may not offer the benefits of holidays, sick leave and so on. She proposes a basic set of conditions that should apply to all workers irrespective of whether they are full- or part-time. Employers are also avoiding their responsibilities to their workers by using them as sub-contractors or taking them from labour hire companies. This requires a broader definition of employment. Government, business managers, industry associations and unions need to look afresh at the way we now work rather than maintain an out-dated focus on ‘male full-time employment’.
In Chapter 5 (‘After the boom: where will growth come from?’, Roy Green) and Chapter 7 (‘Life after luck: building a more resilient economy’, Ian McAuley) the proposals are about productivity and economic restructuring. Green argues for new and smarter management and quotes evidence that changes in management have a proportionally greater impact on productivity than changes in labour and capital. The changes we need include not just technical but organisational innovation.
McAuley says our reliance, historically, on resources like gold, iron ore and coal has created a mentality not conducive to a modern economy.
Both agree we need to add value to our products and that simply reducing costs is no longer an answer. McAuley puts it like this:
Cost-based competition will always be a struggle. Instead focus on providing so much customer value through products or services that they can command premium prices.
As expected on such an issue, Chapter 8, ‘Climate change: reconnecting politics with reality’, John Wiseman goes furthest regarding the changes required to meet the challenges. Issues of productivity, economic restructuring, and creating an equitable society also link with these changes. A key difference in this argument is that the time has passed for incremental change. It is now necessary to adopt something like a ‘war footing’ to achieve a rapid transition to a new carbon-free economy.
In the book, ‘Chipping in: paying for a good society’ is rightly the first chapter, but I also link it to the big picture of the final chapter because it addresses how the alternative policies can be funded by government. Four authors were involved in this chapter (so I won’t list them all). I liked their reference to the ‘reality triangle’ in the business world: ‘fast, ‘good’ and ‘cheap’. The concept is that a product or service can achieve any two of these but never successfully all three. They suggest a similar triangle for governments: ‘low taxes’, ‘balanced budgets’ and ‘high quality public services’. In the electoral chase to lower taxes, we have been running into problems with the other two.
They propose changes to increase revenue and suggest the electorate may accept increased taxes if these quickly result in improved services, or if it can at least be shown that the increased revenue is committed to the services. That is consistent with the general support for tax levies identified for specific purposes, such as the ‘gun buy-back’, the ‘flood levy’ and the increase to the Medicare levy to help fund the NDIS.
The last chapter (Chapter 10, ‘The vision thing: we need a national plan’) by Geoff Gallop, provides a means to draw together the previous proposals. The author discusses a national plan and points to some successful approaches through the COAG Reform Agenda and the earlier introduction of the National Competition Policy.
It focuses too much on the practical aspects (as important as they are) and ignores key elements of a ‘vision’. In my experience, the vision is vital in showing how the underlying strategies fit into the whole: for example, how the education strategy ties into economic and social inclusivity strategies; why ‘a’ must precede ‘b’, thereby allowing people to understand why there is increased funding for one and not the other.
It should be obvious that one can’t provide refrigeration and computers to a community that doesn’t have a reliable electrical supply but that is a situation I encountered in my working life. It arises if a strategy is not linked effectively to an overall vision or, sometimes, an attitude that the important precursors are too expensive so let’s move straight to the cheaper parts. They are issues that can be overcome in the logic of the vision. Politicians should play a key part in explaining that logic – but first they have to find a vision! Starting with the policies in this book would help them.
In this short review I cannot do justice to the policies, evidence and background presented. For example, I found the first chapter on tax reform also effective as an economics primer. There is much to be found here, including the many sources listed at the end of each chapter.
This collection of articles, although only ten in number, is vital in developing an overall progressive vision for the future of Australia, one building on our luck not relying on it, and again making Australia an egalitarian society. I strongly recommend it for your Christmas list.
Pushing our Luck: Ideas for Australian Progress
edited by Miriam Lyons with Adrian March and Ashley Hogan, published 2013 by the Centre for Policy Development, Haymarket NSW
If you want more information, or a copy of the book go to the Centre for Policy Development