Firming up ground for the future

This is an
edited and updated extract from the final chapter of John Langmore’s new book To Firmer Ground: Restoring Hope in
UNSW Press.

Voter attitudes are giving greater scope for policy change than most parliamentarians have yet realised. The following is a summary of key issues confronting Australia, and proposals for addressing them which are both politically and economically feasible.

Climate Change

change is at once a matter of constraining rising temperatures, climatic
turbulence and drought, a survival issue and a major issue of social justice
because the poorest communities will suffer the most. As the country with the largest average
emissions per person, Australia
has a physical, political and moral responsibility to swiftly and dramatically
reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Three
immediate actions are essential. First, a national strategy
with ambitious, short, time-based targets for reduction of greenhouse gas
emissions must be prepared, adopted and implemented with means for achieving
them including both a comprehensive tax on carbon emissions and emission
trading. Second, and simultaneously,
programs for reduction in energy use and adoption of renewable energy
technologies must be greatly strengthened.
Increased support for research and development of renewable energy
technologies is essential. The
introduction of nuclear energy would be a wasteful means of producing
electricity because of the enormous capital cost in an uncertain economic
environment, uncertainties about pricing the output, the requirement for a
large public subsidy, the unsolved problem of waste disposal, and the risks of
accidents or misuse in the manufacture of nuclear weapons.


experiences are potent influences in determining social, intellectual and
emotional development, yet Australia
spends barely half the average proportion
of national income of other developed countries on preschool education and
support. Correcting this perverse
anomaly is arguably the highest priority for social policy. Investment in the physical infrastructure of
primary and secondary public schools, vocational education and training
institutions and universities to make up for the last decade of reductions and restrictions
and to move forward is essential. Setting
a target and timeline to cut child poverty would assist as would expanding investment
in early childhood services, particularly for children in needy households,
increasing opportunities for parental support; and sharply boosting intakes to
quality trade apprenticeships and the innumerable forms of vocational and
professional education. Major upgrading
of opportunities for life-long learning is also vital to facilitate the
civilising as well as the economic contributions of education to the expansion
of human capability.


The claim made repeatedly
by government and the media that Australia now has virtually full
employment is false. Unemployment persists after fifteen years of economic
expansion, and prevents one in twenty of the official labour force having the
work which is essential to supporting themselves and their families, to making
a contribution to the community and to having dignified lives. Barely recognised are the many more pushed
out of the labour force and the further 700,000 people who are under-employed
through being unable to find all the paid work they want. A goal of full employment would mean aiming
to reduce unemployment to two per cent and for sufficient employment growth to
eliminate underemployment. Transformed
attention is vital to reduce underemployment through skills training, work
experience programs, reductions in educational fees and to supporting all those
who want additional work in their preparation and search for jobs. Economic policy must give equal attention to
the growth of employment with other macroeconomic goals such as low inflation
and external balance. At least $1
billion is required over the next three years for appropriately designed
training and service sector jobs, especially in regions of particularly high

The Workplace

The Howard Government’s
workplace relations policy abolished the structure of fair industrial relations
established in Australia
for a century and globally affirmed by ILO conventions. By undermining trade unions, collective
bargaining and minimum employment conditions the workplace relations
legislation abandoned the goal of security and equity at work. Employer power was dramatically strengthened
so that the young, ageing, semiskilled and otherwise vulnerable were opened to
exploitation and to having family life subjected to management whims. Restoration of an equitable framework of
industrial relations is essential for personal well-being and national
fair-play. Repeal of the falsely named
‘Work Choices’ Act and the system of individual contracts known as Australian
Workplace Agreements is essential for establishment of a fairer industrial
relations system. This would enable introduction
of more family-friendly working practices and allow application of those ILO
conventions which Australia
has ratified.


Australia urgently needs expansion
of capacity for treatment of depression and anxiety, promotion of understanding
of mental health issues in the community and better integration of the mental
health workforce. Reducing the private
health insurance tax rebate would release resources which are urgently needed
to repair the public health system. The
Government should also set targets to reduce health inequalities and support a
program to assist the many low-income Australians needing basic dental health


Rapidly rising
house prices and increasing interest rates have reduced housing affordability
and so human security. Homelessness is widespread
and some waiting lists for public housing are a decade long. Increased rent assistance to low-income
earners is vital. The Commonwealth and
state governments must act co-operatively to make housing more accessible and
affordable by rapidly building much more public housing, and also new houses to
be rented on limited-term tenancies to people whose income is currently too
high to obtain public housing.



Justice for Original Australians

A renewed commitment to justice for Indigenous people is essential, expressed
through concerted negotiations for reconciliation between Indigenous and other
Australians. One necessary condition for
reconciliation is ensuring that Indigenous people enjoy the same access as
other Australians to human services such as education, health, water, waste
disposal and support for young children, older people and people with
disabilities. A second condition is to
rapidly expand employment opportunities.
A third is to create new opportunities for regional and national
political representation by Indigenous peoples to replace the abolished
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. One option that could be explored is
establishment of seats in the House of Representatives for election by
Indigenous people as happens in New

Reinvigorated Multiculturalism

Since governments continue to approve large migration programs,
renewal of the policy of multiculturalism is essential for effective inclusion
of those arriving into Australian communities.
Decency, humanity and recognition of human rights suggest that Australia
should honour its commitments through the Universal Declaration to welcome
refugees. Effective commitment to
multiculturalism also requires political leadership, comprehensive arrangements
for welcoming migrants, explicit opposition to discrimination and upgrading of
educational and community development programs.

Investing in the Future

1.2 million people are unable to find all the paid work they want, while at the
same time there is a skills shortage. Investing
in the future requires immediate initiation of a sustained program of upgrading
of physical and social capital including education and vocational training at
all levels, funded in part by recognising that investment benefits future
generations and can therefore be properly financed through borrowing. Access to business credit must be accessible
and interest rates kept as low as possible in order to provide conditions
conducive to entrepreneurship and enterprise expansion. Renewed commitment to stimulating innovation
through research, development and demonstration is vital to the dynamism of
Australian manufacturing and services, and reducing dependence on mineral
exports. Concerted, increased support
for research and innovation is vital to Australia’s economic vitality.

Global security and justice

International security and development have been undermined by the
Bush administration’s unilateral aggression and contempt for international
law. As a consequence, the world has
become more insecure, violent, inequitable and climatically unstable. Obedience to such a regime damaged Australia’s
security and international standing, and limited the scope for independent
engagement in responding to threats to global well-being. Strengthening international security requires
renewed commitment to the international rule of law based on the United Nations
Charter. Australian security involves
seeking peaceful solutions to conflicts through diplomatic negotiation, urging
the abandonment of symptoms of American hubris like pre-emptive aggression,
reducing wasteful and provocative military expenditure, and engagement in
effort to strengthen UN forums. Working
towards a nuclear disarmament treaty is essential. Extension of the range and depth of global
public goods such as international cooperation to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions and curtail tax avoidance is essential, as are rapid increases in
finance for development. Equitable
economic and social development requires major increases in aid, especially by
the least generous donors such as Australia. The rights of developing countries to decide
their own economic and social strategies must be recognised, without imposition
of the doctrinaire conditions habitually required by the International Monetary
Fund and World Bank. Impediments to
development such as agricultural protection and subsidies in rich countries need
to be removed.

Enhancing a Democratic Australia

Politics is a focus for resolving conflicts over competing
interests. In recent years many
interests and issues crucial to a harmonious, socially just, and
environmentally sustainable society have been neglected or repressed. Revitalising Australian political processes involves
replacing authoritarian tendencies with inclusive, participatory opportunities for dialogue and consultative
engagement. Parliament’s role would be
enhanced by independent funding, increased staffing, greater involvement in
decision-making about major issues and strengthening of committees. Mobilising political imagination requires enlivening
public discussion and party organisations and renewal of communication and
accountability between ministers, parliamentarians, party members, community
organisations and voters. Accountability
legislation could set limits to political financing and set ethical standards
for politicians and their staff. The
inhibition of public discourse caused by the narrowing concentration of media
ownership should be addressed immediately by establishment of an independent
inquiry to investigate and make recommendations.

A viable path

To reach these goals and take these
actions, strong leadership from government will be required. Political leaders, especially the Prime
Minister and the national government, have to set out clearly and specifically
the standards required in a decent society.
When they do citizens respond very positively. Political leaders must have the determination
to tackle the major problems we now face.
An example is New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark’s commitment to
make New Zealand the first carbon neutral
country in the world.

A paradigm shift depends on both leadership and community action. Leaders can inspire and enlarge our vision. People respond enthusiastically to the hope offered by leaders who dare to be innovative and to take risks and
explain fully why specific policies are desirable.

Renewal requires a strong moral commitment: or as Geoff Mulgan writes ‘that sense of compelling mission and moral purpose that marks out true
leaders and truly transformational administrations’. Such bases offer a gateway to a viable path along which Australia could gradually become a more secure, sustainable, socially just and vibrant society.

We can’t just rely on inspiring leaders. Each of us can act responsibly and in so doing contribute to inspiring others. Some years ago Peter Nicholson published a cartoon in the first frame of which a young couple is watching the
first moon landing on television and one remarks ‘There’s nothing we can’t do’. In the second, contemporary frame an old couple is watching a news report of a current disaster and one says
‘There’s nothing we can do’. This feeling of powerlessness is widespread. It is seductive but it is self-fulfilling. If we despair, we simply give up. If we retain hope and take initiative we can make a difference. Those people with
clear aims, determination and persistence can and do influence outcomes. Robert Kennedy
said in a famous speech in Cape Town in 1966:

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a [person] stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out
against injustice, they send a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million centres of energy and daring, these ripples will build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.