Travers McLeod: Genuine ‘excitement’ requires gifted policy

‘Tis the season to be jolly, as they say.

Or, excited, as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull repeats on cue, like a Santa Claus ‘Ho-Ho-Hoing’ through the local shops.

His change of tone since ending Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministerial reign is a relief. Turnbull’s optimism is a breath of fresh air after years of Abbott’s negative focus on what the future won’t include, as opposed to what it might.

Converting this excitement into gifted policy is a greater challenge.

It is an exciting time to be an Australian.

We’ve had nearly a quarter century of uninterrupted growth. Several of our cities are among the world’s most liveable. Workers benefit from hard-won protections and a minimum wage. Communities boast high levels of cohesion and are among the most multicultural on Earth. And our health and education systems are envied the world over.

This year the Huffington Post declared Australia a ‘stunningly perfect place to travel’. We’re lucky we don’t have to travel anywhere for perfection!

Yet such excitement risks being rose-tinted.

Wage growth in Australia is the lowest since records began. Long-term unemployment is the highest in nearly two decades. More than a quarter of Australians in prison are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. They are descendants of the original Australians, about whom our Constitution is still silent.

We continue to lock up children fleeing persecution. We’ve agreed a goal to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees, yet we’re ranked third-last in the Climate Change Performance Index. And Australians of Islamic faith are wrongly lumped together and told to shape up or ship out almost daily.

One’s excitement about being an Australian shouldn’t be contingent on their postcode or religion. We’re better than that.

To get into the festive spirit this December, the Centre for Policy Development asked some distinguished Aussies to be ‘Secret Santas’ for their country.Travers

Each offered a ‘gift’ of fresh thinking on an issue close to their heart. There were seven brilliant women: Queensland Young Australian of the Year, Yassmin Abdel-Magied; philanthropist and businesswoman, Janet Holmes à Court; Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore; Australian human rights lawyer, Jen Robinson; CEO of Amaze (Autism Victoria), Fiona Sharkie; and CEO of Oxfam Australia, Helen Szoke.

Several men were the support acts: University of Melbourne Vice Chancellor, Glyn Davis; former President of the Royal Society, Bob May; recent Australian of the Year, Pat McGorry; and CEO of the Northern Agricultural Catchments Council, Richard McLellan.

Together, they gifted us a thought-provoking summer reading pack.

They asked us to consider how exciting the next few decades could be.

Imagine, for a moment, being abroad in 2030. You’re asked about your sunburnt country, Australia, and proudly describe a place where:

  • Culturally and linguistly diverse young Australians all feel they belong;
  • Teachers get students to think for themselves and ask difficult questions about Australia’s place in the world;
  • Gender equality isn’t an aspiration, it’s a given;
  • Farmers, supply chains and markets reinforce a virtuous cycle of productive, profitable and sustainable produce;
  • Original Australians, and their descendants, are truly recognised;
  • Universities have a knowledge footprint revealed by better social outcomes across society at large;
  • Australians with a disability flourish at work and in the community;
  • Art and culture is healthily funded, showcasing the essence of Australia;
  • Your rights, like being able to marry your beloved or not being arbitrarily detained, are protected by a Bill of Rights;
  • Cities are bastions of decarbonisation, innovation and unity; and
  • Mental health and wellbeing is valued as much as physical health, and invested in accordingly.

This is a picture worthy of Australia.

This century can be the most exciting one for all Australians provided we turn these ideas into a present for Australia’s future.

To be sure, these are complex and uncertain days. Growth is tepid. Individuals can mobilise terrifying violence in our neighbourhoods. Automation is changing the face of work and, with it, how we forge careers. Inequality grows the world over, not least down the road. And changes to our environment have outpaced our most agile leaders.

Perhaps the most dangerous development, however, has been the impotence of our institutions. Too often recently they have let Australians down, failed to live up to their promise, or renewed themselves to do so.

The transmission belt of ideas into policies and actions has stalled.

This is where independent, values-driven and evidence-based think tanks are important.

Together, we need to foster an Australia that embraces the long term now.

Policy development should be geared towards an Australia that is equitable, aspirational and truly prosperous – enlivened by the challenge of shaping a better future at home and abroad.

Part of this is fusing domestic and international insights, combining fresh expertise to build a progressive Australian agenda.

Whether it’s on climate security, sustainable agriculture, forced migration or human services – the issues we’ve covered in 2015 – CPD’s model is three-fold.

We create viable ideas from rigorous, cross-disciplinary research here and overseas. We connect experts and stakeholders to develop these ideas into practical policy proposals. We then work to convince government, business and civil society of the merits of implementing these proposals.

Australia needs more Secret Santas like those CPD has introduced this month. We need organisations straddling the spectrum from ‘ideas’ to ‘policies’ too, enlarging our national polity and helping to renew our democracy.

Only then can we translate the excitement of this century into policies that can transform the lives of all Australians.

Travers McLeod is CEO of the Centre for Policy Development. 

This blog concludes the Secret Santas for Australia series produced by CPD and published by HuffPost Australia.

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