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 Australia, 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

Climate 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.


Preschool 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 joblessness.

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 care.


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 Zealand.

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

About 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.