The Hon Kevin Rudd, AC.
26th Prime Minister of Australia
University of Queensland
26 August, 2019.
Over the course of the next week, I propose to deliver a series of university lectures on competing visions for Australia’s future. They are based in part in a long essay I wrote earlier this year entitled “The Complacent Country”. They are designed to promote a national debate on how best to prepare Australia for the unprecedented challenges we now face in an increasingly uncertain world. Many of the old formulas we have used in the past are broken, or are breaking – in our politics, our economics, our environment, our social cohesion and our international relations. Its well past time to look afresh at how we shape our future. The cold hard reality is that nobody’s else out there is going to do it for us. And these are the themes I intend to address in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra this week.
I want to begin on the fundamental question of what constitutes the essential elements of a credible national vision. Whether we like it or not, this brings us to the heart of our national political divide and the deep philosophical bearings of the two major traditions of Australian politics. The conservatives believe in preserving the illusion of a mythical, halcyon past. Progressives seek to build a fairer society, economy and polity; anticipate the opportunities and challenges that lie over the horizon; and then build for the future.
It’s why, for example, we own the term “nation-building” with pride. And why our opponents at best regard the concept with suspicion, but more often than not with derision and contempt. In the conservative worldview, they believe that nations somehow spontaneously combust from a “free” economy where the essential role of government is simply to get out of the road of “free” markets. Whereas we believe that based on the inherent strengths of an open, competitive market economy, we nonetheless need the agency of government to help put in place the building blocks of the national development, as well as ensure that the fruits of our economy are fairly shared.
The history of Australia has largely been one in which the Labor Party builds the nation up, while the conservatives then seek to tear down that which we have built. This is not mere rhetorical flourish. It is grounded in generations of evidence. Look at Medicare, a universal health insurance scheme for the nation, built by Labor but which the conservatives for decades tried to dismantle, first by the front door, and more recently by the back. Look too at national superannuation policy – built by Labor, opposed by the conservatives every step of the way during the Keating government, before repealing our government’s legislation to raise the Superannuation Guarantee Levy from 9 percent to 12 percent to underpin retirement income adequacy, boost national savings, offset the concerns of international ratings agencies about our level of corporate borrowing, as well as constructing a massive fund of private capital to help invest in the nation-building needs and opportunities of the future. Then look at our government’s National Broadband Network, designed to build the next tranche of our national infrastructure connecting the entire economy, city and country, rich and poor, with the global digital economy of the future. This was to be delivered by affordable, nation -wide, high-speed broadband for every household, business and institution in the country. It was launched by our government, then uprooted by the conservatives at Murdoch’s behest.
We build up. They tear down. It’s in their ideology. It’s in their DNA. And so, the nation suffers. As a result, little of lasting value survives in Australian politics that actually builds the nation, betters our society or secures our future in an increasingly challenging world. At best only half of what Labor governments build endures the combination of ideological assault and-or policy indifference on the part of the conservative governments that replace them. There is sometimes a grudging recognition, usually decades later, that Labor’s nation-building reforms have been worthwhile. Fisher’s government was attacked by the conservatives of his time for insisting that when the first ships arrived for our navy that they become an independent “Royal Australian Navy,” rather than simply a squadron of the British Fleet. Menzies attacked Chifley’s audacious plan for the Snowy Mountains Scheme, whereas Turnbull three quarters of a century later claimed it as his own. So too with the vitriolic conservative opposition to the creation of the Australian National University, now one of our finest, and one of the world’s finest academic institutions. So too with the deep, painful structural reforms to internationalise the Australian economy under the Hawke and Keating governments which the conservatives belatedly embraced, having done nothing through their years in office to do the same, despite the warning signs of an economy then in serious structural decline. Even with our own government, despite the conservative political broadside at the time, neither Abbott nor Turnbull could finally bring themselves to repeal Infrastructure Australia as the nation’s first institutional mechanism to audit, plan and recommend the financing of our country’s future infrastructure needs.
Nonetheless, the historical record demonstrates that Conservatism’s deepest ideological instinct is that all this “nation-building stuff” is for dreamers, intellectuals and the scions of the political left. And further, the conservative default position is that if the nation does happen to face a crisis in the future, through not having looked over the horizon to prepare Australia properly for what lies ahead, then “we conservatives” will simply “manage it”, because after all, we conservative chaps are simply better trained to deal with such pragmatic tasks, unhindered by the ideological baggage of the left.
Of course, our country’s recent experience of managing the Global Financial Crisis complicates this particular conservative narrative. Indeed, the GFC came about under a conservative American administration where the underlying ideological orthodoxy was that financial. markets were eternally self-correcting. This fallacy proved to be almost fatal for the global economy – until the combined agency of the state intervened. And in Australia it ended up being a Labor Government that “managed” the GFC, and by all reasonable accounts, managed it effectively. Indeed, the entire conservative narrative, even in the midst of this particularly dangerous manifestation of market fundamentalism, ignored the basic question of whether prudent long-term planning could avert, lessen or better manage the crises of the future at all. The most tragic, continuing example of this is climate change and the capture of the Australian conservatives by a legion of climate change deniers – repealing Labor’s carbon price, and repeatedly launching political assaults on our legislated mandatory renewable energy target.
The bottom line remains that conservatives react to events. Progressives seek to anticipate the future. This core difference in our respective political cultures and ideological bearings remains as strong now as it ever was. Indeed, when all is stripped away, the two abiding differences between the conservative and progressive political projects continue to be our concern for fairness and the future. We seek to safeguard both through the conscious, considered intervention of government. Our opponents throw both to the wind – to whatever markets or circumstances might throw up.
Our Future National Challenges – The Dangers of The Great Disruption
So will 2020 be any different? My challenge is can we at least begin to have a genuine national debate about our competing visions for the nation’s future. My argument is that such a debate is no longer just an interesting, or even entertaining, political possibility. It has now become an urgent national necessity. That’s because the uncomfortable truth is that we, like most other countries in the world of the 21st century, are in danger of being overwhelmed by the deep structural forces now driving profound global change. These are systemic in nature. They force us, whether we like it or not, to look into the future. These are forces that do not miraculously stop at the Australian continental shelf, despite the mirage offered by much of the Australian political class that we can somehow render ourselves immune, as part of the rolling politics of self-delusion. As a nation, we either anticipate the challenges we face, identify them and respond to them as effectively as possible. Or they just wash over us, leaving Australia with an economy, society and polity that becomes a pale shadow of what we once were. Or indeed might once have become.
So, what are these global mega-changes that now seem to be sweeping away all in their wake? In some respects, it’s a familiar list. But we seem to have become inured to their cumulative impact. Almost indifferent.
Ten Major National Challenges
As for the major structural challenges our nation faces for the future, I argued there were ten:
One, the unfolding, unprecedented global technology revolution, on the one hand challenging Australia’s future international economic competitiveness unless we become major innovators ourselves in these next generation drivers of global prosperity, while on the other hand also facing the profound employment, social and economic instability that will flow to traditional industries from technological disruption itself.
Two, the profound challenge of sustaining strong, long-term Australian economic growth, given the ageing of our population, static workforce participation rates and negligible productivity growth, compounded by a declining bipartisan consensus on long term migration flows, inadequate infrastructure investment and, as noted above, a global technology innovation revolution that is leaving Australia behind.
Three, the clear ravages of climate change where our national and global actions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions are woefully inadequate to prevent unsustainable temperature increases, increasingly frequent extreme weather events and with grave consequences for long term food and water security and the forced migration of peoples.
Four, the absence of fundamental health, hospitals, aged care and retirement income reform – to sustain a high quality health system for our people, while also managing the costs of the system within fiscally sustainable limits, given the failure of successive governments to sustain the comprehensive reforms in preventative, primary, acute, post acute, aged care and digital records systems introduced in 2010; as well as increasing the level of mandatory savings necessary to guarantee retirement income adequacy, thereby reducing the level of future dependency on state pensions and other support payments.
Five, a failure to conclude the national reconciliation process with indigenous Australians through sustained investment in the closing the gap strategy and the completion of constitutional recognition of our first peoples.
Six, a fragmenting global order driven by a rising China, an increasingly isolationist America, a divided Europe, a yawning global leadership deficit in an increasingly “G-Zero” world, and the growing danger of a return to pre-1945 notions of survival of the fittest.
Seven, the increasing polarisation of our region between Chinese and American spheres of geo-strategic and economic spheres of influence, reducing the freedom for policy manoeuvre for regional states as they seek to secure their own futures;
Eight, the growing wave of people movements across the world by those escaping political, economic or climatic insecurity in their countries of origin – generating in turn politically and racially charged reactions in the countries they escape to that go to the heart of local political concerns on the deepest questions of collective cultural identity.
Nine, the polarisation of our democracies between rich and poor and an increasingly struggling middle class; the failure of much of the traditional politics of the centre-right and the centre-left to deliver sustainable solutions to fundamental problems; compounded by a national media split between Murdoch’s far right, the faux left and the screaming, balkanisation of social media, destroying any real possibility of a political commons through which to conduct reasonable, national conversation; and though all these factors, bit by bit delegitimising democracy itself in the eyes of the people.
And finally, underpinning all of the above, a new, gaping chasm in our deepest, underlying values – as Christianity declines and almost disappears in the west after 1700 years of cultural dominance, driven in large part by the sheer weight of its own institutional hypocrisy, only to be replaced by a secularism increasingly uncertain of its own moral compass to guide what is left of the modern-day Enlightenment Project, and now facing an increasingly self-confident “new authoritarianism” in China. Russia and elsewhere offering alternative modes of political and economic governance.
Furthermore, our already troubled democratic institutions are faced with an even more fundamental challenge. They are having to deal effectively with these complex, unprecedented challenges simultaneously. While at the same time, the legitimacy of the national and international institutions charged with dealing with these challenges, is itself under challenge
Impact of the Great Disruption on the National Psychology
There is a danger, therefore, that in the collective west, including Australia, we become a people increasingly overwhelmed, confused and frightened – in the face of the intensity, complexity and rapidity of the mega-changes washing over us. To the point that the positive progress still being achieved in many of our societies ( for example rising living standards, growing life expectancy and quantum advances in medical science) is lost in an increasingly toxic domestic political discourse about the impact of “out-of-control” globalisation. This is despite the fact that globalisation has also been the source of so much of this positive change.
We already see a range of political responses unfolding before us. One is retreat, isolationism, protectionism and a New Parochialism, of the type that is increasingly evident in America, Europe and in part in Australia. Its deepest credo is that there is nothing that a good wall can’t fix! It believes that walls can always be erected (physical, economic, social, international, racial, genderor ideational ) to protect us from unwelcome change. Ultimately it is, of course, illusory because the core economic drivers of globalisation that have generated unprecedented global wealth have also rendered borders increasingly porous, and in some cases redundant. Unless we indeed wish to retreat to the 1930’s where the answer to every problem became a brand new tariff. Unfortunately, the 30’s did not end well – economically, politically, let alone internationally.
A second response, and indeed a comfortable bed-partner of the first, is nationalism pure and simple. We already see evidence of this in Trump’s America, parts of Europe and in some respects China. Of course, this too is illusory because it seeks to sate contemporary anxiety and uncertainty with that most ancient of all political remedies – xenophobia. The only problem is that nationalism offers nothing by way of concrete answers to the substantive challenges of our time. Its code language is simple: blame them! It takes us nowhere. Other than ultimately to another war. As it did last time that nationalism reigned supreme.
A further response to the “Great Disruption” is simple indifference, apathy and complacency. I call this “ national learned-helplessness syndrome.” There is a lot of this at play in Australia today. It’s been part of our national DNA for some time. Donald Horne identified it half a century ago in his great, ironic vivisection of the national soul, “The Lucky Country.” For folks such as these, and the ‘worldview’ they represent, there’s a great advantage in Terra Australis being surrounded by beaches and our inland being in large part desert. That’s because there’s an absolute abundance of sand to bury our heads in! It’s a worldview that says that there’s nothing that a good long weekend can’t fix. Or in its more contemporary manifestation, disappearing into the deep distractions of cyber reality, or the comfortably anonymity of an endless digital discourse about nothing. These distractions become the new opioids of our time, gently anaesthetising us into a new, analgesic society that just couldn’t give a rat’s. It’s what the Jesuits call the globalisation of superficiality, and what Pope Francis now calls the globalisation of indifference. It’s just become all too hard to care anymore. It’s leitmotif is that I just want the world to go away. Or to stop so I can get off. Except it won’t.
In Australia we are now in danger of becoming the complacent country. Although in time we may become an unhealthy blend of all three of the possibilities outlined above – with nationalism, parochialism and xenophobia becoming the loudest, while perhaps still minority voices in our politics, but at the same timequietly accommodated by the apathy, indifference and self-satisfaction of the rest. This is in part the product of long-term political drift. It’s also the reflection of a deeper societal malaise whereby we delude ourselves, whether in sport, the corporate world or in international relations that we still somehow “punch above our weight.” The cold hard reality is that we don’t anymore, if indeed we ever did, and this particularly hackneyed phrase has become part of the fraudulent, self-affirming psychology of our wider national inertia.
We also assure ourselves that we are still a happy-go-lucky, always-friendly and ever-open society and that whatever happens in politics and the economy won’t fundamentally change the people we believe ourselves to be. But that felicitous self-image should itself also be subject to challenge, given the incremental atomisation of our society into semi-anonymous, self-selected digital ghettoes, the violent language and behaviours now sanctioned by social media, and the slow beginnings of what I fear is a growing hostility to foreigners living and working in our midst. In short, we may no longer in reality actually be the Arcadian fields of our collective self-imaginings. Indeed, if we have the eyes to see, and care to look beyond the many, reassuring tropes we have constructed to soothe ourselves about our future, our country faces deep problems which must be dealt with if in fact we are to secure our future. And a complacent country will not do that for us.
Political drift doesn’t offer any substantive response to the “great disruptions” now bearing down on all of us. In fact it just capitulates to them. It becomes one, long hauling up of the white flag. And as a result we end up in a very dark place indeed. And potentially with a country we can no longer recognise. That’s why it’s now urgent to re-engineer our national imagination and paint the picture of a different future for our country. And then to choose the type of Australia we wish to become. Or have we simply become so cynical a political culture that we no longer believe in the possibility of anything that might be called a vision for the country’s future?
The Elements of a National Vision
As Australians, our political culture tends to look askance at the very idea of a national vision. It brings out the worst in us all, both from the right and the left, as our reflex instinct is to lampoon the very idea that we might actually want to create a better country than the one we have. Americans, at least until recent times, spoke of their “city on a hill.” The British spoke of a New Jerusalem. The Chinese now speak of the China Dream. And Australians…well we tend to just stare at our shoes, mumble something about a fair-go and wait for someone to change the subject to something less embarrassing,like the cricket, although even that doesn’t work as well as it once did. My argument is that the business of crafting a national vision for Australia’s future is not so much an exercise in high ideals, although it is in part that. It’s now equally a matter of urgent, pragmatic policy necessity. It’s time to take ourselves beyond our traditional comfort zones. To think beyond the square. And in so doing so lift our line of sight beyond the parapets of our traditional partisan debate to plan our national future together. The forces now arrayed against us in the world are too formidable for us to entertain the luxury of continuing national drift. Things need to be brought to a head. What is our national strategy for securing the country’s future? What is that of the conservatives? What is our common ground? Where do we differ? And let our national debate be about both.
So what are the conceptual components of any such national vision? I argue it must be about identity, about who we are as a people, and how we conceive of ourselves as a nation.
A vision is also about the values we share, because these ultimately shape what we can sustain, what we will tolerate, and what we will never abide.
A vision too is anchored in our enduring national interests. Just as it requires us to analyse carefully our changing national, regional and global circumstances – the great disruptions bearing down on us now – while recognising that these are constantly evolving.
Finally, any credible national vision, unless it is to disappear into clouds of pious hope, also demands of us the formulation of a national policy strategy to secure our survival, our prosperity, our sustainability and to give effect to our responsibilities in the world. And its this process that should drive the hard business of putting public policy options to the people.
Of course, it is foolish to suggest that everything that governments do can be planned for. Life is not like that. Politics even less so. But it is equally foolish to believe that planning for the big, strategic decisions that will fundamentally shape our national future has no purpose at all. Indeed, unless you plan for them, these decisions are rarely taken because the business of government invariably ends up being overtaken by “events”. Thinking for the long-term is a hard intellectual process. It’s a hard political process given that day to day political life is a battle between the urgent and the important, between the tactical and strategic, between the demands of a sensationalist media for “stories” against the hard grind of public policy. That’s where a national vision comes in. It helps frame the strategic thinking of government. It also, if properly formed, can help bring the nation with you, even in the hardest of times.
The Question of Australian Identity
Given the nature of the international forces bearing down on us, and the domestic political and media constraints we must confront, what then constitutes a credible, progressive, national vision for Australia? This should begin with a confident definition of our national and cultural identity. If the centre-left fails to address this question of identity, we vacate the field and leave a vacuum. Whereas the right and the far-right will always seek to occupy this ground, thereby comfortably defining the terms of the culture wars of the future. The conservatives, whatever political wallpaper they may use, are ultimately believers in an Anglo-Saxon monoculture. In recent years, they have broadened the tent just a little, reflecting the rising wealth of Australian Catholics and the growing political conservatism of the Australian Catholic hierarchy, by expanding their preferred conservative identity to now include an Anglo- Celtic monoculture. But that’s where it stops. Whatever might be said in polite conservative society on the question of Australian national identity in order to sound as inclusive as possible for electoral purposes, other minority cultures are at best tolerated by the conservative monoculture, and always on the implied condition that “they” ultimately become “just like us” – namely the Anglo-Celtic white majority. That’s why multiculturalism is formally shunned by conservatives. For conservatives, national identity is still ultimately about race, rather than the laws which define the rights, duties and common beliefs of our civil polity. Conservatives therefore find it irresistible to play with the politics of racial anxiety whenever the opportunity arises because properly manipulated, they know it becomes a potent source of fear, capable of masking so much else in the core political and policy debates of the nation. And this task is made much easier if the centre-left simply disengages from the identity debate altogether because we find it all too hard.
For the centre-left, our definition of Australia’s national identity must be grounded in the ideals, institutions and conventions of our democratic society, not in its racial composition. That’s because Australia has indeed become a “coat of very many colours” and we are infinitely richer for it. Our definition of identity should begin with a profound pride in Australia’s indigenous origins – the oldest continuing cultures in human history that reach back to the very beginnings of human activity on earth. This invokes a sense of wonder that we are able to share this vast continent with a people whose understanding of the land comes from the Dreamtime itself. This of course must also be anchored in a shared responsibility for past injustices to our indigenous brothers and sisters and a common resolve to chart a fully reconciled future as one national family. Unlike conservatives, because of the values we also represent, but also because of the harsh realities of the historical record, we cannot choose to sweep uncomfortable facts arising from European occupation under the carpet, just because they happen to be uncomfortable. Notwithstanding the complexity of our national origins, our modern Australian identity should also own with pride our Anglo-Celtic traditions, not as a tradition of vicarious triumphalism as part of a once great British Empire, but as the inheritors of the common law, centuries of legal constraints against the arbitrary exercise of absolute power and an independent legal system to give effect to the principle of equality before the law. Just as we should celebrate the levelling experiences of our Irish inheritance, including its deep intolerance of the arbitrary abuse of authority. So too has our identity been shaped by the arrival of millions from other lands whom we have welcomed to these shores because we have indeed, as the anthem proclaims, “boundless plains to share”. The truth is that together we have all built the nation’s economic prosperity and social diversity, widening the Anglo-Celtic monoculture into a living, dynamic, creative multi-culture, all within the framework of the common rights and responsibilities of our nation’s citizenship.
Our founding fathers, in our constitutional arrangements, also invoked the blessings of a higher spiritual reality in the crafting of our then embryonic Commonwealth, reflecting a deeper yearning for a broader purpose beyond the narrower material interests of our national life. Nonetheless, our founders wisely declined to establish anything resembling a particular religious orthodoxy for this “Australia Felix”. It reminds us, however, that our identity from the outset was more than bread alone. While the national census reminds us that the question of spiritual sensibilities remains a deeply contested question for Australians, the centre-left would be unwise to concede the domains of religious faith, Christianity and our broader national spirituality to the conservatives. By contrast, we should accept, appreciate and celebrate the contribution to progressive politics of generations of Christian social reformers, trade union Chartists, Irish Catholic rebels, and more recently the various forms of Aboriginal spirituality to the overall shaping of the Australian identity. The uncomfortable truth for some is that the strident, secular, atheist voice, however unimpeachable its appeal to the rational and empirical mind might be, has been only one of many progressive voices shaping our common Australian identity. Indeed, any dispassionate reflection on the nature of our ANZAC Day commemorations reveals a uniquely Australian secular spirituality that unites our civic consciousness and does so in a way that should give pause those in the centre-left who contemptuously dismiss religious sensibilities as mere sentimental guff. In short, our concept of national identity needs to embrace both our national mind and soul.
A further element of our identity which we should unapologetically claim as our progressive own is our deep sense of a fair go for all. This is as much a question of “who we are” as a people, as it is “the values we believe in,” which I will deal with below. But for our purposes here, because we are a nation that has been formed “from below” – that is from a motley collection of convicts, rejects from European society, fortune hunters, asylum seekers seeking safe haven, migrants seeking a better life or dispossessed indigenous peoples – there is little room for cultural and class pretension in our great Australian society. Nor is there room for any sense of “upstairs-downstairs” amid the deepest, levelling instincts of Australian identity, where from the earliest days we have rightly despised the sort of class society which had riven the old countries from which we came. Instead we are a country where “Jack has always been as good as his master.” Ours is a national identity too which has belatedly recognised that women indeed hold up half the sky, where equal rights are honoured not just in the breach, where we are enriched by the feminisation of our national identity beyond the tediously macho stereotypes of the past, and where gender diversity no longer divides but indeed enhances the nation. So too, finally, with our fuller understanding of human sexuality as a reflection of loving relationships in all their forms, while always being a nation that protects first the rights of our children as the future inheritors of the nation. And in all the above, a proud Australian identity that has freedom, a fair-go for all and compassion for those in distress wherever they maybe, etched deeply into the nation’s soul. These are things that should and, I believe do, define our Australianidentity.
It is critical, therefore, in defining our national identity that we not yield the ground to the conservatives. The conservatives, with their own selective appeal to history, tradition, religion and race, will only seek to cover part of our Australian identity, and then cynically use this narrow definition to consolidate their political constituency against “others” who are then defined as “outside” this identity, and therefore threatening to it. On closer inspection, however, the conservative embrace is still limited to the mono-culture, as if our evolving sense of ourselves will always remain hermetically sealed in some distant Arcadian past buried deep in the conservative imagination. It’s part of the comforting rhythms of an Anglo-Saxon and now Anglo-Celticnostalgia, found little place else these days but in the ever-shrinking pages of The Spectator and Quadrant. But in the midst of great economic and social change, this conservative definition of identity offers the illusion of cultural certainty, and the culture wars become its call to arms. A progressive definition of national identity will always be a more complex task than our opponents because as progressives we are required to embrace an identity of what holds together both our past and our future – while never excluding anyone from the membership of our national family, whether they are from the Dreamtime, the first fleet or a refugee from Iraq. Progressives must embrace our past while equally anticipating our future. Our identity is not just about who we have been, but equally importantly of who we can still become. And to have the national self-confidence to do both.
How do we Define Australian Values
The same logic applies to the definition of our national values. Within the framework of a national vision, “identity” and “values” are similar although not identical concepts. The ideas of “who we are”, and “what we believe in” cover discrete but overlapping realities. However, given the culture wars, the distinction is still important. And on both the questions of identity and values, as progressives our vision offers, once again, a wider canvass than the conservatives.
So what are our enduring national values? As a progressive political movement we are grounded in values of fundamental human dignity, that human beings are worthy of intrinsic respect for their essential humanity, not because of their material worth, while recognising that this core value is still far from respected universally and where many still see human beings as mere political constructs ( the Marxist view) or as economic commodities (the neo-Liberal view.)
We are also grounded in values of freedom in a land where working people were once far from free and in a world where freedom is still denied to many.
We are grounded too in values of justice, fairness or what we call a fair go for all– meaning at a minimum equality of opportunity for all and a decent safety net for those who collide with a brick wall at some stage of their lives and need society’s helping hand to preserve their basic human dignity and that of their families.
We also believe in values of opportunity, prosperity and enterprise so that through hard work, innovation and achievement women and men can build their own futures and reach for the stars of their own imaginings.
We believe equally in values of empathy, compassion and human solidarity– the “other-regarding” elements of our human nature – which cause us to extend a helping hand, not just through random acts of private charity, but also through properly informed public policy, to support those in poverty, hardship and distress because we share with them the bonds of common humanity.
We are anchored as well in values of family, community and nation- building, as the natural antidotes of unfettered markets, which when left unrestrained would happily destroy all in their wake. So too are we now animated by values of sustainability so that Mother Earth herself can live to sustain us all with air to breathe, water to drink and a climate worthy of handing on to the generations that come after us – because we believe in inter-generational justice as well.
And finally, we believe in security, both at home and abroad, so that all can peacefully go about their work and their lives, free from the threat of fear, remembering with pride that it has been Australian Labor governments that have lead our country for the most part through both world wars.
These then are progressive values. Values of human dignity, of liberty, of equality, of opportunity, of solidarity, of family, of community, of sustainability and of security. They are not only progressive values. They are also Australian values. And they are universal human values. In Australia, it was also the progressivemovement that grafted many of them deep into the Australian soul. There was nothing about “a fair go” in the values 19th century colonial Australia. We the progressive movement put it there.
The conservatives will try to own some of these values – through their partial embrace of concepts of human dignity, freedom, family, opportunity and security. But when did you last hear conservatives talking about a fair go, about solidarity, about community, about nation building or about sustainability. For them, these are a foreign language – almost a foreign country. Whereas we believe in the full monty.
There is a deep philosophical reason for this. For all our faults as a movement, we believe that human beings are designed not just to be self- interested. We also believe that a fulfilled human life is both self- regarding and other– regarding. Conservatives regard this is inherently contradictory. But we have sufficient grounding in reality, and sufficient “audacity of hope”, to believe that they are not, and that indeed these values are mutually complementary, mutually reinforcing, mutually tempering and deeply empowering of both the individual and society, of both family and community, of both nation and the world, of both human beings and the natural order.
Our philosophical view is that values that are exclusively selfish are ultimately self-destructive. Indeed that is the essential nature of unfettered capitalism – or what the theorists call “creative destructionism” – so much so that time and again through modern history we the progressive movement have been called upon to rescue market fundamentalism from itself, most recently in the Global Financial Crisis. It is not, therefore, simply a question that our values are different to the conservatives. They are. It is because these different values go to a fundamental philosophical principle concerning the absolute core of human nature and human responsibility.
The conservatives seek deliberately to deny an essential part of our common humanity – namely other-regardingness. They do this in order to advance individual greed, however they may try to mask it, as their unfettered project. This reached its apogee with Hayek’s market fundamentalism, later embraced by Thatcher, Reagan and Howard’s “Work Choices.” It also carried with it a reckless disregard for where this ideology ultimately leads in the destruction of people’s intrinsic dignity, their families, their communities, their economies, cultures and even their planet. The Conservatives seek to externalise any other-regardingvalues as if they lie naturally beyond the proper province of government – as if they are at best a matter of random, personal ethical discretion. This indeed is the conservative world of “noblesse oblige” rather than systematic social justice. Yet in privatising these values, conservatives also place us in collective peril when people find themselves ravaged by the untrammelled forces of an unfettered free market. Which is why working people inevitably react with anger towards the political system if and when these most basic and inclusive values are traduced by forces beyond their local control.
Our movement, by contrast, has always sought to ‘internalise’ these other-regarding values within the politics and economics of the nation. We see the intrinsic dignity of labour, of families and communities; the principles of social justice; and the imperatives of the planet as demanding a public policy response, not just as an occasional act of private, discretionary charity. This is why our values are so different from the conservatives, And this is why we should be proud of the difference.
Clarifying our Enduring National Interests
In building a framework for a national vision for Australia, we must be inclusive on our definition of our national identity, open-hearted about our values but equally clear-minded about our enduring national interests. These interests go to the long-term survivability of the nation itself, well beyond the individual policy choices we may make from time to time on what sort of nation we may wish to be. For all of us, therefore, such national interests are existential. Of course, these too will be shaped by our values. But so too will these existential interests also, by definition, temper our values.
First among these must be the defence our territorial integrity. Without this there is no “nation.” An effective national defence is easier said than done in a country with a small population, a middle-sized economy, the world’s third largest exclusive economic zone and with one of the longest and most exposed coastlines on the planet. Since the beginning of European settlement, Australia has been advantaged by the fact that for all those 230 years, the most powerful countries in the world happened to have been our two closest allies – the United Kingdom followed then by the United States. As Britain faded in economic and military capacity, Australia looked to America for its national security. How long that remains credible is now an open question, given the relative decline in American power, the rise of China and the rolling debate in American politics about whether the US should continue to shoulder a global security burden. There is also a widening range of threats to our territorial integrity which compound our future challenges beyond the classic defence of the mainland. These include cyber security, people smuggling, quarantine protection and climate change. Each of these affects our wider ability to defend our national borders. And collectively they point to our national political and economic preparedness to provide sufficient resources for an increasingly self-reliant defence posture in the future.
Second, there is the enduring national interest we have in the maintenance of Australia’s political sovereignty. Short of any large or small scale assault on Australian territory, this particular interest embraces the broader question of whether there may be emerging factors that might impinge on Australia’s future ability to make sovereign political decisions though our own democratic institutions, free from the reality, or the perception, of foreign influence. This may not seem to be a problem at present. But the international environment in which we operate is changing more rapidly than we think. The geo-politics of the East Asian hemisphere is evolving rapidly. The radical rewriting of the global geo-economic distribution of power represents another factor. So too the declining impact of global “rule-setting” and “rule- enforcing” institutions to protect the interests of small to medium powers from the arbitrary use of political, military or economic influence by larger powers. Taken to its extreme, this in turn results in the forced, unwanted policy change by smaller states. This by definition is a violation of the free exercise of these states’ national political sovereignty. History is full of examples of various “droits de regard” by large states over the internal decision-making processes of smaller states. Our challenge is to prevent that from happening to us in the future. This is quite separate from recent debates on foreign interference in the integrity of democratic electoral processes by cyber intrusion, social media manipulation or campaign finance. These too, however, represent new, emerging challenges to our national political sovereignty.
Third, the maintenance of Australia’s long-term economic prosperity also represents one of our foundational national interests. Of itself, it too poses a range of fundamental policy challenges for the future. Without the successful prosecution of this core and continuing interest, our living standards will not be sustained. Nor will there be sufficient national wealth to redistribute to health, education, housing, family payments or pensions – necessary for the most basic forms of social justice and the maintenance of social stability. Furthermore if growth stalls, without a major re-allocation of public finance away from these social services (which already consume the vast bulk of total government expenditures), or else major increases in taxation, we will be unable to finance our future national defence, notwithstanding our rapidly changing international security circumstances. Australia’s enduring economic interests therefore bring us back to focus afresh on the three inescapable drivers of long-term economic growth – our level of population, our level of workforce participation and our level of productivity growth. They also cause us to face again the international drivers of our economic growth, including the ongoing challenge of maintaining an open international system governing trade, investment and capital flows. We need to be reminded of the fact that our total annual trade in goods and services represents a staggering 42 per cent of total Australian GDP. By definition, a global trade war and a retreat to international protectionism would be disastrous for Australia. Indeed, if the international trading or financial system were to close down on us, as has happened several times before in our relatively short economic history, our national and individual levels of wealth would simply collapse. Therefore, sustaining these multiple, complex drivers and determinants of our long term economic prosperity represents an enduring national interest for us all.
The inescapable corollary of our continuing interest in maintaining economic growth is our parallel national requirement for long-term environmental sustainability. In fact, economic growth and environmental sustainability now represent enduring and mutually dependent national interests. One without the other is impossible. The growing global scarcity of clean water, soil and air now imposes real constraints on growth. As does declining global bio- diversity, not as a simple aesthetic preference to support other life forms, but as a deeply pragmatic recognition of radical inter-dependence within the biosphere and its impact on our collective survival. On top of these is the mother of all planetary constraints – climate change. Indeed, Mother Earth has now been saying to us for generations that there are a range of planetary boundaries (of which climate is one of perhaps eight) where a failure to operate within globaltipping points potentially lands us in planetary disaster. This is now a matter of scientific fact. It is neither a matter of social fashion or political opinion. The data does not lie. Nor does the planet itself. Environmental sustainability has long ceased to be an optional extra for the radical political extreme. It has now become a core and enduring national interest for us all. It must therefore dictate much of our national and international policy behaviour given that climate change, in addition to the growing vulnerability of our other planetary boundaries, is no respecter of national borders. And for the driest country on earth, these matters will become existential.
Finally, there is our abiding national interest in developing, sustaining and enhancing the international rules-based order. In fact, this now permeates the prosecution of the rest of our enduring interests as well. Great powers may have some capacity to independently prosecute their core interests simply as a product of national scale. Smaller to middle-sized powers like Australia do not have that luxury. Great powers may be big enough to provide for their own defence as would deter others from ever contemplating a violation of their territory or political sovereignty. Just as their domestic markets may be of a size that the traded sectors of their economies, while important, are nonetheless not vital to their overall economic survival. Nonetheless, the rapidly changing nature of the global environmental commons means that any form of national “autonomy” is now illusionary. For example, the US as a superpower may be secure from fundamental military threats to its national security from China. Given the size of its domestic economy, the US may be less affected by a global trade war than China might be. But the US, like the rest of the planet, remains hostage to China’s future policy direction and implementation of China’s own national greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets. If China fails in this task, or later India, other countries, including the US, will suffer greatly. Indeed some states may no longer exist as a result. In other words, the growing reality of global interdependency means that a properly functioning global rules-based system is now of fundamental importance for all states, both large and small.
Nonetheless, the unsettling truth is the smaller the state, the greater the dependency on the international system, and not just on climate. Indeed, for Australia, at best a middle power, we are more dependent than many on a fully functioning, rules-based political, security, economic and environmental order. A functioning order develops norms, agrees rules of international behaviour and gives these effect through properly empowered international tribunals such as the UN Security Council or the World Trade Organisation. These are exercises in shared sovereignty because the threats they seek to address are bigger than any single nation state can deal with on its own. Our alliance with the United States does not satisfy all our security interests. The reality is that both our bilateral security alliance, our own national defence preparedness and an active multilateral security system are necessary to advance our long-term national security interests. It is not a matter of either-or. Indeed, an effective global rules-based system can significantly enhance Australia’s national security, territorial integrity, political sovereignty, economic prosperity and now, perhaps most of all, our environmental sustainability. That is why defending and advancing a global rules-based order of itself represents an enduring national interest for Australia. The bottom line is we need it.
These five, fundamental national interests don’t often find their way into our normal domestic political discourse. They are usually confined to more rarefied debates dealing with economic, foreign, defence or wider national security policy doctrine. But given the “globalisation of everything” and the increasing collapse of what was previously seen as the “great divide” between “external” and “internal” factors affecting the nation’s future, it’s now more important than ever to recast these enduring national interests into an integrated national policy whole. For example, investment decisions in Beijing now directly affect factory closures or openings in Melbourne. Terrorist events in the Middle East affect the behaviours of various ethnic constituencies in Sydney. Cyber-attacks from Pyongyang can affect the integrity of electoral systems Australia-wide. This convergence between what were once neatly distinguishable international and national policy domains can no longer be ignored. Nor can these international factors and forces now permeating the domestic political space be regarded as the exclusive preserve of an anonymous professional class of policy officials, separate from the mainstream public political process. The impact of these factors on our enduring national interests cannot simply be seen as part of the “high policy” of the nation, unrelated to our mainstream domestic political debate. This sort of distinction is a luxury we can longer afford. The reality is that our enduring interests are nationally existential in nature. Just as the threats to them are equally existential. They must now become an essential, indeed foundational, component of the big policy debates of the nation. Indeed, to assume that any discussion of alternative visions for the nation’s future can ignore such fundamental questions, and instead be confined to lesser questions of what sort of society we wish to be, does Australia an elemental disservice. Put bluntly, if the nation itself fails, then all discussion of what sort of nation we wish to become is rendered redundant.
As with the earlier discussion of national identity, national values and national interests, it’s important to emphasise that conservatives and progressives approach the current policy challenges facing the nation through different ideational prisms. On all three of these – identity, values and interests – I argue that we on the centre-left have a wider set of policy responsibilities than the conservatives. We have a sense of national identity beyond a selective rendition of history, culture and race. We argue a broader set of values which appeals not just to our self-interest but equally to our social conscience which is an inextricable part of who we are as a people. So too with our understanding of the broad sweep of our enduring, fundamental and existential national interests.
The conservatives argue a narrower proposition of our national interests focussed almost exclusively on limited definitions of national security and macro-economic management. We of course argue these as well. But to these we add the need for democratic renewal; a more comprehensive definition of national security; a concernfor both macro-economic management as well as how to effectively harness the micro-economic drivers of long term growth; a comprehensive and substantive commitment to environmentally sustainable development; as well as system-wide engagement with the international community on maintaining the principles and practice of the global rules-based order.This wider definition of our core national interests is not simply a reflection of a classically progressive worldview. It’s because we also see this wider set of interests as now fundamental to our long term national survival.
My central argument in this address is that the world has now entered a new, 21st century reality infinitely less predictable than the world of the second half of the 20th century. Therefore, a more anticipatory political and reformist agenda is necessary if we are to secure our national future, let alone our progressive future. The alternative is simply to consign ourselves to being tossed about on the wild winds and currents of international change, uncertain of our course, and potentially to our national peril. That is indeed the course of a complacent country.
In the days ahead I want to explore what all this means for the future of our economy, our approach to climate change, our relationships with China and the United States, and the capacity of our national institutions to navigate the profound challenges that lei ahead. This is the hard stuff of public policy. What I have sought to do today is to lay down the foundation stones of how these policy challenges should be evaluated within the framework of a wider vision for the nation. Because history teaches us if we fail to lay strong, reliable and predictable foundations, we will be forever revisiting the fundamentals, and any house we build on precarious footings will not endure once the forces of nature are fully unleashed.
That is why beginning today with a clear understanding of our national identity, our values and our enduring interests, as well defining the emerging structural challenges we will face in the future, is the necessary first step.