Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment

Two Futures: Australia at a Critical Moment  by Clare O’Neil, Tim Watts Oneil_Watts_two_futures

A few weeks ago, Australia’s Minister for Arts gave a lovely little speech about books and politicians as writers. In it he said:

“The current crop of my Federal Parliamentary colleagues has produced a superabundance of books. Admittedly, most belong either to the category of rather dull and worthy policy blueprints for Australia’s future, of the kind rising backbenchers are wont to write to advertise their intellectual wares; or memoirs of the “where did it all go so wrong – it certainly wasn’t my fault” variety”.

Given the timing, I suspect Brandis had Two Futures in mind with this line. For all the proliferation of blame sharing memoirs —particularly from the previous government— there are very few real policy blueprints around. Mark Latham made his name by writing them, and Cory Bernardi has tried the same — though I regret reading the former, and won’t read the latter.

Two Futures by Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts is therefore to be welcomed as a relatively rare break from the pack. Both were elected in 2013, but are already well regarded by insiders. Their book justifies that by trying to think through six big issues Australia must manage: Democracy, Inequality, Technology, Climate, (Economic) Growth, and The World.

Wisely the authors avoid prediction —save for a slightly odd concluding chapter which contrasts two futures —and focus on the key trends in operation today. They try and gather a reasonable factual basis and look ahead to what this might mean for the country in 2040. In turn they set some general policy principles to help take advantage of the opportunities and alleviate the challenges.

The simple fact that economic growth and foreign/defence policies were included as standalone chapters should be strongly applauded. Most Labor/left policy books I’ve encountered downplay these topics. Indeed many party figures would rather never talk about these issues, seeing them as unwinnable for the left, lacking any vote changing issues, and less appealing than safe ground like health or education. I think such a view is both cowardly and wrong, so I’m glad to see O’Neil and Watt face these issues directly.

The foreign and defence policy chapter* starts with a largely standard analysis of the trends. But its conclusion that we should think of Australia as a Southeast Asian power is something I strongly agree with, and very much welcome as a contribution to the debate. I suspect many in the public will like it as well.

The economics chapter however felt like it was the most difficult for the authors to write. It’s more descriptive, the arguments less well connected, the policy prescriptions less specific. There are more appeal for independent experts —especially the Productivity Commission— to provide the answers via reviews and reports. The chapter also quickly moves onto issues of education and participation. The authors embrace the liberalisation of the economy over the last thirty years as fundamental to national prosperity, but where it goes next is not really engaged head on.

The stand out chapter for me in many ways was on Democracy, which I think addressed some quite fundamental issues in a frank and honest way. It also offered the most innovative and specific of the policy proposals in the book. The climate and inequality chapters were interesting mostly for their different tone. Both try to look at the opportunities and get perspective on the challenges. This is a welcome break from the moralising, pessimistic admonition that for many on the left is their standard rhetorical approach. It also helps that these chapters in particular and the book overall is well written with some clever turns of phrase.

Our now former Minister for Arts might be right to note the way such books are often used to help advance careers more than debate. But Two Futures is a book that seems genuinely interested in ideas, and one where the authors have done their homework, drawing from scholarly material and reports to develop those ideas. For this reason, the sheer exercise alone strikes me as something to be encouraged, whatever the merits of any individual chapters or policy proposals. If more backbenchers took up the task, Australia’s future in 2040 would look far brighter indeed.

*Disclaimer – I had a chat to Tim about the production of the World chapter, though the ideas and arguments in it are entirely his and Clare’s.