Has sustainability become a dirty word in Australia?

‘Disposable politics’ erodes the potential of citizenship[xii]

Back in 1995 in his State of the Union Address President Bill Clinton famously said: “The era of big government is over”.  ‘How lean is my government?’ seems to be a question many taxpayers are asking these days and yet we get badgered at elections by politicians promising to do more with fewer resources and yet inexorably government seems to grow in size[xiii].   They make these silly promises because we expect them too. For the past 35 years government has been in general retreat from the post-World War II high marks of spending on physical and productivity infrastructure.  Instead the expenditures of government have been switched to “service provision” and social subsidy in areas like education, health and social welfare which now account for more than 57% of the Commonwealth Government budget.   The importance of the critical “centre” grouping of swing voters who determines the outcome of elections has meant too that from the time of John Howard, the welfare net has been widened to include the suburban middle class. 

While political parties on both sides have shared generally in building the public sense of what political editor for the Australian Financial Review Laura Tingle has called ‘great expectations’ and a “culture of entitlement”, they have demonstrated also an equivalent unwillingness to raise the taxes necessary to fund the promises[xiv].  The upshot is performance falling short of promise and frustration and hostility in the electorate.  It seems our national vitality has been sapped by a loss of self-belief and confidence in being able to do big things by ourselves – as communities and businesses.  Instead we expect of government a variety of roles for which it is neither equipped nor suited – everything from leading and stimulating innovation to sustaining uncompetitive industries.

Public understanding is confused and volatile – amidst the sound bites, the accusations and counter accusations, the hyperbole and distortions, the character assaults, claims and denials – in short, the sensationalist presentation of public policy issues at all levels – not surprisingly, the community has little real opportunity to engage in an informed debate about the future.  In its place, vested interest takes up the slack and virtually guarantees that the reforms necessary for sustainable development are relegated to the margins of political debate.  ‘

Alienation from politics, distrust of science, refusal of authority – it seems these days any opinion is valid not matter how misinformed, factually mistaken, ideologically prejudiced or just downright wrong it might be.   Equally, there is broadly afoot a strong cynicism about the integrity of the public service, government, the media, corporations, scientists, the police – the list goes on.  Not everyone shares in the dream or cares for that matter.  As Tingle wrote, they feel entitled and angry.  In my view too many Australians are content also to contribute little to anything resembling the common good.

Much of the perverse economic and social outcomes that have blotted the past 30 years owes much to the failure of most political systems in western countries to promote political vision of government that is much better that the short term horizons of the managed funds. 

Gary Mulgan, CEO of Britain’s  National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts and formerly of Tony Blair’s policy office at No 10 Downing Street, reminded us some years ago, there are four horizons of effective leadership in politics: ‘short’ (<12 months) ‘medium’ (1-3 years) ‘long’ (3-20 years) and ‘legacy’ which is generational in scope.  Not surprisingly, politicians of all persuasions like to focus on things they can fix, which is usually short term, and deliver, which is usually in their term of office (3-4 years).   They like “doable” projects and the kudos that comes at the ballot box.   Anything that extends beyond that horizon is anyone’s guess.  While conceivable, even necessary and possibly highly desirable, the legacy projects with their larger positive impact to the long term well-being of a country remain in the realm of the “Who knows?”[xv]

If government is ever to be visionary and up to the challenges of delivering the innovation required for sustainable development, it is not the politicians but we the electors who will have to change – because we get the governments we deserve.  Our political leaders tell us what we want to hear, promise us what we want to receive, and marginalise the environment and the next generation because we don’t care enough about them to insist that our governments do something different.  The undeniable reality in Australia today is that people want all the services and support government can provide, including best available infrastructure – but parliamentarians on all sides are under pressure to promise lower taxes, smaller budgets, and bigger surpluses.   Something has to give….! 

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