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New ideas

This book begins with great expectations. On the cover, Paul Kelly says it is the ‘voice and vision of a new generation’. On the back, Mark Latham welcomes it as ‘an excellent starting point for a new debate about where our country is heading’, and Gareth Evans praises the ‘lively analysis and sparkling writing’, lamenting that he hadn’t written it himself.

As Australians go to the polls, here is a comprehensive policy blueprint, drawing together new and old ideas based on solid research and presented with passion and conviction.

With degrees from the world’s best universities, and experience in business, both sides of politics, and the community sector, these four authors offer a smorgasbord of policy ideas on topics ranging from politics and civic engagement to social policy, economic policy, and international affairs.

This is certainly a book for policy wonks. However, it also warrants a wider audience. It may well be the most original, persuasive and intelligent policy offering during the election season, that is, if it can get a hearing above the bluff and bluster of the campaign.

Noting Australia’s strong economic performance, sporting success, envious lifestyle and high international reputation, the authors argue that Australia could be doing better. Offering a social, economic and political critique of Australia, the authors set out, ambitiously, to offer solutions to seemingly intractable policy debates and arguments.

Arguing that Australians ‘are looking for new ideas’ to advance the nation, the authors want a ‘country that conceives of its future in grander terms’. The book appeals to ‘the greater good of society’, to hope, and optimism, articulating a radical centrist political philosophy. Nobody would agree with everything in this book, but there is much grist for the policy mill.

Recognising the disillusionment with the political process and the need to increase citizen participation in public life, the authors argue for a republic, a bill of rights, regular constitutional conventions, an increased policy role for the Senate, the appointment of ministers from outside of Parliament, campaign finance reform, public-private sector job mobility, allowing the public to vote in party pre-selections, and an annual deliberation day to weigh up candidates and issues before elections.

They argue that central to their economic philosophy ‘is a belief that open, flexible and well-functioning markets are essential for strong growth’. They believe in trade liberalisation, enterprise bargaining and competitive markets. Although they are proponents of economic liberalism, they acknowledge these policies have increased inequality, damaged the natural environment and caused pockets of high and chronic unemployment.

They propose to ameliorate the negative effects of economic growth through multilateral trade, increased foreign investment, adjustable taxation rates set by a group outside government to smooth out the economic cycle, changes to corporate bankruptcy laws to allow businesses time to readjust, more industry assistance and encouragement for our innovative entrepreneurs.

Offering a social policy vision based on ‘equality, opportunity and community’, the authors propose an earned income tax credit, a focus on inequality as well as poverty, several innovative indigenous policy proposals, more funding for education and greater teacher support, and efforts to encourage philanthropy.
A good argument is made for increasing social capital, which they define as ‘the bonds of trust and reciprocity that bind communities together’, proposing that local schools become ‘a focal point for civic engagement’. Research shows that in areas where social capital is high, the economy is stronger, there is less crime, and better health, education and welfare.

Another proposal of merit is an AustraliaCorps scheme where young people are invited to work in a disadvantaged community for a year, and by doing so receive a living allowance, and earn an education credit which can be used to pay for higher education or training. There are other worthy proposals to promote environmental sustainability, engage more closely with the region and the world, and encourage Indigenous entrepreneurship.

Nevertheless, there are some policy ideas which would find little public support and demand more rigorous advocacy than is presented here. A market-based HECS scheme, housing vouchers, an inheritance tax, the abolition of negative gearing, introducing competition to prisons, ‘rolling forward’ the GST, abolition of the First Home Owners’ Grant and the Baby Bonus, are notable in this regard.

Whilst policy is the book’s strength, the authors are less convincing when arguing about values and identity. Believing that Australia has no inspiring or unifying national ‘story’, they argue that the Eureka Stockade legend should become the centrepiece of a new Australian identity. Further, the Eureka flag should become the Australian flag, and the Eureka oath replace the citizenship oath. They also propose that Waltzing Matilda become the new national anthem. The case for such change is not persuasive.

The authors suggest that Australia Day, Anzac Day and the Federation anniversary, are not sufficiently unifying or inspiring national commemorations. However, on Australia Day in January, 800,000 people attended events in Sydney, and many more visited the beach, the bush and hosted backyard barbecues. More than 9,000 people became citizens. This year 200,000 people watched the Anzac Day march in Sydney, and a record 15,000 gathered at Gallipoli. In 2001, around 500,000 people lined the streets of Sydney for the Centenary of Federation parade and millions more participated in national events that year. These events attract widespread media coverage and they inspire meaningful commemoration, something the Eureka Stockade has not yet achieved.

More emphasis could have been placed on the importance of political leadership, because leaders and leadership are a decisive factor in winning consent for bold reform.

The authors see Australia as ‘a work in progress with great potential’, but often ‘content to rest on its laurels and luxuriate in its unfulfilled possibilities’. This book serves as a call to arms for politicians, policy makers and citizens to nudge the Australian story further. It is upbeat, forward-looking, and declaratory, like a Keating or Whitlam speech, with a dash of American optimism and hope, fuelled by the aspirations of the authors.

Imagining Australia: Ideas for our future, Macgregor Duncan, Andrew Leigh, David Madden and Peter Tynan. Allen & Unwin, 2004. isbn 1 741 14382 9, rrp $24.95

Troy Bramston is co-editor of The Hawke Government: A Critical Retrospective (Pluto Press, 2003), works for a Labor Senator and is completing a masters degree in politics at UNSW.



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