australia's creeping inertia

australia’s creeping inertia

There are many things that fill me with pride as an Australian. There are others about which I am increasingly embarrassed. We all have long lists on both sides of that ledger. The one which disturbs me most, and which can most impact our long term prosperity, is inertia.

I’ve been in the UAE, China and Singapore recently and returned wondering why we’re being beaten hands down in development of convention centres, bullet trains, sustainability programs, new hotels, freeways, and even knowledge economies. The world is moving at an incredible pace. In many areas, we seem to lag, even behind the developing world. Why?

Within the context of “free market” principles, national sovereignty is diminished as global markets, multinational corporations and global institutions play a major role in shaping our economy. While these forces also prevail in emerging markets like China, they are matched by a hunger to catch up and exceed, which is strongly nurtured by State. By contrast, inertia is rife in Australia, not so much in the private sector, but certainly in public policy.

 I’ve spoken with a few wise heads to get an angle on our malaise (in the spirit of “first seek to understand”) and have developed some thoughts. I wondered whether to tackle the ultimate sacred cow by asking “is democracy itself the problem – and do democracies inevitably tend to inertia?” On reflection, I think the issue is more the way our democracy is manifested. Australian democracy today is being impacted by four forces:

  1. The shape of politics today

- Reform is always slow and politics is about compromise  – a challenge enhanced by the current political mix. Without masterful negotiations or bipartisan support for reform, we have a melting pot for inertia.

- As membership of, and interest in, political parties diminishes, the influence of factions and divisions increases, resulting in a sub optimal mix of candidates. There are too many poor performers, insufficient diversity, too many lawyers and union officials, too few business people and visionaries. As a consequence, we have fewer issues focused debates and more fixed partisan positions, with vested interests buried in ideology and inaction.

      2.    Our relative comfort and apathy

Australians have not faced any prolonged shock or discomfort since the end of the WW2 more than 60 years ago. While there is poverty and disadvantage in our country, standards of living have continued to improve. As consumerism grows and people increasingly “have what they want when they want it”, they are becoming less happy, readier to find fault and carry a higher expectation for “the Government” to fix things. We’ve become more apathetic and short sighted and this flows on to major projects – where is the next Opera House, Harbour Bridge or renewed public transport system? Are they a priority today?

      3.   Media

Lack of media diversity and standards is a major concern. In many of Australia’s media markets, only one single company dominates.  John Faulkner captures the argument – “the media’s freedom to publish was once a safeguard for our democracy. Today, as trash tabloids and opinion-for-hire commentators destroy any semblance of a debate of ideas, the principle of informed decision-making at the heart of the ideal of democracy drowns beneath racy headlines and print-now, retract-later coverage. Radio shock-jocks and shallow television infotainment do the same”.

         4.    The digital revolution

Technology has shrunk and accelerated our world, generated more choice and shortened our attention spans. There are greater demands on our time and more attention to the short term than the longer term.  Faulkner again – “opinion pollsters report a lack of interest or understanding in politics from the very same people racking up massive mobile bills voting for an Australian Idol contestant. This disinterest breeds a vicious cycle, for those who don’t speak up will find nothing so certain as that they won’t be heard”

Solutions?

These four elements are causing indifference, distrust and disengagement about politics and democracy – and apathy about our future. What can we do? Here are four thought starters:

  • Achieve electoral reform at candidate selection level through absolute transparency
  • Win bipartisan support for application of the benefits of the resources boom into infrastructure and other long term benefits, such as creating a knowledge economy
  • Overhaul media laws to achieve diversity, debate and responsible reporting with a view to the future of the country and the globe – not just selling papers. As this is being posted, there are cries for a media review based on the events in News Corp.
  • As individuals, bother to be heard. The world is changing and solutions are not always driven in the traditional way. Look at what GetUp is achieving, for example.

We must achieve major reform and progress in these relatively strong economic times, rather than having to wait to react in the bad times. What about a sovereign fund? That aside, it’s up to us all to make a difference, in a democracy that’s tested but not broken.


8 Comments


  1. Always enjoy reading your blogs.

    Your post at first reminded me of a conversation that I had exactly 24 years ago (being 14 July 1987) with a Frenchman whom I asked “are you proud to be French today” and he replied “I don not regard myself as being a citizen of France, rather a citizen of the world”… interesting perspective on Bastille Day!

    The following thought that I had centred around how much effort in business these days is focused on unproductive pursuits … it really came to mind when I attended a Richard Branson lunch last week in Brisbane … I thought to myself “here is someone who has surrounded himself with people who increase the velocity of doing business” and how so many people in business these days see it as their job to decrease the velcity of doing business … everyone from lawyers, compliance people, right down to over-the-top OH&S staff and even council workers who think there is some value to society in fining people who might have their dog off a leash on a beach … it has really become so endemic over the past 5-10 years and getting worse by the day … that’s a major source of your inertia!

    Cheers,

    David

    • Love the citizen of the world comment – sans frontiers! Also agree that the over-regulation and governing of this country is both contributing to the inertia but also symptomatic of the inertia without vision and leadership our energies are channeled in the micro rather than macro…

  2. An interesting perspective on inertia and inaction..

    Newton’s First Law of Motion states that an object not subject to any net external force will move at a constant velocity. Forces that aim to increase velocity (reduce inertia) are competing against dragging forces such as friction and gravity.

    So inertia is only an issue if we are travelling at a suboptimal velocity. The blog suggests that this is the case with regard to new infrastructure as well as economic and political reform. However I wonder if the rapid pace of technology development has spooked many to the point of feeling out of control which has resulted in a lack of action on many fronts.

    I too attended the Branson lunch in Brisbane and was struck by the contrast between the fresh faced, bright eyed, positive yet not so young Branson (interviewee) and the solid, staid, stale but safe O’Brien (interviewor). Maybe its time for the ‘Old Farts’ to move aside and hand control over to those who are not phased by the uncertain times and massive challenges ahead….

    • Jay, you are, of course a genius. And a nerd. I was spooked meeting your brother for the first time on Sunday – at at least 3 junctures the old boy and I turned to each other and simultaneously yelped ‘Jay!’ (including a reference to running the ruler over potential suitors!)

  3. Hi Ken,
    I do really like your blog, it so often has relevant topics.
    However, I think that some factors are far more important than we think. The first of these is advertizing, which constitutes about 10% of GDP in all the developed countries. It is easy to say that it has no influence, but Tony Abbott is proving once again that repeatedly hearing things makes you believe them. Advertizing is currently being used to cement the position of vested interests. Admitedly this is worse in USA, where 1% of the population get 25% of the GDP and pay (almost) no tax: they have a very vested interest in a “no tax” policy.If we follow down the USA path, it becomes extremely difficult since a tremendous number of people become convinced to vote (and otherwise act) against their own long term interest.
    And, there is every evidence that we will continue to follow down the USA path. As you know, I am not anti USA, but there are many places were our interests are vastly different, and we are failing to recognize that, since we have no other natural partner: certainly not Europe, or China!!!!
    When problems are complex, people often avoid them.

    Noel

  4. Hi Ken,
    Thanks for the article. In addition to your points, I support Jay’s comment about inertia being a product of too much information too rapidly…how to addres this is the problem…

    Another example of people attempting to address point 1 ‘the shape of politics today’, but reinvigorate interest in politics at a local level, is OurSay (http://www.oursay.org/the-project)

    The project aims to link members of the community that have an issue directly with politicians, via their website. The need here is that the majority of Australians are not members of a political party, while we all have a vested interest in what happens at all levels of Government.

    Alison

  5. Ken,

    Great article.

    We are definitely at a disadvantage in a democracy in making major structural reforms on a timely basis. We get there eventually, but it does take a few political cycles. The Chinese just announce and enact.

    A classic is the Chinese on food security. They understand the problem. They pay 4 times today’s market value for agricultural land. We cannot resist the “big payment” (as it is much better than today’s market value and we are driven by market based assessments of value) while they understand the strategic value and the Chinese State funds it via either direct payment or interest free loans to their state owned corporations.

    • I don’t mind calling myself an Old Fart but I did not like obviously young,eligible and virile Jay saying we should all be pushed aside.
      My observation is that the XYZ generation is full of politically correct inertia and narcissism and demonstrates very low levels of potential energy compared with status quo perceived kinetic energy. Graham Spurling

      ps Ken you sure got the airwaves rolling on this subject! I have been out of town and have therefore been late out of the blocks.

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