I’ve written an article for the journal Challenge about the Australia of 2032. Full text over the fold.
Party Like It’s 2032
Challenge, Summer 2011-12
Physicist Niels Bohr once said that prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. In writing about the Australia of 2032, I can feel around me the ghosts of economist Irving Fisher (in 1929: ‘Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.’), IBM chair Thomas Watson (in 1943: ‘I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.’), and Variety magazine (in 1955: ‘[Rock and roll] will be gone by June.’). Talk show pundits and crystal ball gazers will always be popular, but we should take any predictions with a handful of salt. Technological change moves in unexpected ways. Similarly, as Harold Macmillan famously noted, the biggest challenge for any political leader is ‘Events, my dear boy, events’.
Bearing all this in mind, allow me to take the safe route with my predictions: I’m going to identify three trends that I think will fundamentally change Australia in the future, because they have done so in the past. In essence, my approach will be to assume that lines which have sloped upwards in the past few decades will continue to slope upwards in the next two decades. I will leave it to braver souls to predict sudden turning points.
The first change that I believe we will see is increasing affluence. It’s easy to forget that as recently as 1800, living standards were close to what they had been on the savannah. Even in Europe, most people ate around 2000 calories a day (the typical westerner now consumes 3000), life expectancy was 30-35, and everyone knew someone who had lost a baby in childbirth. In just two short centuries, economic growth has transformed our lives, and there are more transformations to come. According to a recent report, real household incomes in Australia grew at 3.6 percent per year from the mid 1980s to the late 2000s – twice the OECD average. We face the twin challenges of sluggish productivity growth and rising economic populism, but if the economy were to grow at the same rate for the next two decades, the Australians of 2032 would have real incomes nearly twice as high as ours.
The second change is that our nation will become more ethnically diverse and more enmeshed with Asia. Since the end of the White Australia policy, the share of our migrants coming from non-English speaking countries has continued to grow. The effects of this immigration can be seen in the diverse cuisine now available in our restaurants, but this is really only a superficial picture of how migration has affected the nation. In thousands of workplaces today, Australians are drawing on the culture and experiences of nearly every nation on the globe. At the same time, the growth of China and India is placing us closer than ever to the economic centre of gravity of the world economy. This isn’t just a mining story (Australia’s service exports to China exceed our coal exports), it’s a story that illuminates the evolution of our national character: Australians of two decades hence will be more likely to have been born in Asia, travelled to Asia, worked in Asia, or married someone from Asia.
The third change is that we will be more technologically busy. In a world of iPads, Wiis, Blackberries and Bluetooth, we’re more likely to be plugged into a device than ever before. Increasingly, people are getting their news from Twitter, finding love on RSVP, and watching television on iView. The National Broadband Network creates exciting possibilities for regional Australia, allowing the potential for things such as high-definition videoconferencing with a city medical specialist to diagnose an injury. But with only 24 hours in the day, technological engagement is also crowding out face-to-face engagement. Unlike prior generations, today’s teens have the option of playing a game of soccer on the Xbox rather than in the backyard. As I pointed out in Disconnected, this is one reason why community organisations such as churches, scouts, guides, Rotary, and the RSL are struggling to retain members.
On balance, each of these changes – affluence, Asia-engagement, and technology – will be good for Australia. But they also present a particular challenge to the ALP, a political party born of the trade union movement, which carries a profound belief in the dignity and value of work. We must continue to campaign on economic issues – particularly when facing the most populist Opposition Leader in a generation. But we also need to recognise that rising affluence will bring a greater demand for social liberalism. Our party has a proud history of standing up for individual liberties. Past Labor governments outlawed discrimination on the basis of gender or race. This Labor government has removed from the statute books much of the explicit discrimination against same-sex couples, and strengthened disability discrimination laws. If they are to be successful, future Labor governments must continue to support small-L liberalism on social issues as on economic ones. This means a commitment to an Australian as Head of State, to marriage equality, and to the freedom to say unpopular things.
Growing engagement with Asia means that the ALP needs to keep increasing our Asia-literacy. At the federal level, we can be proud to have a Mandarin-speaking foreign minister and representatives of Asian descent such as Senators Penny Wong and Lisa Singh. Some of us have spent years living in Asia. But we have more work to do to ensure that our politicians continue to look like our voter base. We also need to do more to build Asia-literacy among the electorate and parliamentarians. Too few members of parliament speak an Asian language, too few are absorbed in Asian art and literature, and too few travel regularly in our region. There are plenty of parliamentarians who follow every twist and turn of US or UK politics, and but not enough who understand party politics in India and Malaysia. And to be blunt, the federal parliament could benefit from more Nguyens, Desais and Zhangs.
The rapid growth in technology has major implications for skills training in Australia. In The Race Between Education and Technology, Claudia Goldin and Larry Katz argue that inequality grows when technological development outpaces educational attainment, and shrinks when education outpaces technology. For those of us who care about the gap between rich and poor, it is vital that we raise both the quality and quantity of education in Australia. Lifelong learning isn’t just a white-collar concept – it matters for everyone. For example, a mechanic who only knows how to fix the cars of today will struggle to adapt to the electric self-drive cars of tomorrow. The rapid growth in technology is a major reason why Australia needs to boost our educational levels.
Affluence, Asian engagement and technology confront our party structures as they do our policies. From its origins in Barcaldine and Balmain, the ALP has been built on grassroots engagement. Unlike the US Democratic Party, the ALP is a party where membership matters. Our party has traditionally relied primarily on face-to-face meetings, not rallies and donors. As Opposition Leader, Gough Whitlam famously used to fly back to Werriwa to attend his FEC. And on Prime Minister Gillard’s initiative, each Community Cabinet is now followed by a drinks event for local ALP branch members. Many of my colleagues emphasise the way in which branch meetings and community engagement make them better able to understand and represent their electors.
Yet for an increasingly affluent population, a meal at a nice restaurant or a night out at the footy may be more appealing than a branch meeting. Thanks to technology, you can read any Australian government report at australia.gov.au, find any federal political speech at openaustralia.org, or keep up to date with political gossip by checking the Twitter feed on your smartphone. Affluence and technology challenge the ALP, just as they do all mass-membership organisations. This means that if we want branches to remain relevant, they need to offer more than what’s available online. The branches of 2032 will need to offer members substantive engagement with policy and a stake in the political process. It isn’t good enough to have a one-way flow of information, or to regard party members merely as campaign footsoldiers. Labor’s ACT federal representatives (Gai Brodtmann, Kate Lundy and myself) have been arranging closed briefings at Parliament House, where ALP members can discuss current policy debates with federal ministers and share their ideas for reform. I have found these briefings to be more effective than online policy forums, but it is possible that the advent of high-definition video-conferencing will shift the balance.
Labor has been at our best when recognising the need for the economy, society and politics to adapt with the times. Unlike our conservative opponents, who like to say ‘no’ to everything, we recognise that reform is often in the interests of the most disadvantaged. Australia might not have created thousands of service export jobs if we had not engaged with the global economy. A generation of teenagers will benefit from a higher school leaving age and more places in higher education. And the right way to boost the life chances of Australians with a disability is to tackle discrimination and put in place a National Disability Insurance Scheme. The challenges of the future are significant, but I am confident that our policies and politics can adapt to meet them. That is the Labor way.
Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser. His most recent book is Disconnected (UNSW Press, 2010), and his website is www.andrewleigh.com.