Saturday, March 21, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - threads in Australia's future

Last night I went to the flag ceremony at Sydney University's International House. This is an annual event celebrating diversity among the student residents, as well as IH's role in helping build international understanding. Thirty eight nationalities took part.

This year, those attending wore little flags to indicate nationality. In some cases, more than one flag. This indicated in a visual way, especially in the Australian case, something about the mixing process now underway. At a rough count, the Australians present came from more than a dozen national backgrounds. I see this too on the buses and trains of Sydney, Australia's main melting pot.

I very much enjoyed the International House function as I generally do. However, it also continued the evolution of my own thinking on the changes taking place in Australia.

Those who read this blog will know something about my evolving pre-occupations and thoughts because I use blogging as my main medium for self-expression.

Since my first post in March 2006, I have written well over 2000 posts across my blogs. That's a lot of words.

During that time my thoughts have evolved through the writing and discussion process, as well as the supporting reading I have done. My views today are not the same as they were in March 2006, although some of the shifts may be difficult to see because they are shifts in focus and nuance.

Given all this, I thought that I would take the opportunity of this morning's musings to outline some of the issues that I consider to be important to Australia's future. I am doing so for my own benefit, a semi-colon in the writing process. However, I hope that they will be of some interest to readers as well.

Maintaining Unity in Diversity

In the year to end September, Australia's estimated migrant intake was 235,900. That's a very big number, over one per cent of the current population, large enough of itself to mark a further shift in the composition of the Australian people.

If we drop below this number, we find that just over 228,000 people left Australia. So around one Australian resident in every one hundred left the country, again a big number.

These departures were more than offset by just over 435,000 new arrivals. This is a very big number indeed. It means that at end September one Australian resident in fifty did not live in Australia twelve months before.

This change in the composition of the Australian people is larger than the changes associated with the post war migration program. Further, our non-discriminatory migration policy means that immigration on this scale is visibly changing the ethnic and national mix of Australia's population.

I support this change. We have no choice because of our needs for people, as well as our geographic location. It may be, as some argue on the left and right of politics, that our immigration rates are too high. However, variations in migration rates may slow or speed the change process, but will not change its direction.

We should not be blind to the difficulties in our path. We are trying to create a genuinely multi-ethnic country, melding the existing population with new arrivals who carry with them their own historic prejudices, rivalries and tensions.

If you look at what I have written about in this area, you will see that I have focused on two main issues. The first is the need to avoid change out-running our capacity to adjust. The second is the need to find the best way to integrate our new people, to create and maintain the unity necessary for Australia to survive and succeed as a nation.

I have consistently argued that, by global standards, Australia is not a racist country. This does not mean, however, that prejudices about race, ethnicity and religion do not exist. They obviously do and have to be managed if we are to be successful in what we have set out to do.

Success depends upon tolerance, upon acceptance of difference. It also depends upon understanding of other groups. We have to create that understanding.

If you look at some of my recent train reading, you will see that I have been refreshing my knowledge not just on the etiology of racial views, but also on the historical causes and outcomes of ethnic tensions especially in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Our Indigenous Peoples

I have written a lot on indigenous issues because I regard this as an important area.

My interest began all those years ago with my involvement in the then very new study of Australian pre-history. I came back to the issue through my blogging, through my disquiet at what I saw as wrong directions in discussion and public policy.

Most recently I have had the opportunity to actually work within an Indigenous context, talking to Indigenous people in the office and especially outside during smoke breaks.

While this has actually limited what I can say on current events including putting my posts with Joe on hold for the moment while I worked through what I could write about, you can still often guess what I am doing at any time because it flows over indirectly into my writing and reading.

As so often happens, I have retained my historical focus. To my mind, you cannot understand current events if you do not understand their past.

I read Jim Fletcher's history of Aboriginal education in NSW not just because I wanted to fill a gap in my planned history of New England, but also because the book dealt with elements of the past of people that I was working with.

In somewhat similar vein, I purchased and read John Mulvaney and Johan Kamminga's Prehistory of Australia as a way of refreshing my knowledge about the long sweep of Indigenous occupation of this country. I was also interested, although I did not say this at the time, in the degree to which current patterns of mobility within Indigenous communities reflected the Indigenous past.

My train reading has now switched to Michael C Dillon and Neil D Westbury's book Beyond Humbug: Transforming government engagement with indigenous Australia (Seaview Press, South Australia, 2007).

Given the powerful regionalism that affects my writing, my own sense of country is as strong and not dissimilar from that held by many Indigenous people, I was pleased to note that Michael Dillon spent some time at school in Armidale and has a masters from UNE. You cannot get away from us!

With a foreword by Fred Chaney, this is a seriously good book. It says many of the things that I have tried to say, just better, over the last few years. Everybody interested in indigenous issues should read it.

It is also a flawed book in that it is dominated, despite the authors' explicit recognition of Indigenous diversity, by Northern Territory experience.

While I cannot presently comment on some current events, I will do a proper review of the book in due course as an important public policy analysis.

In all this reading, writing and discussion, my own views have shifted. I think that my views on public policy have held up pretty well. However, I am far more sympathetic to elements of thinking within the Indigenous community than I was a few years ago.

I regard resolution of of the relationship between Indigenous Australians and the broader community as a critical national issue. However, and without going into details here because it would detract from my main point, I have formed the view that it may take as long as twenty years to bed this down.

I say this because I think that generational change is required in both the Indigenous and broader Australian community before we can really escape from mind traps set by the past.

Survival of a Small Rich Country

In economic and population terms, Australia is a small rich country perched on the edge of the Asian land mass.

In population terms, we presently rank around 53 in the world. In economic terms, 14 or 15th. In military terms, the combination of our wealth with access to technology makes us something of a regional super power.

On current ABS projections, the Australian population in 2051 is projected to increase to between 30 and 40 million people. While this is a large increase in absolute terms, we still drop sharply in global population rankings.

We will also drop sharply in economic ranking.The process here will be a little slower in terms of country rankings because of the big gap between Australian GDP and that holding in countries behind us.

Of more importance, the gap between our GDP and the countries in front of us is likely to widen very sharply. We may retain our nominal place in the G20, but our share of world GDP is likely to fall from the current level of around 1.4% to below 1%.

In military terms, we are going to struggle to maintain a military edge as other countries catch up in technological terms.

As I have tried to explore in a number of posts, this basic pattern drives Australian trade, foreign and defence policy.

To this point, I think that successive Australian Governments have been quite clever in these areas and especially in trade policy.

At one level, we have worked for freer global trade, while also establishing a growing network of free trade agreements that reflects the dynamics of future world economic power. The Australian Government's greater emphasis on Africa - previously the ignored continent - is the latest building block.

From this point, our life is likely to get a lot more complicated. How we handle those complications will be very important to our future as a nation. Here I want to point to just four issues that I written about.

The first is the likely Pacification of Australia.

Australia used to think of itself as a Pacific Country, but then we started to ignore the Pacific as our focus shifted to Asia. This was a mistake, one that the Howard Government had to struggle to correct.

Absolute population numbers in the Pacific are not high in absolute terms. However, they are high relative to the populations of Australia and especially New Zealand. They are also growing quite fast. By 2050, there is likely to be one Papuan for every three of the then Australian population.

Australia has a powerful vested interest in the resolution of Pacific problems. If we fail, we are going to face powerful pressures on our borders. Even with success, we are still going to see a rapid rise in the absolute numbers of Melanesians and Polynesians living in Australia.

The second issue is the importance of ASEAN.

ASEAN is critical to us along three dimensions; it sits across key trade routes; it is Australia's northern strategic buffer; and it is a key economic partner. The successful development of and relations with the ASEAN countries and especially Indonesia is arguably the key strategic issue from an Australian perspective.

The third issue is the need to find a balance in our evolving relations with the US, China, Japan and India. This is presently seen as perhaps the key strategic issue, although I would still place ASEAN first from a longer term perspective.

The last issue is the need to avoid Australian hubris and arrogance.

As I have commented in some of my posts on Mr Rudd, I get very uncomfortable when I see an Australian leader big-noting this country. Among other things, this plays to a continued inward looking prejudice within the Australian community about our superiority and place in the world.

I would feel far more comfortable if our approach were more low key, displaying greater recognition of the need to be subtle and clever if we are to properly manage the challenges we face as a country.

Retreat from the Bush

In Beyond Humbug: Transforming government engagement with indigenous Australia, the authors make the point that the continued failure of official policy towards the Aborigines is due in part to official disengagement not just with our Indigenous people but, more broadly, with all of remote and regional Australia. The two are linked because so many Indigenous people live in regional Australia and are therefore directly affected by its continued decline.

I have written about this issue along many dimensions because it is personally important to me: the way official policies accentuate regional decline; conflicts over water; metro failure to recognise that our food supply and key exports come from regional Australia; failure to recognise that current policies are creating islands of disadvantage; and so on.

In writing, I have slowly formed the view that while decline was not inevitable, the impact of the policies and structures creating the decline may now have reached the point that the monetary cost of reversal has become simply too great for city based politicians to consider in the absence of some form of social disaster.

I think that we will pay a price for this. Part of that price will be continued Indigenous disadvantage, as well as social dislocation. The price may include social disaster.

I recognise that this sounds extreme. To explain why I think this would require a long and carefully worded post in its own right. For the moment, let me leave it as a bald statement without amplification or justification.

Problems in Management, Public Policy and Administration

Quite a bit of my writing across blogs has addressed management issues.

Some of this has been purely practical: how to design a good staff appraisal system; the importance of on-job learning; the need for effective delegation. More has dealt with what I see as trends: our obsession with quantification; the rise of key performance indicators; the impact of what I see as our obsession with control and risk avoidance.

Beyond the purely practical, I suppose that my key message has been that our systems no longer work very well in either public or private sectors.

When I started writing, I had no idea that that we would soon face a global financial crisis, nor that that global crisis was (at least in theory) predictable from my own writing. I only knew that our systems no longer worked.

In terms of this particular muse, Australia badly needs better management.

We do not need a system that leads analysts such as myself to take major Government pronouncements and automatically add six months to stated impact dates to accommodate our current administrative systems. We do not need a system where achievement of stated outcomes will in fact leave the underlying problems unresolved, where the outcomes are disconnected from real need.

These problems are not limited to the public sector.

For much of the last two decades, my major advisory work has been in the private and not for profit sector. Here I have found performance measurement systems that do not reflect real firm performance. I have seen information systems that have very little real linkage to actual firm operations. I have seen managers struggle with short term objectives that they know will detract from the longer term.

In a professional sense, I have struggled with my inability to get key messages across.

In many cases there is little reason to provide new substantive advice because those who commission the work do not have the power to affect real changes. To be helpful, advice must be constrained by what the specific person or persons can in fact do.

Even when dealing at CEO level there are problems.

Consider this. How do you tell a CEO that they should not attempt to achieve the immediate performance objectives on which their pay depends? How do you say that they may get the results and the cash, but leave the firm in a weakened position? It is very hard to do so, equally hard to get the CEO to accept the advice.

In all this, I have become a management radical in that I want to tear existing systems down. Alternatively, I have become a conservative in that I want to go back to elements of the past.

Enough, I think, for the present. It is hard campaigning for change where the change involves a return to the past. But then, a lot of my arguments do!

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