Australia has experienced unprecedented prosperity over the last decade. Yet many Australians have a nagging sense that something vital is missing.
The structural economic reforms, especially those of the 80s and early 90s, certainly produced an economy of abundance, but has there has been sufficient purpose to this prosperity?
There is an overt and growing concern about lack of investment in the economic infrastructures underpinning wealth creation - often manifested in debates over the capacity constraints increasingly emerging with water, energy, transport and telecommunications.
Alongside these concerns over physical capital there are doubts that we are investing sufficiently in core elements of our social and public infrastructure of education, health and welfare.
Take education: even after nearly 15 years of sustained and low inflation economic growth, Australia is now the only country in the OECD where there is a decline in per capita expenditure on higher education. It's not hard for even the most comfortable and relaxed Australian to wonder how the nation will continue to compete in the future in an increasingly globalised economy where a premium will be paid for ideas and intellectual services.
Or health: over the last decade government has risk-shifted health costs on to the individual consumer. Certainly that’s a boon for the private health insurance industry, but Australians appreciate the universal and more cost-effective benefits of Medicare, and are all too conscious of the rising costs they are paying for health insurance and that their individual health care is now very much more dependent upon their individual cash-flow. There is an appreciation that future health care will be benchmarked by our wealth and earning capacity.
And underlying these more obvious debates, there's a sense that we also need to invest more substantially in the institutions of civic society which provide the fundamental foundations of our social cohesion.
The recent emergence of the “values” debate in many countries, including Australia, is a reflection of a public desire to engage with this issue.
But "values" as such is an empty vessel. To some, it’s a way of promoting harshly defined viewpoints aimed at preserving a conservative status quo, or just a faulty memory of happier times.
We’ve seen it used by neo-liberals and conservatives in areas such as “family values”, education, and most recently in the context of debates over citizenship and multiculturalism.
Yet overseas, professed social democrats such as the putative British PM, Gordon Brown, and philosophers such as Canadian John Ralston Saul, see “values” as a very productive foundation for their visions of a greatly enhanced and inclusive democracy and a greater sense of positive global citizenship.
We don’t intend to allow the so-called values debate to be the sole preserve of the entrepreneurs of division, but are seeking ways to contest this space in the name of the many values Australians generally proclaim to be the basis of their ethos: the “fair go”, tolerance, equality of opportunity, rule of law, social justice.
We would like to acknowledge, with thanks, contributions from Tony Nagy and Carol Elliott.
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