Australia deserves a better debate and 5 ‘quick wins’ for ‘wicked’ problems

| March 3, 2018

Australia21, an independent, evidence based non profit think tank, has set out a series of ‘quick wins’ it believes Australia’s politicians could embrace to produce fair, sustainable and inclusive solutions to some of the nation’s most pressing problems.

These so called ‘wicked’ problems are social, economic and environmental issues that defy simple solutions, but are often to fuel heated, but fruitless, political debate.  Rather than indulge in more electioneering and point scoring, Australia21 urges the nation’s political class to focus on tackling these issues in a constructive manner through policies based on practical evidence, rather than short term political convenience.

The group notes that while there are many Non-Government Organisations, including Global Access Partners, working in the interests of the nation, public policy is ultimately a matter for the country’s elected representatives.

As well as democratic mandate from the people required to cast their vote, politicians have a wide range of resources at their disposal to understand and act on issues, including access to immense volumes of data which government agencies collect, and access to worldwide expertise.

Australia21 urges state and federal MPs to abandon name-calling and ‘gotcha!’ politics and rediscover the power of respectful and evidence-based exchanges to improve life and well-being for the people in whose names they serve.  Canberra’s Parliament is the centre-piece of the nation’s democratic society and can boast a proud history of social progress. Australians are entitled to expect those elected to it to work to be worthy of that honour.

The group does not make a ‘naive call’ for bipartisanship and acknowledges that elected MPs will bring to the chamber their own passionately held beliefs and values and represent those of the people who elect them.  It is the desire to turn these convictions into action which, one would hope, motivates a career in politics, rather than merely a quest for publicity, power or career advancement.

However, while robust and passionate debate is the very lifeblood of democratic politics, political discourse can also remain respectful and constructive, allowing parliamentarians to explore and understand the reasons for their differences, take heed of opposing opinions and seek common ground on which progress can be made.

Australia21 takes the opportunity to ask that the same courtesy and respect is shown to active members of civil society, not least journalists, and asks that participants on both sides of the microphone listen to what others have to say, rather than wait for their chance to speak.  Constant interruption, ignoring pertinent questions, focusing on trivia or reciting talking points does nothing to interest a public which grows weary of political bickering, with long term consequences for the health of democracy itself.

Australians deserve better from both their politicians and their media.  Australia21 calls for all sides of the debate to focus on the substance of issues, offer evidence to support their claims, give honest, straightforward answers to reasonable questions and, above all, consider the interests of the nation as a whole.

The group also set out 5 areas of public policy where it believes significant improvements could be made rapidly, given good will on all sides.

1. Inequality

Where we are now

Australian and global wealth inequality is rising and there’s growing international concern that the central operating narrative of neoliberalism promotes mindless economic growth, and is incapable of dealing effectively with either inequality or increasing damage to the environment. Many argue that the world will need to adopt a radically new economic approach which is fit for purpose, though that’s certainly not being acknowledged widely in Australia at this stage.

In June 2018 Australia21 and The Australia Institute are holding a high level, multidisciplinary Roundtable discussion at Parliament House in Canberra, to stimulate a new national conversation about the role of the economy in Australian culture and wellbeing. A report will be released ahead of the forthcoming federal election, to stimulate discussion in the community about inequality, environmental sustainability and the appropriateness of the current economic model.

Where Australia should be by the end of 2018

Unless we explore the relevance of the current driving economic narrative to the problems that beset our future, we can’t be confident that we’ll be able to solve them.

So by the end of 2018, Australia21 would like inequality to be a central issue in the national election campaign:

  • Recognition by all political parties and the media of the seriousness of the challenge to our future from a continuation with mindless economic growth and the general principles of neoliberalism.
  • Widespread recognition in the community about the need to take urgent action on both wealth inequality and income inequality in Australia.
  • Recognition of the importance of empowering communities and neighbourhoods to rebuild their sense of ownership and responsibility for the future.

2. Trauma related stress

Where we are now

For too long PTSD has been treated as individual vulnerability by policy makers, senior managers and the community, rather than a response to the unavoidable occupational hazards of certain workplaces. This has led to stigma around PTSD which has misdirected organisational responses and prevented people from seeking and receiving the help they need.

In 2017, Australia21 and FearLess Outreach conducted a practitioner based Roundtable discussion focused on PTSD in first responder organisations, which demonstrated an urgent need for better support, especially for workers who are likely to deal with emergencies in the line of duty. Our report and set of recommendations will be released in April.

The evidence from neuroscience is clear that exposure to trauma, particularly repeated exposure, can lead to changes in brain function which may express themselves as PTSD symptoms. This is a tangible injury, which can and should be treated; it is not a personal weakness, to be hidden or punished.

There’s now a body of evidence on how to treat PTSD — although some cases can still be resistant. Standards for Best Practice organisational management of the workplaces which generate trauma related stress are also emerging.  The challenge is to overcome the old stigmatising attitudes, so evidence-based and compassionate approaches can be strengthened.

Another major challenge relates to governance and government. First responder organisations usually come under state jurisdiction, so policy and funding is complex and varied.  Many of the organisations are implementing important and beneficial reforms in dealing with trauma related stress.

However, there’s much to be gained by sharing good practice, by undertaking national data collection and research, and by collaborating on policy development (such as regarding Workers Compensation). There are currently no established mechanisms for doing this, which means advances can be piecemeal and difficult to replicate.

Where Australia should be by the end of 2018

National associations can help, but we believe that gaining endorsement from COAG and the backing of the Federal Government for a concerted national effort to address the impact of PTSD would be a great step forward. This level of attention could also motivate greater consideration from professional bodies around standards of treatment.  The challenge is to convince COAG that this issue needs national oversight.

By the end of 2018, Australia21 would like to see several changes:

  • Federal Government instigation of a national PTSD strategy based on evidence and world Best Practice, to reduce the economic, health and social costs of PTSD; this should include identifying and addressing policy roadblocks, such as those around healthy resourcing models and adversarial Workers’ Compensation approaches.
  • A mainstream community awareness campaign underway, improving understanding of the impact of trauma on the brain and how to manage the effects of trauma related stress — in the same way that there is now general understanding of the causes of skin cancer, when to seek help, and what prevention measures can be taken.
  • First responder organisations across the nation adopting established good practice standards in mitigating and managing the unavoidable workplace hazard of first responders being exposed to trauma.
  • Professional associations, such as the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Public Service, working in collaboration with first responder organisations to improve access to high quality, evidence-based treatment for those affected by PTSD.

3. Illicit drugs

Where we are now

Through 2017 there were powerful signs that Australians are losing their stomach for the failed War on Drugs and instead want an end to avoidable deaths, hospitalisations, and criminal convictions that ruin lives and often push people towards harder drug use.

At the launch of Australia21’s latest report on Illicit Drugs in March former premiers, police chiefs, prison officers and lawyers stood side-by-side with drug users and their families, to call for an end to penalties for personal use and possession and for the reframing of drug-taking as a health and social issue. This changing attitude was supported by sound international evidence that law reform can be a quick and economically efficient way to enhance individual and community wellbeing.

While 2017 saw the ACT government give the green light to medically supervised pill-testing and Victoria became the second jurisdiction to pilot a supervised injecting facility, Australians continue to be placed at risk because of government inaction. The punitive approach prevents honest discussion about the realities of drug use and abuse, and stops people from coming forward to seek help.

The problem is made worse by the deeply entrenched attitude among many politicians that a ‘tough on crime’ platform with drug prohibition at its centre is a vote-winner — fear mongering closes people down to the evidence that changing the management of drug use is likely to have a far greater positive impact for the nation.

Australia21 also notes that young people, who are disproportionately affected by drug policies, are often excluded from conversations around the development of them. Consultation tends to be tokenistic, if it occurs at all, and collaboration on the design of policies and strategies is even rarer.

While drug education in Australian schools approaches the issue from a health perspective, concerns about legality mean young people often don’t feel safe about having open conversations with their teachers, families, peers and medical staff when they have concerns for themselves or others.

We don’t have consistent programs that reflect the reality that most young people, at some point, will be exposed to drug use either individually, in their families, or amongst their peers. Ignoring this fact and the insights that young people can provide leads to ineffective policy responses that can actually cause more harm than good.

Where Australia should be by the end of 2018

Roundtable participants and drug users stand side by side to call for law reform

Australia21 would like to see progress on all 13 of the Recommendations contained in our 2017 report. In summary:

  • Minimisation of harms for drug users and those around them.
  • Reduction of the use of untested, unregulated drugs in unsafe environments.
  • Provision of more health and social programs to reduce drug-related problems.
  • Reduction and even elimination of criminal control of the drug market.
  • Reduction of the prison population and its associated progress to hard drug use.
  • Support for police and the judicial system to focus drug law enforcement more usefully.

In addition:

  • National and state governments, departments and policy makers must improve the way they engage with young people, through genuine consultation and collaboration.
  • Schools across the country should be encouraged to adopt drug education programs that ensure young people are aware of the effects that both drugs and drug policies can have on their lives.
  • Young people must be empowered to contribute to national debates around drug policy, particularly through school programs such as Smarter About Drugs, developed by Australia21 and the Australian Lions Drug Awareness Foundation.

4. The Future of Work

Where we are now

As a complex problem, the future of work intersects a variety of government and social sectors.  The Department of Jobs and Small Business (formerly the Dept of Employment) and the CSIRO cite digital inclusion, empowering and informing labour market re-activation, new workforce statistics, education, workplace relations, and the need for choices as top policy priorities.

But at the moment, the future of work is primarily analysed through quantitative means, there’s a lack of qualitative analysis particularly among young Australians, and there’s a danger that policy reviews may not happen quickly enough to meet the ever-increasing demands upon our workforce.

Australia21 has identified that the voices of young people, those most affected by the changing workforce, are missing from the conversation. A lack of the engagement that would allow young people to be heard means there’s a significant knowledge gap among those who should be making evidence-based, empathic, long term decisions on their behalf.

There’s not enough recognition and validation of the current workforce experiences and expectations of young people; negative narratives that surround them and their choices are going largely unchallenged; and, without a clear avenue to comment on and influence policy, young people can become disillusioned with government decisions and disenfranchised from the democratic process.

Australia21’s Making Our Future Work project seeks to understand how the current work context affects young people and the way they feel about their future, giving them a voice in public discussions and empowering them to influence policy debates.

Where Australia should be by the end of 2018

Australia21 will be encouraging policy makers to review the information we’re collecting through our Making Our Future Work project, so by the end of 2018 we see:

  • Increased and ongoing government engagement with young people about how the current workforce context affects them.
  • Increased collaboration between various government departments with priorities of health, education and welfare support, to help young people gain positive workforce experience.
  • Formation of a holistic and youth-focused policy, to ensure a secure workforce and increased wellbeing for young people now and into the future.

5. Climate change

Where we are now

Let’s not mince words.

2017 provided yet another warning that our opportunity to constrain human-induced climate change is fast disappearing. It was the second hottest year on record after the El Nino year of 2016, and the hottest non-El Nino year.

Extreme weather events intensified: as well as record heat on several continents, Cyclone Debbie hit Australia in March, the unprecedented hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria swept through the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico in August, an ex-tropical cyclone hit Ireland in October and there were disastrous winter bushfires in California in December.  The damage bill in the US alone is above $300 billion, and counting. Climate change now represents an existential threat to the survival of humanity and our planet, yet we’re locking it in by our inaction.

In Australia we saw the abject failure of both sides of politics to show any leadership on realistic climate and energy policy design, let alone implementation, despite the fact that we’re more exposed to climate risk than most other countries.

Sensible attempts to chart a compromise pathway, such as the Finkel Review, were tossed aside by a knee-jerk reaction to manufactured ‘energy crises’, and used to ratchet down to the next worst option — the mirage of the National Energy Guarantee. This was capped off with the appalling December 2017 Review of Climate Change Policy, which was arguably the most dishonest and deceitful government document ever published in the climate arena, demonstrating no understanding of the real risks we face, and confirming no serious intent to act.

Meanwhile the world’s biggest miner, BHP, signalled its intention to exit the world’s peak coal lobby, the World Coal Association, due to its “obstructive or misleading” policy positions on climate change and renewable energy — and the Minerals Council of Australia is also on notice to review its position that coal power plant development should be prioritised over other energy sources.

The hollowness of anti-renewable rhetoric has been highlighted in 2018 by the success of the world’s largest lithium-ion battery, built by Tesla in South Australia. Paired to the Hornsdale Wind Farm, it’s bringing added security and stability to the state’s electricity grid, which is vulnerable to the tripping of major coal thermal generator units, rather than unreliable wind or sun, or people switching on their air conditioners.

Even if you take the SA Government’s hype with a grain of salt, the fact remains that the Hornsdale battery has responded at lightning speed to smooth out several major energy outages. So it’s not surprising that the Victorian Government has now signed on to a battery deal with Tesla and a wind farm near Stawell.

Where Australia should be by the end of 2018

2018 has to be the year in which politicians and corporate leaders are held to account for their failure to fulfil their fiduciary responsibilities on climate change to the community they’re supposed to serve. They must embrace the climate solutions which are now available before it’s too late.

Australia21’s wishlist for 2018 therefore includes:

  • A formal declaration that no further fossil fuel development will be entertained, prohibiting the opening up of the Queensland Galilee Coal Basin among others.
  • Withdrawal of existing subsidies for fossil fuels.
  • A clear commitment at all levels of government to significant renewable energy targets that will accelerate Australia’s transformation to a sustainable energy economy.
  • A willingness of various jurisdictions to engage with emerging technologies so they can confidently evaluate all energy options and ensure they’re smart buyers.