Shut down the critics by putting them in charge

| December 3, 2021

Recent months have seen a succession of angry protests against lockdown restrictions and fossil fuel production in this country. While most people agree on the need for a pandemic-free nation and a reduction in carbon emissions, the measures to achieve these goals require difficult decisions with heavy financial and social implications. However, too many people criticise the government and other decision makers for the difficult calls they must make in complex situations, without being called to contribute to the solution.

Governments should empower these critics, rather than ignore them, by encouraging them to volunteer their ideas and effort in delivering the change they advocate for. Canvasing a wide range of constructive and practical suggestions, gaining consensus for change, and winning ‘buy-in’ from all stakeholders is the best way to promote and entrench progress for everyone.

In my long career in business, I have learned that if somebody brings me a problem, I do not have to take responsibility for solving it for them. Instead, I always ask, indeed demand, that they produce their own solution, good or bad, rather than merely state the problem or hand it on for someone else to solve.

While Australia likes to think of itself set apart from the rest of the world, COVID-19 and climate change highlight the interdependent nature of the world we live in. The spread of a new variant, or unchecked emissions in another nation, affects us just as surely as anyone else. The pandemic also exposed how deeply we depend on international supply chains for basic staples and each other for public health. A new post-COVID social contract should ensure the benefits, as well as the costs and labour in society, are distributed more fairly.

Politicians will always strive to extend their time in office, and companies to maximise profit for themselves, but these inevitable drives can be harnessed for the good of society, rather than undermine it. While complicated problems often require tough decisions, we can work together on solutions which create a more just society, rather than split it between winners and losers. Using our collective brains and sinews, we can have our cake and eat it too.

The only way to agree and implement solutions which benefit everybody is to work together in new frameworks towards common goals, rather than defend vested interests or an outdated status quo. We will not find answers if all we do is debate the other side to score political points, rather than search for positive solutions.

We must discuss the ‘wicked problems’ we face with our opponents, as well as our friends. We must listen to and understand the other side’s point of view to move forward. However, the adversarial nature of parliament and other political institutions encourage thoughtless discord rather than constructive debate. The ideas of the other side are dismissed without consideration, while colleagues within parties are seen as personal rivals rather than members of a team.

New institutions are required to offer all stakeholders a forum where they can discuss, in good faith and behind the scenes, mutually beneficial solutions. While discussion alone cannot ensure harmony, coalitions of the willing can emerge to tackle issues of mutual concern. Such partnerships may sound like wishful thinking, but over the last 20 years, the Second Track has allowed people from every walk of life to implement concrete change.

The issues faced by the nation today go beyond the current pandemic and even climate change. Australia is an important regional nation, but we are dwarfed on the world stage. We must partner with our allies and work for international consensus to protect global peace and prosperity, in part through Second Track diplomacy, and unite on practical proposals at home.

It is difficult to encourage decision makers to look beyond their personal interests or tribal loyalties. However, agreement can be found where there is space to not only listen to but understand and accommodate legitimate objections. The problems we face are too serious for ideological purity, and we cannot let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We cannot stop society in its tracks to eradicate a virus or bankrupt the economy in the name of environmental purity, but we can work together to protect the health and future of all Australians, and the Second Track holds the key to success.

The world, like every one of its human inhabitants, is full of contradictions, but there is far more to unite us than divide us in the face of common threats to our health, environment, security and prosperity. It is in everyone’s interest to discuss these issues honestly, and solve them, as best we can, together.

If we want to live harmoniously and prosper in the future, we need to embrace new methods to resolve conflicting interests to generate net gain for everyone. Both courage and compromise are required, and both have space to flourish in the Second Track environment, a proven model of constructive engagement that can work for everyone.

I am looking forward to further discussions on the subject.


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