Australians are dynamic. But the dynamism of our people is not reflected in our economy. We rely too much on what we dig out of the ground and grow. We’re too reliant on a narrow range of exports to a narrow range of countries. We do not gain enough national wealth from inventions or innovations.
We made our economy such a closed shop that not enough new firms get started – hamstringing our global competitiveness. Wages have been stagnant for a decade. Casualisation and underemployment are rife. We have extraordinary amounts of private debt. We’re too reliant on population growth for economic growth and we’re addicted to property speculation.
We don’t value work that matters – paying a lucky few far too much and a great many nowhere near enough. And our environment is deteriorating – and our sustainability threatened.
Of course, it’s not all bad. We have a highly educated population, government that works, abundant natural resources, the world’s best scientists, brilliant universities, some of the world’s most liveable cities and one of the world’s largest per capita reserves of retirement savings.
But, in a COVID world, that is not enough. We have to regain the reformist zeal which drove our nation out of the back blocks of the 1970s and 1980s.
Take the stump-jump plough for example. Richard and Clarence Smith, two brothers from the Yorke Peninsula, wanted to plough Mallee fields without having to remove tree stumps and rocks.
The plough, one of the founding technologies of civilisation, had been around for thousands of years, but the Smith brothers reimagined that ancient technology, inventing a plough that could jump over stumps and rocks.
Australian public policy needs to regain its stump-jump mentality to make our economy more productive, competitive and self-sufficient.
That means we need to nail the basics.
For starters, Australia is not spending nearly enough on research and development. We need proper funding for universities and the CSIRO, and policies to support a more collaborative approach to innovation, with a stronger focus on commercialisation.
All this has been understood in policy circles for a decade. But rebooting R&D is not enough.
We also need to – like the Smith brothers – be practical. Government spending in Australia is more than a third of our gross domestic product.
We need to focus and leverage that spending to ensure it delivers the maximum social and economic benefit to the Australian people.
That means instead of just dogmatically debating tax reform, taking off the blinkers and following the evidence to find new ways to get government – the most significant single actor in the economy – to play a more constructive role.
This much is clear: our anaemic economy needs a transfusion of red blooded industry and innovation policies.
Economist Mariana Mazucatto, who works with governments and politicians of every ideology around the world, is a leading proponent of the evidence-based approach that Australia needs to consider.
Mazucatto’s thesis is that, properly structured, government can be an innovator – using its critical mass to inspire, create, and facilitate productive change.
In other words, the Australian Government needs to think and act like a smart investor.
As a smart investor we need to recognise that, as a small country, we need to focus on areas of competitive advantage – and national need.
For instance, climate policy is both an existential threat to our way of life and a massive economic opportunity. With more natural renewable energy resources than any country in the world and the best scientists in the world, we have ample opportunity and expertise.
As economist Ross Garnaut has written, renewable energy could be a catalyst for the development of new, globally competitive industries, including heavy manufacturing. Australia could also become a global leader in a vast array of subjects on which many other countries will be looking for expertise in the coming decades, such as coastal erosion, optimising energy use, smart infrastructure, new agricultural techniques, water conservation, climate-conscious cities, and sunscreens with enhanced skin-cancer protections.
The opportunities are endless. But we need direction – and national purpose.
Setting national missions – Mazucatto calls them ‘moonshots’ – could give Australia that national purpose, rallying our universities, governments, unions, scientists, super funds, and businesses around specific policy goals.
Imagine the vigour that could be unleashed by engaging millions of Australians in articulating common goals for our country and economy, then backing those moonshots with the critical mass of government.
We also need good quality institutions to create, coordinate, frame and deliver on national missions over the long term – and to ensure those missions are by evidence instead of dogma. The importance of making good, long-term decisions can’t be overstated.
The bottom line, though, is that we need to recapture our stump-jump mentality. Our governments need to be as sensible, pragmatic, practical, innovative and dynamic as our people. Because when the dynamism of our people is harnessed, Australia is a world-beater.
Clare O’Neil is the Shadow Minister for Innovation, Technology and the Future of Work and the Member for Hotham in the federal Parliament.
This is an edited extract from ‘What Happens Next? Reconstructing Australia After COVID-19’, available now from Melbourne University Press.