Environment & energy, Government and governance, Education | Australia

21 March 2015

Smart governments would use the challenge of climate change to transform their economies, writes John Hewson. 

Perhaps my greatest disappointment in the last 10-15 years in public life has been the way our political leaders, of all persuasions, have played short-term politics with the challenge of climate change, the most significant moral, economic, social, and political challenge of this century.

Not only have we ended up as embarrassing laggards in the global response to this challenge, but we have squandered very significant business and other opportunities that could have essentially redefined our industrial base, and society, as well as developed significant economic growth, a host of new industries, and new jobs. This at a time when our governments are struggling to spell out, yet alone facilitate, just how our society is to make the transition from one based on a resources boom, to whatever.

The challenge of climate change calls for technology to step up as a fundamental to an effective solution. It should be defined by a technological revolution, in alternative energy and fuel, in renewables, in energy and fuel efficiencies, and in a host of ancillary industries, as we de-carbonise and transform from a concentration of carbon-exposed industries to a low carbon society.

A smart government would recognize the inevitability of these trends and seek to capitalize on them, rather than slip into skepticism and denial, attempting to defend the indefensible.

Our present Government tells us that we can’t leave our children, and their children, with the legacy of debt and deficits; that we can’t leave them with the expectation of an “age of entitlement”. But it is quite okay to leave them with a legacy of carbon emissions that threatens their standard of living, and maybe the future of our planet.

Of course it is not just about climate change, and the opportunities it presents. This is just the most recent of the opportunities to have come before us as a nation that have been missed or squandered.

How many governments have tried to convince us that we are “the clever country”, that we have a clear competitive advantage in education, in technology and design, and in scientific and medical research, and so on? And yet they conspicuously fail to embrace attitudes and deliver policies that would suggest that they genuinely understand what they should be doing to make this happen.

As the most recent example, the Abbott Government has clearly made a mess of its reform of higher education, simply announcing changes to university fees and the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECs) without an overarching education policy within which such measures could be understood.

Worse, the Minister, Christopher Pyne, seems to struggle to rise beyond university politics in the way he has sought to gain support for his initiatives, both in the Senate, and in the broader community.

At the same time, they have made significant cuts to CSIRO, and vocational training. They didn’t even have a science minister until forced to do so in the last ministerial reshuffle.

More broadly, our capital/financial markets don’t back innovation, new ideas and start-up, and technology-based businesses. Our now globally significant superannuation funds mostly hug global stock market and property indices, presently sitting quite exposed to a market correction as the US Federal Reserve moves to raise interest rates.

Finally, I long for the day that our media and community discussions focus on science, technology and innovation (and indeed the arts and literature) to the extent that they do sport, and Hollywood and political gossip.

Our political leaders should be challenged, and punished electorally if they don’t rise to the opportunity that is ours. They should seize the moment of a technology revolution to restructure and position our society for the future.

How much of this did you read in the recent Intergenerational Report that claims to think strategically 40 years ahead? Disturbingly, none!

This piece was also published by the Southern Highland News.

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