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Before COVID-19 and physical distancing, before bushfires and closed borders, the ‘great Australian dream’ was likely a different vision to what it is today. What are our dreams for our country, our families and our lives? What kind of future do we imagine for Australia? In the midst of 2020, we invited three writers to reflect on their hopes, their dreams for Australia after bushfires and pandemics.
Helen Sullivan is the current Director at the Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy. Her scholarship has explored the changing nature of state-society relationships including the theory and practice of governance and collaboration, new forms of democratic participation and public policy and service reform. Helen is the author of six books and numerous academic articles, book chapters and policy reports.
Helen’s Australian dream for the future provides optimism and direction for the future, demanding better of public institutions and improved leadership from the next generation.
I am a stranger in this land. I have been in Australia for less than a decade, drawn like many before and after me by the promise of a new opportunity. In that time, Australia has delivered on that promise, though not necessarily in ways I anticipated. Home to the oldest continuous culture in the world, awe-inspiring natural history and physical geography, and the source of vast reserves of precious resources to fuel the economy, Australia is a place of constant wonder. And yet this is also a country where the life expectancy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is far below the average for the whole population, and where the natural resources that power the economy also contribute to the destruction of the natural and physical environment by accelerating climate change.
COVID-19 brought ‘business as usual’ to a halt. What happens next depends on what future we envisage for Australia, and indeed the world. Imagination is crucial here—in Giroux’s words, we must ‘imagine otherwise to act otherwise’. But how do we do this? Is it possible to reintroduce imagination and foster wonder among people whose circumstances are such that they have no time or space to exercise their imagination and/or are so disillusioned with, or inured, to the organisation of the present that any other way of doing things seems futile? And how do we enlist those for whom the present has worked out very well and so have no particular interest in doing things differently, particularly if it makes their lives less comfortable?
One way of doing this, perhaps the only way in such a critical time, is to commit ourselves to utopian thinking. Why utopian? Well, it unshackles us from the here and now, liberating us to think differently without the constraints of detail and questions of how. It refuels hope in the possibility of radical change, inspired by reflection on the multi-faceted wonder of Australia. Utopian thinking repays wonder and can be facilitated by drawing on the power of artists—creative thinkers of all kinds, who are adept at showing us different versions of ourselves for good or ill. Utopian thinking is also inherently political—one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia—and the working out of difference is an essential part of building a new imaginary.
As a private individual, my utopia would be one based on the principles of sustainability, integrity and capability. Sustainability would guide all action on the environment, the economy and societal well-being. Integrity would be the cornerstone of all institutions, and an outstanding feature of public life, manifest, for example, in the practice of self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. All would be given opportunities and support to fulfil their potential, regardless of status or means.
As a public policy scholar with a particular interest in the relationships between the governors and the governed, I am necessarily drawn back to the task of working out how to get from where we are to where we want to be, assessing the magnitude and nature of the resources needed to support that effort and highlighting factors that could inhibit or encourage progress.
Ironically, the ‘easiest’ parts of this challenge pertain to the development of public policies for sustainability—of the planet, our natural resources, our economies and our social systems. This not to say these are simple tasks, but rather that we have the human capital to figure these things out. Our capability exists across academia, industry, the public sector and the third sector. It may not be as joined-up as it might be, but ideas, expertise and experience are abundant.
The most difficult part of the challenge facing us concerns our institutions—political, governmental, media and commercial. In democratic systems (and even undemocratic ones), public trust is essential for the system to function effectively. As is all too evident from annual trust surveys (for example, Edelman’s), we, the public, don’t trust any of these institutions that much anymore. There are, of course, many reasons for this, but at the heart of it are matters of transparency, accountability and ethical conduct. The three work together and are applicable in all areas of public life, but are of critical importance in democracies. Australia’s performance at all levels of government is presently less than it should be. The dominance of sectional interests over policymaking, the singularity of media ownership and influence, and the lack of control over political donations have combined to diminish the performance of our institutions to the point that our next generation of citizens has demonstrated some ambivalence towards democracy over other forms of government.
Nonetheless, it is with the next generation that hope of a utopian future lies. Hope is always gifted to the next generation, even when we have left it an unpalatable legacy. The best, most powerful engine for hope is education. Fortuitously for a utopian, education is also the best hope for social mobility, equality, justice and well-being. Education feeds wonder, nourishes it so that it is able to flourish in the service of all our futures including by imagining new ones. From preschool to university, education offers the possibility of building understanding of our place and potential in the world, and fostering capabilities that can be put to positive use. It can support the development of human agency (individual and collective) that is equipped to demand better of our public institutions and to be better as the next generation of leaders.
Perversely, COVID-19 has put the education of a generation of children at risk. Our priority must be to restore that opportunity to them, enhanced as befits children of a country of wonder. To recall Meaghan Morris from another time, ‘things are too urgent now to be giving up our imagination’.
If we feed wonder, we might all get to benefit from its harvest.