20 June 2013

Some questions that need to be asked

Unimpressed with the standard of contemporary political debate in Australia, the Board of Australia21 has become increasingly concerned that a number of grave challenges are being ignored, bypassed or placed in the “too hard” basket, and that there is no sign of this changing as we head into vitally important national elections.

Accordingly, we commissioned a series of essays by a number of Australia21 Directors, Fellows, Associates and other contributors, which draw attention to threats arising from global change. These are threats that all Australians will need to manage in the near future, and need to be thinking about now. The resulting publication is available for download from the Australia21 website.

We hope that this series of essays will help to stimulate a constructive discussion between voters and political aspirants from all parties about the kind of Australia we will leave to our children in an increasingly hazardous, globalised and resource-constrained world.

We think political parties should take a long-term view when they frame policies to put to the Australian people. When they propose new policies, they should be expected to explain how sustainable they would be in the long term, and how they would fit into a longer-term context. We wonder whether politicians are acting responsible when they imply that Australians in full-time employment are “doing it tough” – “tough” against what benchmark, exactly?

So what do we propose? As a response to the concerns raised in these essays, we are posing a series of questions under twelve themes for consideration by voters across Australia.

They are not the only questions that come to our minds, but they are some of the more important ones, and if these twelve questions clusters can become part of the political discourse in the lead-up to the election of our next government, this small volume will have served a valuable purpose.

You might like to put some of these questions to our political leaders and your local candidates:

1. On Greenhouse gases:
What is your assessment of Australia’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and to the global effort to curtail their growth? Do you believe that we should radically curtail energy production from fossil fuels? If so, over what timeframe? Should we also curtail our mining and export of fossil fuels to other countries? What energy source(s) would you see as most promising replacements for fossil fuels in Australia, and what should we do to encourage rapid uptake? If you do not believe we should rapidly curtail reliance in fossil fuels, please outline your thinking on this matter.

2. On economic management and growth:
How long do you think we can sustain the current approach to economic management in which growth of GDP is required to maintain high employment and accordingly the rate of GDP growth is seen as an indicator of the health of the economy? Do you think we need to develop a more “steady state” approach to economic management, in which we can maintain full employment without rapid growth in the demands placed upon our resources and the biosphere? How (on the business principle of “what gets measured gets done”) can we better integrate the health of the environment and measures of human well being, in Australia and globally, into our measures of economic performance and economic “success”?

3. On defence policy:
What is your concept of what the Australian Defence Force (ADF) should be structured to do over the next two decades? Are we spending enough on defence for the ADF to be able to meet your expectations? Are you concerned about the prospect of strategic competition emerging between China and the United States, and how do you think Australia should respond? Do we have
the right decision-making processes in place to ensure that we go to war only for the right reasons, and with good prospects of success?

4. On food for our future:
What is your assessment of the prospects of Australia feeding itself in the context of rising temperatures, declining extent and health of croplands, and rising food prices and international famine? What policies would you support to ensure that your constituents will be resilient to what many predict is an imminent global food crisis?

5. On our dependency on oil:
In view of the tenuous state of Australia’s oil reserves and the firm likelihood of oil crises in the near term, what policies would you favour to build Australian resilience in this area? Do you think the Government should adopt policies to ensure that we have specified stock levels of fuels and lubricants in-country? Should the Government seek to develop the capacity to produce liquid fuels from non-conventional sources?

6. On prospects for the global economy:
What do you think is the likelihood of another global financial crisis? What should we do to prepare for such an eventuality? What is your assessment of Australian prospects of again withstanding major damage from a collapse in the international economy?

7. On protection against toxins and antibiotic resistance:
What role should government play in protecting the community against exposure to toxins and deterioration in antibiotic sensitivity?

8. On the valuation of services provided by ecosystems:
Do you agree that we should include in our evaluation of proposed developments or changed land use the economic value of the services provided by local ecosystems to human communities and to industry? If not, how do you think we should best protect ourselves from the loss of these services? If so, what role should government play in building the value of these services into our thinking about the economy?

9. On ecological footprints:
Should we be trying to reduce Australia’s current ecological footprint? Can we do this in a way that assists developing countries without simply transferring an equivalent part of our footprint to them?

10. On environmental refugees:
What role should Australia play in the accommodation of environmental refugees from the South Pacific and from South-East Asia as sea levels rise? What impact should such refugees have on the numbers taken from other migration categories? How should we best integrate provision for refugees from the results of climate change into our immigration policy?

11. On domestic travel:
Do you think that the rising demand for rapid movement between our major cities can be met into the indefinite future by increasing civil aviation capacity? Can you foresee a time when exclusive reliance on air travel might become a problem or face constraints?

12. On responding to the needs of the coming generation:
Is Australia preparing its younger population adequately for the likely risks ahead as climate change and resource scarcity challenge the conventional wisdom of endless economic growth?

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