Business providing leadership

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The following is an extract from the Richard Searby Oration on 27 September 2011. Background information is here. Video extracts of the speech can be found here.

Richard Searby Oration extract.

Cast your mind back 10 years. While many may have agreed with the focus group driven statement “we decide who comes to our country and the circumstances in which they come”, there was at that time an opposing view on the opposite side of the parliamentary chamber. Some even on the then government side.

Without agreeing with one side or the other in that debate, at least I can say there was a debate.

Oh how that has changed. I now want to put the challenge to you:

We decide who leads our country and the circumstances in which they lead!

Let me ask you this: If back in 2001, we were told that within ten years our country would be led by a female prime minister from the left wing of the Labor Party, who promoted off-shore processing as the refugee solution in Australia – you would rightly have said that maybe one of those four things would come true.

Many have said that the refugee issue should not be a big issue. And I agree. It should not be. But it is.

This issue has now moved beyond one of boats. It has moved beyond the location of processing. It has even moved beyond one of people.

This has grown now to become an issue about the soul of our country, an issue about the content of our collective character. It is now a debate about who we are and how we wish to be perceived. It is about ignorance and fear or informed and hopeful.

Former Villawood manager, Peter Mitchel, wrote in his just released book “Compassionate Bastard” that:

“(we) have to accept the fact that the refugee issue is complex and defies a quick fix. Asylum seekers will continue to arrive by boat. And politicians have to stop oversimplifying the issue by trying to outdo one another with tough talk.”

We are an intelligent country that can engage in difficult debate. Having worked for the UNHCR, I know the issue is complicated. Mitchel is right, the asylum debate is difficult and it does our country no good to simply say ‘stop the boats’.

But nor does it do justice to a complicated issue to say ‘just let them land’. Any policy that in any way encourages people to jump on leaky boats to undertake a risky voyage with a high likelihood of death, is a bad policy.

It is not the purpose of this blog to suggest a refugee solution. I have written that here.

the purpose of this blog is to call for a lifting of the quality of national discourse. Our country should be known as one that debates in detail, not sound bites.

Can I suggest a three point framework to guide detailed debate around refugees by way of example?

  1. Any policy must have the best humanitarian solution for asylum seekers as its driving focus, those here, those seeking to come and those waiting elsewhere for resettlement.
  2. Any policy must satisfy legitimate concerns for border security.
  3. Any policy must enhance and not detract from Australia’s international reputation.

I would suggest the framework of humanitarian, legitimate concern and image as a good guide to judge alternative policy suggestions.

If we do this it becomes clear that the question we are currently debating; the one of location of processing – Australia, Malaysia or Naru is the wrong one. The harder and more critical issue is that of resettlement once a refugee is processed.

The back of the people smugglers business model is not one of the location of processing, it is a lack of resettlement after processing.

The Bali Process, and the Regional Cooperation Framework it created, is a good start to regionally discuss the plethora of complicated issues from trafficking, to law enforcement and permanent solutions for asylum seekers. The government should be credited for trying to make that process work. However this forum could be used more to search for lasting solutions on resettlement and those resettlement issues should be the main focus of Australia’s involvement, not location of processing.

I readily admit this is complex, but in today’s Australia complex issues are not framed in a way we can, as a community, digest. We are given sound bites.

Ask yourself if you are comfortable with the way our political debate is framed in Australia?

Ask yourself if the framing of debate is generating good or bad policy outcomes?

Ask yourself if the framing of debate is shaping an image and reputation of which we are proud?

Are we a country that seeks deep analysis before deciding complex issues? One that is inspired by the positive? Or one that looks to sound bites and seeks energy from the negative? Do we have genuine alternatives from which we are asked to choose?

Gone are the days of discourse surrounding great issues like conscription, urban planning, floating the dollar. Back then we were given alternative visions, alternative views

Back then, we had politicians who would put ideas on the table. We had ‘recessions we had to have’ and ‘banana republics’. We had ideas we agreed with, and ideas that we disagreed with. We had vision and challenges put before us.

We were inspired to choose.

Today, the issues are not gone. But the visionaries have fallen quiet.

I wrote a blog on vision here. In that blog I wrote of the win, win, win circumstances that came from some thinking in business.

And here is the key: The companies are thinking long-term. Not in twitter feeds. Not in electoral cycles.

Listening to people who have successfully invested and built business in China, in the region – I hear them say –  Embrace, engage, learn, immerse, exchange our expertise in our region. They don’t say protect, beware, control, change or stop. They say ‘yes’, not ‘no’.

It is perhaps an unusual position to look to business as a source of inspiration in today’s Australia. But business is only just coming to terms with this itself. It is new ground. There is a lot to learn and improve. And yes, there is a lot to analyse between market motivations and community motivations.

I am not saying by any means that corporations are perfect, many are far from that. But leading companies are making some efforts and we need to give credit where credit is due.

I am yet to meet the person who says to me:

“That last federal election was truly inspiring. I was uplifted with a sense of confidence in our national leaders and a feeling of ‘relaxed comfortableness’.”

I am yet to meet that person. More lament the lack of those feelings. But we lament more often in silence.

Ronald Reagan building on Burke’s sentiments beseeched people to:

“Stand up for what is right or sit back and let evil prevail.”

I agree with Reagan, not on all his views, but certainly upon that.

His view that one should not just sit back, is neither new nor restricted to western societies.  There is an old Chinese proverb:

“Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

Lapse of leadership is the darkness. We must demand leadership and by doing so enhance quality debate. Quality debate is the light of the candle. “Better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”

This proverb transcends all nations and cultures.  This proverb should inspire us to realise that the apparent lapse of leadership is not Australia’s burden carried in isolation. Those dynamics of twitter, focus groups and endless news cycles, do not manifest themselves in Australia alone. If you doubt that, can I suggest you have a cup of tea in the United States just now?

If the problem is global, can a solution begin locally? Is it possible for Australia to be a leading light rather than a following deputy?

Australia, as a nation lacking a burden of colonial expansionist history, and a nation rightly absent a belief that its culture is big enough to dominate the world by force, has in many times in its history sought to assert its influence, in the words of Barack Obama:

“By asserting not the example of our power but the power of our example.”

And what an example we are: living in the world’s most liveable city, in the second most liveable country on earth. Perhaps our greatest failing is not recognising how much we get right. Simple things like watching groups of 12, 13 and 14 year olds leaving the MCG after a football match. Ask yourself, where else in the world could a 14 year old girl say to her mum: ‘Hi mum, I am going to a mass public event with 100,000 people and no adult supervision,’ and mum replies, ‘See you when you get home dear’?

Where else could this happen? Do we realise how good our society is, and therefore, how hard we must fight to protect it?

Oh how it would be if our leaders were like the Norwegian Prime Minister, who in addressing his nation following those dreadful attacks earlier this year, held no fear in showing emotion, confusion and bewilderment at the assault. But he still stood firm in the resolute belief that one deranged person would not derail the openness of his society.

Whilst leadership through history is in some ways cyclical, with periods of greatness and periods of tenuity, we should hope for the former.

I worked with Shaukut Aziz in Pakistan. He is a fine man and an example of a fine leader. He did remarkable things as both Pakistan’s Finance Minister and Prime Minister in circumstance so difficult that most couldn’t even imagine. He was a deserving winner of the 2001 award.

In leadership one remembers that no-one has the monopoly on good ideas, and no-one is always wrong. It is therefore worth listening to other’s ideas, and we should encourage leaders that can applaud with us the good ideas of their opposition.

Hawke was a master of this.

We all must demand of our leaders, who give credit where credit is due, build on other’s good ideas, in order to inspire us to choose between strong and stronger, not fear and fright. We used to have such leaders.

Men and women who spoke of lights on hills also held visions of a community of nations ridding the earth of the scourge that is war. They lead using the strength of the example of this nation.

We were a leading people in the establishment of the United Nations, fights against apartheid, in support of boat people, in recognition of China.

We lead from this nation by the power of our example.

Paul Keating described Malcolm Fraser thus:

“The unifying theme behind all Fraser’s foreign policy was a pragmatic and independent search for the Australian national interest. When speaking for Australia abroad he was consistently informed, formidable and constructive.”

It takes character to give credit to an opponent. It takes leadership to set a moral course.

We lost that with Tampa.

When we were asked those 11 years ago, “Do we want those types of people here”, why could we not have said:

“People willing to risk their lives and work hard for nothing more than the better future for their children? Yes we want them here!”

Wouldn’t it be better if our national dialogue was one of how to accept a fair share here in a controlled and fair manner, rather than how to keep people away?  A ‘controlled entry program’ rather than ‘border protection’?

Tampa was for this nation a turning point. It is when we stopped leading on the basis of hope and optimism and started inspiring through fear.

Tampa began a change in our national culture, it challenged our national character and we are yet to undo that damage.

I  hunger and thirst for positive dialogue, intelligent dialogue, challenging dialogue.

In the words of Bobby Kennedy:

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of the rest or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from millions of centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance …
Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change.”

That is a big, inspiring statement and we as a country can be as big as that.

In preparing tonight’s Oration, I shared the draft text with a few people of different ages, and sought feedback.

One friend in her mid 20’s friend from a politically active family emailed me and said:

“I think that for many young people my age it is not just that there is a lack of vision and leadership among our politicians; it is that they no longer believe that politics or politicians can actually achieve real change… 
As a result of this we have become not just politically disengaged from the main parties, but from the very issues they are actually debating…”

Disagreement is one thing, disengagement is worse. How bad will the future of our country be if we have a generation that doesn’t even think the debate is worth entering?

A friend at the older end of the spectrum responding saying:

It seems to be that much discussion and action in the public domain lacks any generosity of spirit, indeed there is almost a grinding meanness to debate.  Business seems to have grasped this, and in order to survive, has seized on rewarding loyalty as one of the key motivators to maintain custom.  Enlightened self interest? Of course.  Good for all? Yes.  Far-sighted? Yes.

So, back to solutions again.

Lindsay Tanner nearly got it right when he blamed the media.

Let me put a refined view.

We, as the consumers and creators of media, must demand leaders frame the content of the debate in a way that strengthens the content of our national character: To give us not a choice of fear, but a choice of hope.

When we read, or hear ourselves repeat the negativity, remember the first step on rectification is to rectify ourselves.

New media, new groups energised around issues and hope are tools that can be used to build much deeper community dialogue, not shorter sound bites. New media tools should be an opportunity for politicians to engage in longer dialogue of substance. There is hope with GetUp and other like mechanisms, but we need to demand it. The responsibility is ours.

If you agree with me that we have a vacuum in quality political discourse in planning, immigration, emergency aid, education, global poverty, or whatever else drives your passion, then you have two choices: sit back and lament the darkness, or engage in dialogue, demand quality and in doing so lean over and light the candle of hope.

I believe that we want again to be inspired, to dream, to debate great ideas. Now is the time for us to demand of those in power that they inspire us.

And let’s start our discussions from the point of strength that we now have. Our growth was 1.2% last quarter. Greece:-7%. Our unemployment is 5.2%. US over 9.

We are in the ideal future time zone.

This should be our Golden Time. Despite current equity market turmoil, this should be the time where we debate a bright future. Our choices should be ones of inspiration.

If we are not careful, instead of this being our golden time, it will be our lost opportunity. Instead of being a time where we say ‘no’, it should be a time where we say ‘yes’.

My core message is this: nature abhors a vacuum, and the time limit for the vacuum in quality debate has expired. Our country is not a negative one. We are known as the lucky country. We are not a whinging country, we are one that just gets on with it. Negativity is not part of our national character.

It is us who decides.

We decide who leads us and the circumstances in which they lead.

We can and must ‘Make Australia Positive Again’.

More discussion like this is in: 


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