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

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In 2011, as part of the Richard Searby Oration, I spoke of the need for visionaries. Below is the extract of the speech.

Where are the visionaries?

I am being asked today, more often than not, to vote against a fear, than for a vision.
This state of affairs does not sit comfortably with me.
This is a problem statement that many share and express, but what about a solution?
I started by saying we all need to step up and improve discourse. I mean we all need to, in whichever way we feel comfortable. Lamenting without action is just not enough.
Let me move to four issues that while divergent; demonstrate an interesting trend of long-term thinking developing in the business sector: planning, natural disaster recovery, international education and international aid. Although different, these issues all share some hope of new thinking.
International education
Recent ABS statistics revealed a drop in population growth from 2.2% to 1.5%. 
As natural increase has stayed relatively level, this drop is a result of a dive in net overseas migration – largely from international students. Whilst some may be relieved on the easing of pressure on our infrastructure, is this drop really a good or bad thing for Melbourne and Australia?
Education is Melbourne’s second largest and formerly largest export. It is a larger export earner to Australia than gold, natural gas, wheat, and even beef.  International education is so big that Deloitte Access Economics equates it to around 1% of GDP; providing around 100,000 jobs to the economy, or about one job for every two higher education students in Australia.
Put another way, for every two international students lost, we lose one Australian job. Roughly 20% of the impact being in retail. 
The fall in international students has seen a drop of nearly 23,000 students in 2011. That is 11,500 Australian jobs lost.
If the current drop is not cause for alarm, then the future projections to 2015 should be. By 2015, some forecasts predict a drop of nearly 70,000 students against future expectations. If this occurs, it would mean 35,000 fewer Australian jobs in the broader economy. 
So why are we not strongly fighting to protect this industry?
Rather than being concerned about jobs, for some reason our nation appears so fearful on population growth that we applaud the drop in arrivals without fully understanding the broader economic impact.
Glenn Withers, the chief of Universities Australia said that the negativity surrounding Australian public debate on population, migration and refugees is “creating an impression that we are not welcoming students, or even welcoming visitors.”

We must work urgently to reverse the negative brand image of Australia as unwelcoming because it is untrue.
We should not be surprised by this brand image risk.
We had 30 years notice.
Recently released papers revealed discussions in the Fraser Cabinet. Michael Mackellar, the then Immigration Minister said to the cabinet:
”Under international law Australia could legislate to: prohibit entry to Australian territorial seas, to vessels carrying refugees and expel such vessels. In view of our image as a developed, technologically advanced and still under-populated country, such steps would be courting international pariah status.”

This was said 30 years ago. This was why we had a positive narrative at that time. I see no reason why today, we should have a different reasoning from that which applied over 30 years ago. We are still risking pariah status. The risk appears to manifest itself in the education sector.
As global uncertainty envelopes all industries, we must not see the international education sector as an isolated victim, rather, we should see it as a strong indicator of threats to the broader economy.  It would be naive to think otherwise.
Those involved in business, small, medium and large know that good reputation is critical.  When given a choice, people prefer to do business with people they like. It is human nature.
If the international education sector is the canary in the cage, and if the framing of national debate on population, refugees and immigration is portraying Australia as an ‘unwelcoming’ country, there is no doubt this will impact the broader economy and cost Australian jobs.
We know business is starting to realise this because more and more business leaders are speaking out to protect Australia’s brand image. Who would have thought only ten years ago, some of the most pro-refugee and pro-immigrant voices were not the left wing, but some of our business leaders?
Then there is a deeper issue: Surely if we want to improve the globe, enhance inter-cultural dialogue and understanding, reduce conflict, enhance collaboration and cooperation, isn’t international education a great diplomatic tool, not just an economic benefit?
Let me propose two simple policy ideas:
1.    Every Australian Embassy in the South East and South Asian regions should foster the creation of an “Australian Alumni”. Many senior political and business leaders in the Asia Pacific region have received some or all of their education in Australia. We should maximise the diplomatic, cultural and business advantages to all countries by keeping track and fostering a lifetime cultural connection between former students and our country. While some universities are doing this, surely the Australian government should do so as part of a soft diplomatic outreach.
2.   We should allow Australian businesses that are looking to expand into the region to employ students upon graduation in Australia. We should allow them a year or two to understand the culture of the business and then be beach-head staff employed back in their home countries by our companies, thereby allowing the Australian business to have a better chance to thrive. The Knight review released last week is heading in this direction and has recommended changes to the visa rules to allow this. The government has indicated that they will accept that recommendation, and I look forward to it becoming law.
International Aid
Let me go to a final area: international aid.
Fifty three percent of capital flows from the OECD countries to the developing world are through private sector. Only 17% are through aid.
While UN Development Program’s core funding is $1 billion a year (there is more in noncore funding), the combined CSR spend of Committee for Melbourne Members alone is $1.5 billion. The top 100 companies in the world spend $15 billion – the same as the entire UN budget.
BHP Billiton spends 1% of pre-tax profit on community engagement. That is $220 million a year – making BHP the world largest miner, fifth largest company in the world and the third largest development agency in Australia. Even larger than the Australian Red Cross.
So why is business doing this?
In Mozal Mozambique, BHP Billiton runs an anti-malaria campaign that has seen adult infections drop from around 82% of the population to 8%. Their internal documents state a major reason for doing the campaign is to help achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Think on that.
But there is an additional benefit.
The improved community health has seen absenteeism in the workforce drop from 22% to 2%, improving the productivity of their assets by an amount higher than the cost of the entire program.
People may be tempted to say “see, they only do it for profit.” I say, the link with profit is not a bad thing, as it guarantees the long-term viability of the project.
Win, win, win.
When you speak to some senior business leaders you are left in no doubt that their objective is to find ways where their companies can genuinely improve the communities in which they operate. It is not just for profit. In the long run it is, in their view, the right thing to do.
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.
Melbourne has just been voted the world’s most liveable city.
How to keep it that way?
It is possible to have a small village congested and dirty if planned and administered badly. Likewise, it is possible to have a large city which is clean and fluid if planned and administered well. It doesn’t come down to size, it’s all about planning.
So, where is our long-term vision for this great city?
Committee for Melbourne is calling for a 50 year plan for Melbourne, based on a logical analysis of where our population will be. Not necessarily a population figure we are encouraging or discouraging, but one we are planning for – there is a distinct difference.
Only when we have a planning figure, can we plan the roads, the schools, and the infrastructure we need for a growing city.
The Committee believes growth will slow from 1.65% (our 50 year average) to around 1.4% over the next 50 years.
But even a slowing growth rate will see Melbourne get to around eight million people by 2060. This number causes fear, and fear deters our political leaders from engaging in long-term discourse.
Making Melbourne more liveable with that number is possible, but only if we plan it, discuss it and bring the community on board. Only if we plan to make Melbourne better in the future, rather than hoping we will not grow, will we succeed in giving to our children an even better city than the one given to us by our parents.
And this is why we have in the past been quoted as saying that Dick Smith is a threat to the future liveability of Australian cities.
We do so because we believe his calls distract public debate from one of planning of infrastructure – issues we can 100% control – and have people concentrating on planning population – an issue we can fine tune at best.
We don’t believe Dick has malicious intent, we just believe that the debate is in the wrong place.
We should plan for the population that we think we will have, and build the infrastructure that population needs.

When did you last hear a politician give a 50 year view for Melbourne, like Menzies once did, like Whitlam once did? We remember Whitlam’s Family Law Act, Medicare and The Dismissal, but do we equally remember the building of sewers in the outer suburbs and investment in infrastructure?
Whilst we may think Dick Smith is wrong, we would not try to silence him. He helps encourage debate when others are silent.
But this debate should be led by political leaders, not a retired business man on one hand, and the CEO of Committee for Melbourne on the other. There should not be a vacuum in the first place for us to fill.
But there is a spark of hope here in Melbourne. We have in our new Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, a man who says the impacts of his decisions will not be felt in his time in the Planning Ministry, nor his party’s time in government, but in 20 or 30 years. If planning questions are debated, and planning decisions are made, in this timeframe, it will be a great step forward.
I have a vision of a city in 50 years that is more liveable than the one we have today: A city with a fully integrated public and private transport system.
I would like us to remove Melbourne’s rail level crossings. With 172 of them, we cannot put more trains on our network without having the level crossings close more often and thereby clog up our roads. Melbourne is at a city-wide, system-wide, mobility crisis point that the last two governments failed to address. It is time to remove the level crossings – yet it will cost $17 billion to do so. We need to discuss this.
I would like us to stop the unsustainable decreasing density in this city. With the highest average footprint house in the world, with less people per house as our family sizes shrink, we are continuing to spread, from a density of 23 people per hectare in 1960, to around about 14 today.

Consider this, by 2025, 51% of households in Melbourne will be ‘no child’ households (pre, post or decided to have no children). So why are we building so many family homes?
This is the dialogue we need to have, but only if we have a logical discussion on where our population is likely to be. Who is leading this logical discussion today?
Post disaster
Dorothy MacKellar told us when she was just 19, that Australia is the land of droughts and flooding rains. We know also that we are the land of fires and cyclones. For years, we have built up some of the globe’s best immediate response teams, if not policy. The Red Cross. SES. CFA. Emergency Management Australia (EMA), an organisation most Australian’s don’t know of, has worked over the years to ensure lessons learned and interoperability on emergency response.
But why is it that, our national leaders seem to plan for good immediate response, but still do post-disaster recovery and reconstruction in an ad hoc way?
Why do we have the Victorian Bushfire Reconstruction Authority set up for one event? Why did it need to re-learn the lessons of Cyclone Larry, rather than have an institution that had learned in advance? Why did Queensland establish yet another ad hoc mechanism to deal with the floods, and why do we need a flood levy?
We are told that the answer to all these questions is a version of ‘well this was unforseen.’
I only need to go back to that great fortune teller, Dorothy MacKellar, to seek guidance. We know for sure that in my lifetime disaster will happen again – many times. After all, in my life time so far, the ‘rare’ events have included Cyclones Tracey, Larry and others, Black Saturday fires, Ash Wednesday, two great floods in Queensland, a couple in Melbourne, and whole bunch of droughts.
In the last six months, I have lobbied Federal and State, Labor and Liberal MPs, around one very simple issue:
If we are the land of droughts and flooding rains, and if we have our act together well enough to be one of the world’s best at emergency response, why do we still do recovery in an ad hoc way?
Why can’t we slightly extend the mandate of EMA to include lessons learned and share knowledge on recovery as well as response? All but four politicians gave me a bunch of reasons why it couldn’t happen.
Credit to Simon Crean, Andrew Robb, Janelle Saffin and Greg Hunt for seeing an alternative. Two are in power, two may soon be. Let’s see if a simple and cheap idea can become policy. 
IBM held a Colloquium here in Melbourne and this is how this multi-national sees it:
We are witnessing the largest wave of urban growth in history with more than 50% of the world’s population now living in cities.  We have also witnessed the incredible power of nature during the 2011.  The intersection of major disasters, with increased population density and the interconnectedness of our businesses and economies, is leading to a requirement for communities, organisations, cities and countries to become more resilient.  This colloquium will explore our vulnerability, preparedness and responsiveness to large-scale events, and what opportunities exist to improve societal resilience.
Why is it that business is doing this not government? Why does business see the long-term impact, but all but a few political leaders can’t?

More discussion like this is in: 


One Reply to “Today, the issues are not gone. But the visionaries have fallen quiet.”

  1. That damn electoral cycle again. What about a middle way?
    Nice piece. The approach and attitude is key. I think you bring this up as a common theme. Collaborative optimism could encourage government to actually plan more effectively. It is happening but we need to evolve beyond approaching challenges and turning them into a nightmare. The result is less than satisfactory outcomes again and again. This applies to whoever may be in power, state & federal.

    You're onto something here. M Richards


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