Australia, A Good Country, Poorly Led.

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Australia is a good country, but we are being let down by the lack of quality in our national political debate says Andrew MacLeod, CEO of the Committee for Melbourne. Planning and refugees are just two sample issues. This article was originally published in 2011.

Australia, A Good Country, Poorly Led.

For most of the last 15 years, I have had the great privilege of working for the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross in some of the world’s most difficult situations. In the earliest of those years, I felt filled with pride by how others referred to Australia. Seen as an open and tolerant country, Australia was an example of the society that had the balance right. Over more recent years, friends couldn’t quite reconcile the openness of our society with how our national dialogue appeared to have changed.
Many readers would have lamented the quality of our political debate and seek to blame politicians. But given we are a democracy ultimate responsibility for the quality of debate and discourse does not rest with politicians, nor the media; It rests with us, the Australian people. The voters.
We must all take a role in lifting the quality of debate. We must make a change each time we are engaged in discussions around policy, be it at work, or with family and friends. We must rise and encourage a race to the top of the mountain, not to the bottom of the barrel.
Take the current asylum debate, then urban planning, as two issues.
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.
We are an intelligent country that can engage in difficult debate. 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.
Can I suggest a three point framework to guide detailed debate around refugees by way of example in lifting the quality of debate?
·         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.
·         Any policy must satisfy legitimate concerns for border security.
·         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., to judge in detail, not in sound bites.
If we do this it becomes clear that the question we are currently debating; the one of location of processing – Australia, Malaysia or Nauru 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.
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 and we are not enhancing our national reputation. This we must change.
Another linked issues is that of urban planning. 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.
However, in Australia we are so scared of population debates, that we can not agree on a common population planning figure. 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, yet 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 Committee for Melbourne 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.
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. 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?
Australia, is a great example of a functioning country, so I fail to understand why our political debate is so negative. 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?
Whilst leadership through history is in some ways cyclical, with periods of greatness and periods of tenuity, we should hope for the former. We all must demand of our leaders to inspire us to choose between strong and stronger, not fear and fright. 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.
Lindsay Tanner nearly got it right when he blamed the media, but 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. 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.
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’.

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