The Inside Word

The Future is reliant on consensus

A fascination with the future is something we all share wittingly or otherwise. We all want to know the weather on the weekend, who will win the footy or who is most likely to win the next election. It’s hard wired in us, this desire to know the future and be one step ahead of our friends or gain some advantage through a piece of information not available to others.

There are great names of a particular genre like H.G.Wells, Isaac Asimov, Jules Verne and Leonardo De Vinci that pre-visioned parts of the future with such insight and detail that hindsight makes it even more strange today. There are many more contemporary names but we’ll let the passage of time determine their place in history.

Now the visions are more sophisticated with economists, research papers and educated futurists. So maybe not much has changed except for the level of reliance that is attached to the use of their reports and findings to validate policy decisions.

Albeit less colourful, Treasury’s Intergenerational Report (IGR) peering 40 years ahead and making predictions about our own economic and demographic future is akin to those past visionaries. This document is exciting and should be celebrated as it brings so much potential thought for our way of life and policies seeking guidance and courage. It’s not just about guessing the future but using that thinking to help government shape it, or be left with only our “gut feel”.

The future holds so many exciting unknowns and possibilities, some good some bad, all of which can change in ways we have not yet fully considered. Climate change, global instability and pandemics are just some, yet think of the possibilities in science, medicine and technology and how we can plan and prepare for what lies ahead. In this regard the IGR tells a good story of what we might expect as part of our future in Australia. But just like great predictions of the past, it doesn’t hold all the answers.

Having reinforced the possibilities and what improvements need to be made in order to maintain our standard of living, then the question should focus on how to get there. And that’s the missing piece that intrigues me most. For all the good intentions and possibilities of change for the better, unless governments can find an acceptable pathway to an outcome then it’s just a dream. Even worse if prosecuted incorrectly the issue may fall off the agenda in the foreseeable future. I think this is the biggest challenge for our system of government operating in a more complex world with so many alternative views. 

There are a few exceptions although it seems that democracies struggle (not that other systems fair better) in making necessary change, constrained by election cycles, complicated bureaucracies, and generational intransigence. There seem to be obvious areas of policy that urgently need reform but are persistently stuck.

This is a big problem that should be considered more deeply. For those still relying on the adage that, If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, then it just doesn’t make sense in a system full of cracks and open sores. If we are to subscribe to the positive outlook contained in the IGR then more of something new will need to be done.

If not then we risk our democratic system stagnating and our standard of living revolving in a do-nothingcycle either too worried about upsetting the status quo or being bitterly divided. We mostly agree on climate change but are deeply divided on the solutions. We agree on doing better for equality of gender but struggle in the delivery. We agree on wanting to help the disadvantaged but seem paralysed on the method.

Is a choice between policy paralysis or bitter social divisions the likely scenario of future democracies and people split down the middle, unable to negotiate outcomes while spoilt for options?

The UK was split down the middle on the issue of Brexit, so who really wins? Australia was split on the issue of an Australian as head of state, Queensland is split on daylight saving, and it looks like we will split on an Indigenous Voice. The US is split on Trump and Biden. So perhaps rather than jumping to the end of the question for a solution maybe we should be thinking more carefully about the questions that need to be asked.

The IGR is a thought-provoking document and does provide insights and good data but it can’t be the substitute for the courage needed to lead and to ask the right questions. Otherwise its predictions of greater wealth, improved productivity, and a longer healthier life will fade over time as the right answer unfortunately to the wrong questions.

The promised bright future for our children is reliant on leaders willing to ask a different set of questions on issues like housing and disadvantage, investors willing to take risk on innovation without only considering returns, electors willing to look beyond self interest on policies that benefit the next generation and CEOs willing to look further than shareholder returns for future sustainability.

For all the great visionaries lauded in history none was required to imagine building the consensus road to the future. For us today building that pathway is more important than the vision itself.

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