‘Dazzling talent’ discusses State of the Nation

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

‘A dazzling and diverse array of talent’ was how Paul Kelly, editor-at-large of The Australian, described the contributors to State of the Nation at Wednesday night’s forum on the book in Sydney.


State of the Nation: aspects of Australian public policy, published this week, brings together 15 independent experts to critique  diverse policy fields since 2007. It is edited by Don Markwell, Rachael Thompson, and Julian Leeser, and published by Connor Court.


During the forum to mark the launch of the book:


  • Tom Harley, Chair of the Menzies Research Centre, said that the book deliberately provided non-partisan experts with a platform to express their own views, just as the Menzies Research Centre aimed to bring independent expertise to Liberal politicians and policy-makers.

  • In masterly questioning of contributors, Paul Kelly identified failures of implementation as one of the themes of their critiques of performance under the Rudd and Gillard governments.

  • John Mendoza, the inaugural chair of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health under Prime Minister Rudd, spoke of the widespread sense that mental health had been ‘dudded’, with provision of resources that is ‘way off scale in providing the services needed’, failed implementation, and an absence of the desired outcomes. Of the five ‘big ticket items’ in the 2011 budget package for mental health, ‘not one’ is yet operational.

  • Dick Estens, a cotton, citrus and grain farmer who chairs the Aboriginal Employment Strategy Ltd, spoke of how decision-making was ‘taken out of the bush’ to Canberra, of the value that local government could have, and the need to hand more power to communities. Mr Estens later spoke of there being too much of a ‘can’t do’ attitude in Australia, and the need to change this.

  • Keith DeLacy, a former Labor Treasurer of Queensland and former chair of Macarthur Coal, said ‘I despair about where Australia is going’. With ‘too many people alienated from the productive sector’, such as resources and agriculture, the productive sector is too often seen as ‘the enemy’. New taxes and regulation – red and green tape – were stifling business, and the resources sector was ‘almost at a standstill’. Everyone will pay the price, and find there is ‘nothing left to distribute’. Mr DeLacy spoke of the need to make the case that improved productivity creates jobs, and generates wealth that makes a social dividend possible. Mr DeLacy (supported by Mr Estens) spoke of Australia’s need for foreign investment, including in agriculture.  In a discussion of sovereign risk, Mr DeLacy said that ‘the greatest crime is to change the rules after the investment has been made’, and that ‘this has happened’ with six new taxes in the resources sector in the last  three years. Australia’s reputation as a reliable investment destination has been damaged.

  • Kevin Morgan, a telecommunications consultant who has worked in the trade union movement, said that the decision to commit tens of billions of dollars to the National Broadband Network was a policy ‘act of faith’ rather than a carefully analysed decision, and implementation had been ‘an absolute debacle’.

  • Patrick McClure, a former CEO of Mission Australia, said with regard to the proposed National Disability Insurance Scheme, that disabled people were among the most vulnerable in our community, and the scheme should in principle be supported; but there was not enough detail of the scheme and how key outcomes will be met, and the proposed 0.5% levy for it was probably not enough to fund it.

  • Mental health expert John Mendoza agreed with this assessment. He said that based on the trials, it was too early to commit to rolling out NDIS at the speed the government announced. More time was needed to work issues through; the scheme is commendable but premature.

  • Mr McClure spoke of the desirable principle of mutual obligation in Australian welfare, and of the excessive complexity and disincentives in the system. He spoke of the success of aspects of social action in Australia, including Indigenous employment programs and income management programs.

  • Former Vice-Chancellor Steven Schwartz made the case for universities on the basis of giving students the opportunity to reach their potential, rather than believing that every additional graduate automatically added to the country’s productivity. He spoke of how online education had ‘now suddenly taken off’, and said that many things can be taught more effectively (and cheaper) online.

  • Former arts administrator and ABC Chair Donald McDonald said that a clear-headed analysis of arts funding (including public broadcasting) was needed, including measuring the benefits of arts funding. More attention was also needed to how the internet changed the arts.

  • Retired Major-General Jim Molan spoke of Australia’s defence forces as being in ‘terminal decline’, meaning that they had deteriorated so much that it would require an unreasonable amount of time to reconstruct them. This matters more than it did before because of the decline in the relative power of Australia’s principal ally, the United States, and because of Australia’s closeness to the most important geostrategic centres of the world (such as the Malacca Straits).

  • Former Director General of ASIO and Australian ambassador and high commissioner Paul O’Sullivan spoke of the importance of stability in Australia’s fundamental foreign policy choices, and of tactical flexibility.


Mr John Azarias, partner at host firm Deloitte, in thanking Paul Kelly and the book contributors, said that State of the Nation made a ‘thought-provoking and serious contribution’ to discussion of public policy in Australia.


You can view a broadcast of the forum here.


Further events to discuss State of the Nation will be held in Melbourne, Canberra, and Brisbane. Details will be posted on this website.


Order a copy of State of the Nation: aspects of Australian public policy online here.






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