Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Nick Cater's weekly column in The Australian 

Only a pedant would insist that Bill Shorten was stating the obvious when he promised that next year’s election would be “a referendum on the future”.

A decision on the future prime minister is, after all, very much on the cards. In turn, that may shape the future of the Opposition Leader, a future that, on current form, doesn’t look terribly bright.

The future of the Marriage Act, however, won’t be included in Shorten’s referendum. Labor is nervous of a popular ballot on that question. Who knows which way those horrid people may vote?

It would be cruel to insist on a referendum on the past since Labor, along with everyone else in the country, is still in shock from the extravagance of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years.

Sooner or later Labor will have to seek treatment for its spending habit, but for now it’s behaving like Amy Winehouse. They tried to make it go to rehab, but it says no, no, no. Back to Black? Maybe sometime next century.

Shorten’s future referendum, then, is a laboured attempt to put present challenges aside and cast a veil over its former troubles.

Labor as the party of destiny is a rhetorical device that has been tried before without conspicuous success. Paul Keating’s portrait of John Howard as yesterday’s man, yearning for “the Qualcast mower, the Astor TV console, armchair and slippers” backfired disastrously. Armchair metaphors win elections; threatening to tip people out of armchairs is a manifesto for defeat.

Yet Shorten persists with his “plan for the future”, promising that by the next election he will have “a plan”.

Government has a role, says Shorten, in “designing skills, coding skills — building, refining, adapting and servicing the ­machines and supply chains of a new age”.

“I believe Australia can be the science, start-up and technology capital of our region … A future of knowledge and service industries and advanced manufacturing, a nation of ideas and a country that makes things here.”

It’s an exciting thought; a ­nation transformed into one big Apple Store of glass and steel with convivial young people in T-shirts tapping their iPad mini 4s as they patiently explain the difference between gigabytes and megapixels.

Yet if Shorten believes bureaucracies can build these things, or indeed that governments create any jobs other than in bureaucracies, then he hasn’t been paying attention. Older readers might recall the ill-fated multi-function polis, a dazzling Japanese co-venture that Labor once hoped would transform the South Australian suburb of Gillman from an unpromising industrial landscape overlooking a swamp into “a leading-edge testbed in technology transfer”.

“What leadership requires in this country is to look to Australia’s future,” Bob Hawke told sceptics a quarter of a century ago. “If there’s one thing that is essential for Australia’s future, for the future of these kids, it is that we attract the best technology in this country.” Sadly the MFP attracted nothing apart from a $150 million taxpayers’ bill. Gillman is still Gillman, albeit with a new motorcycle speedway track that recently installed a new windbreak fence for the comfort of spectators, a technological ­advance of sorts.

The notion that top-down, scientific government can make the world a better place should have died with the Soviet Union. Yet, as Matt Ridley notes in his recently published book, The Evolution of Everything, the vision for top-down, creationist government shows no sign of fading.

“The kneejerk assumption on the part of much of the intelligentsia is still based on planning rather than evolutionary unfolding,” writes Ridley. “Though politicians are regarded as scum, government as a machine is held to be ­almost infallible.”

Ridley’s persuasive thesis is that almost everything that ­improves our world, from technology to morality, evolves spontaneously. A visionary with his hands on the machinery of government is simply another way of describing a dictator.

There can be no doubt about the inevitability of change, or that technology will make our children’s day-to-day experiences more agreeable than ours. Innovation is the key to productivity, which in turn will provide the prosperity of the future.

The notion that governments can be the agents of that change is fanciful. Barack Obama’s claim that “the internet didn’t get invented on its own” and that “government research created the internet” is disingenuous. The Pentagon may have funded the development of the decentralised computer network that began life as the ARPANET, but the government sat on the idea for 30 years, insisting it should not be used for commercial or political purposes.

Unleashing the potential of packet-switching technology was a job for the private sector. The internet, writes Ridley, was undesigned, unexpected, unpredicted.

“Yet for all its messiness, the internet is not chaotic. It is ordered, complex and patterned. It is a living example, before our eyes, of the phenomenon of evolutionary emergence — of complexity and order spontaneously created in a decentralised fashion without a designer.”

Governments are less able to hasten change than some would have us believe. Its capacity to hinder change, however, is not ­inconsiderable.

The government can make Australia a less enticing place for innovators by taxing the bejesus out of them and their enterprises. It can waste jobseekers’ time and cruelly inflate their expectations by pretending a TAFE course in computer coding will turn them into Bill Gates.

It can use its knack of picking losers to give today’s subsidised technologies a commercial advantage over the better solutions of tomorrow.

A referendum on the future should begin, therefore, with a question on the size and ambition of government. Should it be doing more to build our bright shining tomorrow, or should it be getting out of the way of those can?

Indeed, should we trust any leader who boasts of a vision for the future without the capacity to pay for it? The answer, undoubtedly, is no.






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