"I want to be known as an infrastructure Prime Minister and I want building the roads of the 21st Century to be a hallmark of my government," said Prime Minister Tony Abbott in September 2013, shortly after winning the election that secured the Coalition its hold on power for the past eight years.
"The roads of the 21st Century." A phrase that most humans living in the 21st Century would regard as a reference to some kind of advanced, digital infrastructure. But no. Abbott meant literal roads. This was a statement accompanied by the removal of federal funding for rail projects, as well as the immediate stop to the rollout of Labor's full fibre National Broadband Network rollout.
And here we are in 2021. A Turnbull and a Morrison onward, the tune is largely the same. A gormless government approach to our factual future, with a "nobody could have expected" response to every entirely predictable pitfall we have faced over the past eight years.
Gormless is no throw away term here. There is a true lack of discernment, of intelligence, and of scrutiny for finding real solutions to making Australia both better today and ready for a wildly changed future.
Broadband? It's too expensive to give everyone the best possible broadband service and reset the baseline infrastructure for the future. Let's build it in a way that means we have to build it again immediately and ensure that the NBN is obsolete before it's complete. Wireless is better anyway… never mind that wireless needs a top shelf wired backbone to complete the circuit…
Oh shit. A pandemic and we all have to work from home now? And if we'd stuck with the original plan more people would have had far better home broadband to handle working from home? No one could have imagined a future where more people work from home more often…
Climate? It's better to play games with accounting loopholes and complain we're being viewed unfairly than to actually get on with a smart transition toward renewable energy that supports fossil fuel workers toward new jobs in new industries along the way. If we're going to protect someone, it's incumbent industrial giants and certainly not the citizenry.
Oh shit. More fires? No one could have imagined we'd need more support for communities in a world where more and larger fires impact on our nation. Except those reports we ignored that may have mentioned it a few times…
A pandemic? Let's cross our fingers the states will deal with this one. The nursing homes are federal? Well I'm sure we've funded them and put the right people in charge to take care of– oh… look, there's reasons and now's not the time to look backward at who may or may not have been responsible for failure…
Naturally, the list goes on. Putting our best brains to the work of solving big problems? Best we leave universities out of pandemic job relief support when all their overseas students have disappeared (because we made them rely on overseas students during the Howard years). Better we solve our problems in the University of Real Life, hahaha now where's my old mate I used to play footy with? He had some good ideas when I had a beer with him at the club.
This government loves to sideline hard evidence in favour of old boy networks. It's the 'phone a friend' of solving the biggest problems we face.
And if you can't find the right friend today? Or you don't like the answers you got from the last report? Commission a new one from another think tank to kick the can down the road yet again and hope the next answer is more to your liking. Or, if you're really lucky, you'll already have retired to a nice job at that military or industrial contractor you made friends with along the way.
What I find most frustrating is that the future of economic prosperity is sitting right in this government's blindspot.
To support renewables energy industries is to open the door to leadership in the future of energy. We have business leaders eager to sell solar to Singapore, but no government ministers are willing to pose for a photo opp for that idea. Better to go stand outside a coal mine and do some dorky exercises and remind everyone what a Great Bloke you are.
To support advanced digital opportunities, from startups to videogames, is to support the most efficiently exportable industries on the planet today.
We're always willing to spend big to punch above our weight at sport. Just don't think twice about asking for a better deal for culture industries, regardless of how many jobs they create.
And definitely don't ask for electric vehicle tax breaks – suddenly being 'fair' is important when it comes to any question of encouraging people to adopt and adapt toward the future as soon as possible.
With every decision, you could put good money on our government to be on the opposite side to wherever the science, maths or academic research falls.
This gormless government is all mouth, no ear. No care, no responsibility. Is there a better example than talk of a "gas led recovery"? Even considered in good faith, how many years of value genuinely remain in extraction industries compared with choosing to back leadership in renewables?
And here lies the biggest problem. Good faith. When every public statement is a marketing exercise, and every media moment is a judo fight to never engage with discourse in a genuine way, we can't have any faith in the motives underpinning the decision making. There is a fundamentalist belief in government that protecting status quo business leadership is the best path into the future. If there is any failing in the trickle down theories of the past 30 years it's simply that we haven't given them long enough to trickle down.
There is no good faith left in the system.
Mark Pesce wrote a great piece in Meanjin in 2017, "The Last Days of Reality". It was a story of Facebook's algorithmic exploits to change our perception of the world, and the monetisation of propaganda on its platform.
Facebook has recently begun to push the idea that maybe it was society all along, and not its algorithms, that made things worse. That's patent bullshit, of course, but today there's no question that politics has learned – thanks in no small part to Facebook – that reality doesn't mean anything anymore. The same people who decry post-modern art have formed a post-modern attitude to how the world works (the 'it is whatever we call it' kind, not the 'let every individual live however they want to' kind).
Sorry, friends, but I still genuinely believe reality matters. A future built on science and knowledge and research and evidence is a far, far better reality to strive for. But at every turn, we see the denial of science and a constant refusal to even make a little more room for the future. Every decision always seems to flow in favour of incumbent power.
Any step forward in renewables or digital transformation is either in spite of or under the greatest duress when there was no longer a way to stop the momentum.
Even after a few years of positive evolution (but little execution) under Minister Andrews, the Science & Technology portfolio has been turned into a penalty box for Christian Porter. Is anyone expecting him to say a single word about the future of science and technology ahead of the next election?
Australia has fallen behind the curve because we've spent eight years (and then some) denying where the 21st Century is taking us. The denials have only become louder and nastier the more the evidence grows that we're heading the wrong way.
It's hard to grasp where the breaking point is when we have such a well integrated Coalition government and Murdoch media that ensures a comfort zone for bad faith bullshit to thrive.
I fear for the 2022 election in the absence of a strong alternative voice speaking up for a better future. And if we're still being led by snake oil salesmen in 2025 does Australia have a serious role to play as we head toward the middle of the century?
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