What visiting Australia and New Zealand taught me about our common challenges - RSA

What visiting Australia and New Zealand taught me about our common challenges

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    Ed Cox
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I’ve just got back from two weeks in Australia and New Zealand, where I took part in a series of events and meetings to explore the RSA’s emerging work programme in the Oceania region.

Despite a distinctly colonial relationship in the past, I found that the contemporary challenges on the minds of RSA fellows ‘down under’ have much in common with those faced in the UK. The time is ripe for closer collaboration and a more place-based approach to achieving greater global impact.

The RSA in Australia and New Zealand

For the large part of its history, the RSA’s relationship with Australia and New Zealand had to do with the trade of goods.

In a fascinating little book, published in 2004 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the RSA, Australian Fellow AH Wills chronicled how some of the Society’s earliest awards (premiums) were given to entrepreneurial Aussies such as John Macarthur for his “fine merino wool” in 1821 and Gregory Blaxland for his shipment to London of 1700 litres of red wine in 1829.

Today, there are nearly 450 RSA Fellows in Australia and New Zealand. For the past two years their activities have been supported by regional director, Philipa Duthie, and a newly-formed board of directors. This was the team that greeted my arrival from the UK and with whom I’ve had the privilege of working with as we’ve spent two weeks exploring what it means for the RSA to develop a more place-based approach away from London and nurture a more concerted global impact.

Inclusive growth in New Zealand

For the large part, the issues and challenges currently facing the UK, Australia and New Zealand share many common features.

The centrepiece of the visit was an Inclusive Growth Summit held in Wellington for over 100 economic development practitioners. Launching our report – Inclusive Growth in Action – I was able to share details of 8 case studies where cities from all over the world are implementing practical programmes of action, based on a systemic analysis of the problems they are facing, in order to address the widespread and multi-faceted inequalities that have become an enduring feature of our global economy.

New Zealand is generally regarded as a more equitable and progressive nation. But local contributors at the conference highlighted evidence that even New Zealand displays many of the characteristics of other unequal, developed nations – for example, growing disparities in wealth accumulation and wage stagnation amongst lower paid workers.

This is especially true amongst New Zealand’s indigenous populations. Traci Houpapa, Chairperson of the Federation of Maori Authorities (FOMA), demanded a far more concerted approach to giving the Maori people a voice in co-designing the economic development strategies of the future.

An example of good practice in this regard is The Southern Initiative (TSI), which is working with a range of government, council, iwi (Maori nations), community and business groups to raise living standards within Auckland’s more deprived communities. It operates a range of programmes supporting Maori and Pasifika people (indigenous peoples of the Pacific islands) into local infrastructure jobs and community enterprise alongside early years and healthcare projects.

Coming just four days after the terrible mosque attack in Christchurch, many conference participants related the extremism of the white supremacist gunman to the high levels of economic insecurity in many parts of New Zealand and Australia and the political polarisation it is causing.

Ganesh Nana, chief economist at BERL, spoke movingly at the conference about the importance of each of us moving out of our comfort zone in developing a new economic model and the risks to the safety and security of even a very peaceful nation if we are too complacent about the need for change.

Australia faces divisions over climate change

Change is not easy though. In Victoria, Australia, I had the opportunity to visit Gippsland - an area 150 miles to the east of Melbourne which is renowned for its coal-exports and energy generation.

The Loy Yang power station, with its 2 giant generators, continues to generate 3000 MW electricity from brown coal. With the recent closure of the nearby Hazelwood and Yallourn coal-fired power stations, it now stands as a symbol of local pride in a region that might describe itself as being ‘left behind’.

Gippsland is now more notorious for its terrible bushfires than its industrial capability as, ironically for Australia’s climate change deniers, its propensity for drought appears to be getting greater year-on-year.

Two hours up the Princes Highway in a square outside Melbourne’s Parliament House, school children were staging Australia’s first country-wide climate strike. Inspired by the call to action of Greta Thunberg, they were ensuring that climate change remains centre stage in the forthcoming state and federal elections.

The attitudes of these two groups are poles apart. But despite the polarisation between both young and old and urban and rural, the opportunities for more renewable energy generation are clear to see.

The wisdom of indigenous people – perhaps best expressed by the tikanga Maori ("the Māori way of doing things") promoted by the Taitokerau Education Trust – provides a profound basis for a more sustainable economy. Systems thinking on sustainability is considerably older than even the RSA it would seem.

Deliberative democracy in Australia

That said, ensuring indigenous ideas gain any political or economic traction remains a distant hope, especially in Australia where political trust is at an all-time low. In Sydney, we partnered up with the newDemocracy Foundation to host a debate about ideas for a more productive politics.

Our speakers from across the political spectrum each identified flaws in existing parliamentary set-ups: from short-termism, to party selection and the over-dependence on public opinion rather than public judgement. But each had their own different preferred solution: from civic education to the extensive use of deliberative assemblies and complement representative democracy.

Australia seems streets ahead in the number of local citizens’ juries it has conducted, on issues ranging from housing choices in the Australian Capital Territory to infrastructure spending priorities in Byron Shire. If the RSA were still giving prizes, then today Australians would be winning them for democratic experimentation rather than wool or wine.

The future of the RSA in Australia and New Zealand

Nine events, 4 fellowship meet-ups, and 13 meetings have proved beyond doubt that the appetite for the RSA to continue its close relationship with Australia and New Zealand is as strong as ever.

The exotic and colonial relationship has been well and truly consigned to the past as today we share very similar challenges which lend themselves to more global perspectives combined with local application.

As the RSA gears up to have an increasingly global impact in the years ahead, it will be Wellington, Wyndham and Walhalla that define the future success of our old organisation just as much as what goes on in John Adam Street.

Follow @edcox_rsa and @theRSA_ANZ on Twitter

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  • And ... great to attend your two Melbourne seminars.

    On Australian premiums, I'm happy to know of Blaxland's 1829 shipment of 1700 litres of red wine to London. I think I saw a bottle in the local Tesco on my last UK  visit. In 2018, RSA ANZ launched 'The Australian Career Book Award - supported by the RSA ANZ' and we've just closed nominations for the second year. It's in the spirit of premiums. There's no tenner, but Philipa, the RSA ANZ Director has negotiated a 12-month RSA Fellowship for the writer of the awarded book. There's also a traditional medallion - and a cup of tea and a biscuit at the award presentation. There's considerable promotion of the Finalist Books on social media, and I can almost guarantee to make a comment when I see the Finalist Book logo in a Linkedin post. 

    We have assembled a great Award Committee of RSAs. career practitioners and HR specialists to make the annual decision (see www.careermelbourne.com for more award info). The first aim of the exercise is to make a decision on the awarded book each year. A second, and more difficult aim is to improve the quality of career writing in Australia. I think it starts at a good level, but there's always room for improvement - which is the premium spirit. I can attest that Australian spirit has improved greatly since 1829.

  • On low voter registration of young people - during the postal voting on proposed changes to marriage laws. many young people registered so they could have their say. They were then registered for 'real voting' later on. It shows that people will turn out for something they feel something about AND think their little voice may have some shout.

    For international readers: the marriage change postal vote was a strange beast. It was not a referendum which would have been politically binding on the Parliament. In fact, the suggestion was made to avoid that referendum! Many saw it as a way to avoid any real decision. However, when a large majority of voters favoured the change, a member of Parliament brought up a private member's bill for debate to operationalize the vote and it was clearly passed in the Parliament. It was quite a moment in national history and people in the public gallery burst into a national song - and the politicians joined in. The Speaker decided to let the moment continue for some time before calling for 'Order in the House' to get back to 'normal'. The sky has not fallen in!

  • I hope you enjoyed your trip to Australia & New Zealand Ed, and travelled safely.

    You are right that Australia currently has a lot of activity and practical innovation in the field of deliberative & participative democracy, including citizens' juries, deliberative forums, participatory budgeting. 

    Having lived & worked through the experience in both the UK and Australia, what's happening in Australia at the moment is actually very similar to what was happening in the UK in the early 1990s before the Blair Government stomped on a lot of this great innovation and directed activity and budgets away to a more centralised, managerial approach, including the mandatory Best Value Performance Indicators surveys. 

    Federal & State Governments in Australia don't seem to be getting in the way on this occasion, but they are still very resistant to deliberative & participative democracy at their level of government. And they are delusional about the health of parliamentary democracy.

    Visitors to Australia, or observers from afar, often praise it for having 'compulsory voting', although others argue in principle that voting should be a choice. When compulsory voting was introduced to Australia in 1924, turnout increased from 58% to 91%. Almost everyone applauded this success. Job done?! Few asked questions or worried about who the 9% were.

    Today, most people look at the 90%+ turnouts and don't dive in any deeper. They don't study the low levels of voter registration among young people, new settlers, and Indigenous people. Most don't even know that turnout is only 52% among Indigenous Australians.

    A healthy democracy needs a commitment to deliberation and participation - depth and breadth - as well as sharing power, with citizens and communities involved in setting the agenda not just commenting on someone else's agenda. Many of the people I've heard recently advocating for (greater) 'deliberative democracy' are seeking more depth but with little breadth and they still want to have top-down control of the agenda. That's not a commitment to deliberative & participative democracy. It sounds like deja vu all over again! 

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