Australia21 had hoped that when our political leaders returned from the summer break they might feel sufficiently refreshed to abandon the dispiriting politicking which characterised 2017, in favour of a conscientious endeavour to tackle some of the major issues confronting Australian society. After the first sitting weeks the signs are not promising!
So we’ve set out a roadmap to keep our MPs on track through 2018. We urge them to tackle issues that really matter this year, where evidence shows the nation will benefit from apolitical discussion and sensible decisions.
While there are many Non-Government Organisations like Australia21 working in the interests of the nation, ultimately public policy is a matter for our elected representatives. That’s what we elect them for. They have the resources at their disposal, access to immense volumes of data which government agencies collect, and access to worldwide expertise. We need them to abandon name-calling and ‘gotcha!’ politics in favour of respectful and evidence-based exchanges about how to improve life and living for everyone in Australia. Our Parliament is a great institution, a centre-piece of democratic society, with a proud history of social progress. We’re entitled to expect everyone elected to it will strive to be worthy of that honour.
This is not a naive call for bipartisanship. We expect everyone elected to Parliament to come to the chamber with their own values, and faithfully represent the people who elected them. And yes, we expect debate about important issues to be robust and passionate. But it’s not too much to ask that the debate is also respectful and constructive — and where there’s disagreement, that our parliamentarians seek to explore the reasons for the differences and whether common ground can be found.
We ask that the same courtesy and respect is shown to civil society players, including the journalists who seek to inform us about what’s going on and probe the Government’s thinking. It’s not good enough for Ministers of the Crown being interviewed on the national broadcaster to speak over the top of the interviewer with a spray of pre-packaged talking points, dancing around the question until they’ve exhausted the available time. And it’s certainly not good enough for a very senior Minister to respond to a question referencing data from a reputable NGO (not us) with “They’re a left wing think tank. I’ll say no more,” followed by a chuckle.
We all deserve better than that. Let’s debate the substance of the issues, bring forward the evidence which supports our claims, give honest, straightforward answers to reasonable questions and, above all, consider the national interest.
Below are 5 areas of public policy where high-impact improvements could be made very rapidly.
Where we are now
Australian and global wealth inequality is rising and there’s growing international concern that the central operating narrative of neoliberalism promotes mindless economic growth, and is incapable of dealing effectively with either inequality or increasing damage to the environment. Many argue that the world will need to adopt a radically new economic approach which is fit for purpose, though that’s certainly not being acknowledged widely in Australia at this stage.
In June 2018 Australia21 and The Australia Institute are holding a high level, multidisciplinary Roundtable discussion at Parliament House in Canberra, to stimulate a new national conversation about the role of the economy in Australian culture and wellbeing. A report will be released ahead of the forthcoming federal election, to stimulate discussion in the community about inequality, environmental sustainability and the appropriateness of the current economic model.
Where Australia should be by the end of 2018
Unless we explore the relevance of the current driving economic narrative to the problems that beset our future, we can’t be confident that we’ll be able to solve them.
So by the end of 2018, Australia21 would like inequality to be a central issue in the national election campaign:
Recognition by all political parties and the media of the seriousness of the challenge to our future from a continuation with mindless economic growth and the general principles of neoliberalism.
Widespread recognition in the community about the need to take urgent action on both wealth inequality and income inequality in Australia.
Recognition of the importance of empowering communities and neighbourhoods to rebuild their sense of ownership and responsibility for the future.
2. Trauma related stress
Where we are now
For too long PTSD has been treated as individual vulnerability by policy makers, senior managers and the community, rather than a response to the unavoidable occupational hazards of certain workplaces. This has led to stigma around PTSD which has misdirected organisational responses and prevented people from seeking and receiving the help they need. In 2017, Australia21 and FearLess Outreach conducted a practitioner based Roundtable discussion focused on PTSD in first responder organisations, which demonstrated an urgent need for better support, especially for workers who are likely to deal with emergencies in the line of duty. Our report and set of recommendations will be released in April.
The evidence from neuroscience is clear that exposure to trauma, particularly repeated exposure, can lead to changes in brain function which may express themselves as PTSD symptoms. This is a tangible injury, which can and should be treated; it is not a personal weakness, to be hidden or punished. There’s now a body of evidence on how to treat PTSD — although some cases can still be resistant. Standards for Best Practice organisational management of the workplaces which generate trauma related stress are also emerging. The challenge is to overcome the old stigmatising attitudes, so evidence-based and compassionate approaches can be strengthened.
Another major challenge relates to governance and government. First responder organisations usually come under state jurisdiction, so policy and funding is complex and varied. Many of the organisations are implementing important and beneficial reforms in dealing with trauma related stress. However, there’s much to be gained by sharing good practice, by undertaking national data collection and research, and by collaborating on policy development (such as regarding Workers Compensation). There are currently no established mechanisms for doing this, which means advances can be piecemeal and difficult to replicate. Where Australia should be by the end of 2018 National associations can help, but we believe that gaining endorsement from COAG and the backing of the Federal Government for a concerted national effort to address the impact of PTSD would be a great step forward. This level of attention could also motivate greater consideration from professional bodies around standards of treatment. The challenge is to convince COAG that this issue needs national oversight. By the end of 2018, Australia21 would like to see several changes:
Federal Government instigation of a national PTSD strategy based on evidence and world Best Practice, to reduce the economic, health and social costs of PTSD; this should include identifying and addressing policy roadblocks, such as those around healthy resourcing models and adversarial Workers’ Compensation approaches.
A mainstream community awareness campaign underway, improving understanding of the impact of trauma on the brain and how to manage the effects of trauma related stress — in the same way that there is now general understanding of the causes of skin cancer, when to seek help, and what prevention measures can be taken.
First responder organisations across the nation adopting established good practice standards in mitigating and managing the unavoidable workplace hazard of first responders being exposed to trauma.
Professional associations, such as the Australian Medical Association and the Australian Public Service, working in collaboration with first responder organisations to improve access to high quality, evidence-based treatment for those affected by PTSD.
3. Illicit drugs
Where we are now
Through 2017 there were powerful signs that Australians are losing their stomach for the failed War on Drugs and instead want an end to avoidable deaths, hospitalisations, and criminal convictions that ruin lives and often push people towards harder drug use. At the launch of Australia21’s latest report on Illicit Drugs in March former premiers, police chiefs, prison officers and lawyers stood side-by-side with drug users and their families, to call for an end to penalties for personal use and possession and for the reframing of drug-taking as a health and social issue. This changing attitude was supported by sound international evidence that law reform can be a quick and economically efficient way to enhance individual and community wellbeing.