By Michael Chaney
Business Council of Australia
Australia has never had it this good. The horizon of prosperity seems to stretch indefinitely into the distance. We’ve experienced some jolts and bumps along the way, but the economic shocks and deep uncertainties we were all accustomed to in the 1980s and ’90s seem to have departed our shores – at least for the foreseeable future.
But in the midst of so much prosperity, it is easy to overlook the many Australians who continue to confront a vastly different reality. This is a world where economic opportunity is limited or non-existent, and social isolation a fact of daily life.
This other Australia includes the three million people who remain outside the workforce, many of whom want to work. It includes the one in seven children who live in households where there’s no wage earner. It includes the unacceptably large number of the Indigenous population for whom very low rates of workforce participation, poor health and low life expectancy remain endemic.
For a nation which prides itself on equality and a fair go, these figures are clearly out of sync with its core values.
For the Business Council of Australia and other like organisations, the main focus in recent years has been on economic reform and the need to sustain economic growth – and with good cause. Economic growth creates a larger pie for us all to share.
And so we’ve maintained a strong focus on issues like infrastructure renewal, modernising federal–state relations and updating Australia’s tax, red tape and workplace systems. They remain critical issues for business and the community. In a highly competitive world, economic growth will slow and prosperity will stall without ongoing reform.
There are significant costs if we fail to address these issues, including:
- Long-term unemployment and entrenched disadvantage.
- An ageing population that will open up huge and costly gaps in the labour force.
- Lack of education and job skills among many young Australians.
- These problems constitute an unacceptable waste of individual talent.
Despite the best efforts and high levels of professionalism within the nation’s teaching profession, the system is still failing more than 300,000 young Australians. There’s now a real need for new approaches and policies.
We need a greater emphasis on national approaches to school curriculum and teaching training. We also need a renewed focus on teaching and learning foundation skills such as literacy, numeracy and computing, as well as focusing on the importance of independent, lifelong learning.
I believe that one of our greatest concerns today should be that our best and brightest young people are not entering the teaching profession, and it’s not surprising. Teaching is not held in the high esteem by our society that it once was. The classroom job carries much more stress today than in the past, because of the need for teachers to provide pastoral care that was formerly provided at home, and teachers’ remuneration structure provides no incentives for excellent performance.
Imagine a society where teachers are revered as the fundamental source of our ultimate prosperity, where parents encourage the brightest children to enter this noble profession and where our education system is recognised as the best in the world.
The achievement of this vision will require a changed approach to education by governments at all levels. Changes will include better resourcing of the physical infrastructure of our schools, better co-ordination across the country of curriculum and outcomes measurement and, most importantly in my view, better remuneration arrangements.
We can’t make lasting headway on many important issues if governments can’t work together to better organise the benefits of our current prosperity in ways that achieve lasting outcomes. Workforce participation and education are two important areas needing serious and seamless co-operation and co-ordination at all levels of government.
The federal poll has the potential to set out new pathways for prosperity. But many of the commitments and promises in this election are likely to benefit those who are already part of the mainstream economy.
Economic prosperity should be the catalyst to unwind disadvantage – not perpetuate it.
This is an edited version of an address Michael Chaney gave to the BCA annual dinner on 24 October 2007 titled ‘Growing Social Prosperity in a Growth Economy’. Download the full version via the link provided below.