Australia has grown comfortable with debate about the future. This is not to say that Australia is comfortable about the future. But as a nation, we’ve spent a lot of time in recent years trying to anticipate the decades to come. Military strategists, especially, have sought to peer over the horizon, to judge the likely contours of great power politics – and tell us a long-term goal to acquire nuclear-powered subs is the answer.
But how good is our prognostication?
“Australia’s Future To 2063” is the ambitious title of the latest Intergenerational Report released today by the Australian government. You could liken this 276-page document to a Treasury department version of a Defence or Foreign Affairs white paper, only a little different – much more domestically focused, and befitting the bean-counters, the production cycle is more regular, with six now released since 2002.
But to guess at the next four decades into the future, let’s just quickly look backwards 40 years into the past. Would you, standing in 1983, have anticipated an end to the Cold War? The dissolution of the Soviet Union? That a little box called a Macintosh computer then under development with something called a “mouse” would eventually transform into a pocket-sized phone with more technological power than the spacecraft that transported Neil Armstrong to the Moon?
Or that genocide would return to Europe and tear at Africa’s heart? That the Twin Towers would tumble? That Donald Trump would be president? Or that China would sing a song sheet of market capitalism, yet still preach Communist virtue?
None of this is to suggest that making judgements about the likely shape of things to come is pointless. Surprise is exactly that. The big picture matters. Painting the outlines on a broad canvas allows us to fit unexpected events within expected margins.
But for the purposes of a time capsule, let’s store away what the bean-counters think now, particularly for Australia in the world.
On those submarines, for example, the latest Intergenerational Report acknowledges that the ambition will “present significant fiscal, technological, and workforce challenges”. No real surprise there.
“National security workforce challenges will also increase,” the report notes. “The limited availability of sufficiently vetted and skilled personnel will put additional pressure on agencies.”
So, Australia needs workers because “demographic change and workforce constraints will limit recruitment and retention across the intelligence community, the Australian Defence Force and defence industry, particularly in shipbuilding.”
Talk from the then Treasurer in the lead-up to an earlier version of this report had people living to the ripe old age of 150. What would they all do? Never fear – the government is soon to deliver an “Employment White Paper”. Another document to dissect.
If you’re detecting a note of sarcasm, let me be more explicit: Australia spends too much time debating, not enough doing. These are challenges that are already understood. The government doesn’t need to spend more time investing in neatly manicured documents setting out the potential shape of events.
“The Government is also working with state, territory and local governments to develop a national Population Plan,” this latest report tells us. Great. No-one should spend public money without a plan. There is urging for Australians to follow the recent example of its Kiwi counterparts and draw up a National Security Strategy.
But for all the bureaucratic effort involved in the researching, consulting, drafting and producing, what, practically speaking, is the useful shelf-life of these reports? The last Intergenerational Report, for instance, was released only in 2021. But that was under a different government, of course – so might as well have been a lifetime ago.