Big issues for a big country: our future depends on leaders with courage

We are nearly at the end of a crucial year in our history. The issues that face us seem to be mounting and there is a constant and overriding concern about leadership.

We are nearly at the end of a crucial year in our history. The issues that face us seem to be mounting and there is a constant and overriding concern about leadership.

As Paul Keating said in his recent book, "Leaders need two characteristics: imagination and courage". Too true.

We need leaders who plan for the future and don't just think the day-to-day spin is the future; who deliver for the voiceless, not just the loudest; who understand our region and engage with the world with respect and foresight; and who make bold and courageous decisions, not just short-term fixes or knee-jerk efforts to win popularity.

In this last column for the year it has been traditional to hand out the "Charlie Awards" to the people who have achieved a lot in the year.

But now is not the time to get self-satisfied. If any of us are going to achieve anything worthwhile in the future we need to be very clear about what's really important.

In his latest book Ross Garnaut gave a chilly warning. He says over the past 20 years Australia has had the longest period of economic expansion of any developed country in modern history, but "sooner rather than later we will experience deep economic recession with high unemployment ... rising with each new recessionary episode without falling much in the years between".

So while we enjoy the comforts of Christmas it might be worth taking a moment to reflect on the big issues for our country that require real leadership.

The environment

Australia's environment is fragile and has been over-utilised. The CSIRO estimates land degradation costs about $1 billion annually. With real leadership, Australia could become a global leader in environmental repair, by fixing our own back yard and by exporting know-how throughout our booming region, which is under extreme environmental pressure.

Science

Scientific understanding has created our civil society and its economy. It is fundamental for the resolution of every issue that faces us. Keeping Australian scientists at home is crucial, as is generous financial support for the entire scientific community.

Health

Like most developed nations, Australia has a host of health issues and faces immense challenges providing good healthcare to everyone who needs it.

Our population is getting older and less healthy. Chronic illnesses are an increasing burden and we have a shortage of doctors and nurses. We must ensure that Australia becomes one of the healthiest nations on Earth, while improving the appalling state of indigenous health.

Education

Education is the basis for every field of endeavour. There can be no skimping here. Both sides of politics know it and the issues are fully laid out in the Gonski report. It's time to just do it.

Business

Australia has great multinational companies: BHP, Rio, Qantas and Macquarie Bank, to name a few. No-one knows yet where the new business giants will come from - but a smart government will make sure our most clever people remain here, rather than heading to the US to make the most of themselves.

Diplomacy

As the new government is finding out, good relations with the wider world are hugely important and difficult to maintain. Great leadership will maintain good relationships with our regional neighbours, as well as making sure our own interests are respected.

Economy

We are in the middle of the rising economies of the Asia Pacific. Indonesia is now a larger economy than Australia in purchasing power parity terms. Great leaders will be able to negotiate the relative and structural decline of the west with the rise of the east.

We must get this right otherwise former Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew's tough words will certainly come true: "Australia will end up the poor white trash of Asia."

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