Issues pressing upon our nation require true vision and leadership

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

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

We need leaders who plan 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. But now is not the time to be self-satisfied. If any of us are going to achieve anything worthwhile we need to be clear about what’s really important.

In his latest book Ross Garnaut gave a chilly warning. He tells us that over the past 20 years Australia has enjoyed 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 – probably 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 since European settlement. The CSIRO estimates land degradation costs about $1 billion annually. With real leadership, Australia could become a global leader in environmental repair, fixing our own backyard and 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, including the CSIRO.

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. Australia currently does rank well internationally. We must ensure we become one of the healthiest nations, while improving indigenous health.

Education Education is the basis for every field of endeavour. There can be no skimping. Both sides of politics know it and the issues are laid out in the Gonski report. It’s time to just do it. Education was a major tool Lee Kuan Yew used to create Singapore. We need to take a lesson from his book.

Business Australia has great multinational companies: BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Qantas and Macquarie Bank, to name just a few. No one knows yet where the greatest of the new business giants will come from – but a smart government will make sure our cleverest 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 Australian leadership will maintain good relationships with 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 region. 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.

Summer holidays are a valuable time for reflection. Give it some thought. We must get this right otherwise Lee Kuan Yew’s tough words a few decades ago will come true: ‘‘Australia will end up the poor white trash of Asia.’’

I think we’re better than that and I suspect Lee Kuan Yew felt the same.

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