It's about vision, stupid

All we hear is debt is bad – yet on the offering are among the world's most generous parental leave and broadband policies. So clearly this election should be about more than the economy.

With apologies to the economists, the treasurers and the fiscal conservatives, this election is not about the economy.

It is, however, closely related to jobs. Job interviews to be precise.

The question that confronts the nation in just one week’s time is not Abbott or Rudd, Labor or Liberal – it’s the quintessential first job query, where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Of course, to see that far into the future we need to clear through the obstacles, most notably the abhorrent, reductive political debate currently afflicting the nation.

Neither major party has a vision of Australia in 10 years; not because they don’t want one, but because it is inconsequential to something as short-sighted as an election.

The misleading 'debates' over debt, paid parental leave and costings in a broader sense highlight exactly how the short-term obsession with populism is eroding any chance of a national vision.

Numerous debates, specifically sold as being on the topics of debt and deficit, have left the nation able to glean a single fact: debt is bad. Really bad. We don’t know what we want but, by God, when we do we better have some savings to pay for it.

If the fearmongers are to be believed, we can barely afford the paint on the walls of Parliament House.

This is all part of the debt obsession (which is, in fact, a desire to skewer any debate on the matter with untruths and deception). It’s a phenomena that has not gone unnoticed by the private sector: National Australia Bank chief executive officer Cameron Clyne has identified Australia’s debt problem as being that we don’t have enough, that we have “a lazy balance sheet”. Meanwhile, Goldman Sachs chief executive Lloyd Blankfein says Australia is getting “overwrought” about the local economy, which was in a position the US was still striving to get to.

The real question about debt, at least in terms of a national vision, is simply this: what are we willing to be in debt for?

The NBN? A national disability scheme? Education reform? A paid parental leave scheme?

The Coalition certainly thinks we should invest in the latter. Despite shifting the paradigm of parental leave from social welfare to workplace entitlement, the cost burden will still be borne by big business.

More than that though, the extent to which the debate surrounding the PPL has evolved into an assessment of its generosity surely concedes Australia has no budget 'crisis'. It must also neuter the assertion we are having a ‘cost of living’ debate, What is being discussed this campaign is ‘standard of living’ – which plays a significant role in the formation of any national vision.

No government, elected or aspiring, campaigning almost exclusively on its fiscal prudence can claim a state of emergency in the nation’s budget but then defend the introduction of what is touted as the world’s most generous paid parental leave scheme.

This is the disconnect. What is being sold as ‘vision’ is merely a ploy to shore up votes. Disagreement and disunity inevitably ensue.

However, if the nation did agree a program was worth – in long-term productivity and social advancement gains – more than the short-term scrutiny of a hit to the bottom line, then that would go a long way to moving the country forward in unison.

Furthermore, it would minimise the pork-bellying and populist pandering that inevitably results in endless FIFOs to marginal seats.

But such agreement will never be achieved when neither party answers the question. Indeed, both major parties are far more concerned with each other’s costings than a substantive debate.

What we need is certainty. Everyone agrees on that. So why not have both parties' election policies costed independently using identical forecasts as a starting point at the beginning of the election campaign? Parties should then be forced to release them within the first week of the contest and spend the rest of the campaign defending their costed policies rather than squabbling over who will release what when, and why it’s acceptable because “the other mob” do it, too.

This is no benchmark, and certainly no way to encourage a serious debate – the only pathway to a national vision.

Indeed, the closest thing we have to a national vision right now reads more like a history book than a blueprint.

Next to the election’s buzz term – ‘services boom’ – it’s the potential of an Asian food boom that most seems like a vision.

Selling food to strangers, what a novel idea.

If a food boom is to be Australia’s economic destiny in 2023, it will be an all-too ironic case of history repeating. We will have come full circle, from the first sheep-boom, through to the manufacturing and resources boom, back to a reliance on the land. It’s been 100 years and we’ve traded our British overlords for Chinese masters, but have we actually learned anything?

Therein lies the rub: we have visions of being men from Snowy River but, by their very nature, elections cast us as men from just south of Parramatta Road.

Until someone can offer a clear picture of where we will be in 10 years, perhaps all we can do is keep the job ad in the window?

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