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Will she be right?: the ‘non-issues’ of the 2022 Australian federal election

Brendan Shaw




As Australia is about to undergo its three-yearly ritual of a national election later this month, I am struck by the number of long-term policy and political issues in Australia that are receiving little, if any, attention in debates, mainstream media coverage and political party campaigning mid-way through the election campaign.


While the main focus of the campaign has been on issues like the cost of living, national security, climate change to some extent, and even the supposed imminent collapse of Australian society due to transgender kids playing in girls' sport, there are many important issues not getting a lot of attention that perhaps should. Here are a few of them that I think we should be discussing.



COVID-19 pandemic still with us - more Australians dying than ever


Few people realise this, but the pandemic is still ongoing.


Australia has seen more deaths from COVID so far this year in 2022 than in the whole of 2020 and 2021 combined. But hardly anyone is talking about it.


As of 31 December 2021, the total number of Australia’s deaths from COVID-19 was 2,253, but from 1 January this year to today an additional 5,200 Australians have died from the disease.


This means more than twice as many Australians have died from COVID-19 in the last four-and-a-half months than in the previous two years combined. While the media is starting to highlight the issue, few, if anyone, in the political sphere is talking about this during the election campaign. It’s like they are trying to ignore it.


Source: Our World in Data. "Coronavirus (COVID-19) Deaths", https://ourworldindata.org/covid-deaths, accessed 7/5/2022.



The 5,200 Australian deaths since 1 January is equivalent to 30 planeloads of Boeing 737s, or 1.7 Boeing 737s full of passengers crashing every week since the beginning of the year.


The pandemic is still very much with us.


While the surge in deaths could be explained by the explosion in the Omicron strain cases in Australia and the easing of restrictions since Christmas, the fact is more Australians are dying than ever before – putting pressure on our health and hospital systems.


The lack of attention on this during the election campaign is, frankly, astonishing.



Investment in post-pandemic health system and pandemic preparedness


You would also think after two-and-a-half years of the pandemic that the long-term resilience, preparedness, productivity and strength of the health system would be front and centre in this national election campaign, our first since the pandemic started.


But, sadly, no.


There's been talk of increasing spending on healthcare, but not the focus on the long-term need to invest in our health systems, to encourage innovation and disruption, and discuss the lessons from the pandemic.


Over the last two years Australians have had a rolled gold lesson in the economic value of new medical technologies, be they vaccines, medicines, medical devices and diagnostics. There are many learnings for our future health system and in the use of long-term innovation, distruption and productive investment in health systems, but that’s not how the health debate is being run during the campaign.


There was a lot of talk about this in the first two years of the pandemic, but there has been limited discussion on this during the campaign.

Another issue is the impact of the pandemic on the health system and its workforce. After two years of a gruelling pandemic, there is global concern about the exhaustion of health care workers worldwide, with the World Health Organization urging countries to do more to protect health workers who are near breaking point. The same problems can be seen in Australia, where burnout in Australia’s health care professional workforce is absolutely real.


Thousands of Australian doctors, nurses, paramedics, allied health professionals and health administrators are just burned out after coping with the worst pandemic in a century. There’s a real risk that many of them will leave the profession.


Then there’s the issue of the longer-term after-effects of the COVID pandemic. Between the growing numbers of people suffering long-COVID and its impact on health systems and worker productivity, to the delay in the treatment of other diseases, the costs and strains on our health system could be around for a long time.



The innovative and industrial complexity of Australia’s economy … or lack thereof


Although Australia is one of the world’s richest countries, it achieves this primarily by digging stuff out of the ground or exploiting natural resources. It also relies on a relatively narrow range of products for export income that historically have experienced wide fluctuations in prices and value.


Minerals and resources account for more than 56% of Australia’s total export income. Moreover, particularly important for the climate change debate, carbon-based exports (coal, gas and petroleum combined) account for 20% of Australia’s total export income.


A few years ago exports of carbon accounted for more than one-quarter of the Australia’s entire export revenue – perhaps revealing why the country has such difficulty discussing and adjusting to a post-carbon future.


Source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. "Australia’s goods and services by top 25 exports 2020", https://www.dfat.gov.au/trade/resources/trade-statistics/trade-in-goods-and-services/australias-trade-goods-and-services-2020, accessed 1/5/2022



The lack of innovation, complexity and diversity in Australia's industrial structure is an important economic issue.


The Harvard Atlas of Economic Complexity, which ranks countries’ by their industrial complexity and diversity, ranks Australia 86th in the world. The complexity of Australia’s export structure is ranked just below countries like Albania and Oman. The Atlas notes that “Australia's economy has become less complex, worsening 6 positions in the ECI ranking. Australia's worsening complexity has been driven by a lack of diversification of exports”.


Australia ranks 25th in the World Intellectual Property Organization Innovation Index, relatively low compared with most other industrialised countries, and we perform particularly poorly in our rankings of producing knowledge and technology outputs. Australia's already low level of investment in research and development has been falling since 2008 - against OECD trends - and our track record in commercialising new technologies is woeful by international standards.


Gross R&D spending as a share of GDP (%), OECD countries, 2000-2020

Source: OECD. "Gross domestic spending on R&D", data chart, https://data.oecd.org/rd/gross-domestic-spending-on-r-d.htm?msclkid=cb06e03bce6711ec94101fd375f8729d, accessed 7/5/2022. (Australia in red, OECD average in black).



A key long-term economic policy agenda, therefore, is to diversify our economy by capitalising on our scientific strengths and developing more innovative and technologically complex products, businesses and industries. The Business Council of Australia last year said this was a priority.


Even the Federal Treasury recognises the problem, stating in the 2021 Intergenerational Report that “Australian firms appear to be slower to adopt world-leading technologies. As a result, non-mining businesses in Australia have fallen further behind global frontier firms and appear to be catching up more slowly.”



Australia’s long-term productivity performance is particularly poor and has been for decades. The economy needs to diversity into more technologically advanced and complex industries and jobs to drive productivity and sustainable economic growth. This is a policy agenda that started in the 1980s with the Hawke Government but, with a few notable exceptions, 40 years later we seem to have dropped the ball for a variety of reasons.


This is a missed opportunity and reveals how exposed we are to the vagaries of the modern global economy.



The place of women in politics, business and Australian society


After a year where the status of and bias against women in politics, business, leadership and society featured so prominently in political debates in Australia, the issue has largely run dead in the election campaign. Perhaps part of the surge in Australian voter interest in minor parties and independents this election is being driven by a swag of independent candidates running in seats to take on sitting incumbents – many of them articulate, confident, professional women.


In politics, Australia ranks below the OECD average in terms of the percentage of members of parliament who are female. Only 31.1 % of Australian MPs are female, admittedly only just below the OECD average, but far behind countries like New Zealand and Mexico where almost 50% of MPs are women. At the federal level, the Opposition Labor Party is running at just on 50% of MPs and senators that are female, while in the governing Coalition government only 27% of MPs and senators are female. International data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union data shows that Australia ranks 56th in the world in terms of women’s participation in Parliament, far behind countries like Rwanda, Cuba, Nicaragua and Mexico which are at, near or above a 50/50 split.


Source: OECD.


In business, only 5 of the top 200 companies listed on Australia’s stock exchange have a female CEO and last year only one out of 23 CEO appointments in the top 300 Australian companies were women. The Australian Financial Review commented that this meant “The sheer disparity is a failure to make optimal use of Australia’s precious human capital. It suggests the problem is systemic bias.”


For an issue that triggered such deep soul searching in Australian society over the last 12 to 18 months, there seems to be little discussion and debate about it now in the mainstream election debates.



Budget and tax reform


This is an issue that few political parties are discussing, but about which various independent economists have warned. The International Monetary Fund has said that Australia has seen one of the largest budget deteriorations in the developed world since the pandemic started and that by next financial year Australia will have a structural budget deficit of 3.6% of GDP – the eighth largest out of 34 countries. Meanwhile, last year’s 2021 IGR predicted 40 years of structural deficits unless reforms are undertaken.


Australia has a structural federal government budget deficit baked into its long-term forecasts, due to things like substantial income tax cuts even going back to those developed by outgoing Prime Minister, John Howard, in 2007 and the growing cost of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).


Source: Treasury. 2021. 2021 Intergenerational Report, https://treasury.gov.au/publication/2021-intergenerational-report, accessed 7/5/2022.



Due to these and other pressures like rising defence spending in response to the changing geo-political environment and an ageing population, there is work to be done on fixing the budget going forward. Part of this work may have to include looking at whether substantial tax reform is required in Australia.


But few political parties are acknowledging this prior to the election.



Environmental protection


In a piece of news that shocked me, earlier this year Australia officially listed the koala as endangered in much of the eastern part of the continent. This was due to dwindling numbers of koalas as a result of climate change, bushfires, drought, land clearing and disease.

This might sound like a ‘soft’ issue to some, but the threat to an iconic Australian animal like the koala is emblematic of a broader sweep of environmental and sustainability issues affecting Australia’s ecosystems. Recent studies have shown catastrophic collapses in eco-systems are more likely in a range of locations across the continent.


Places all over Australia from the Great Barrier Reef through to the Murray Darling River system and Tasmania’s ancient Gondwanaland conifer forests are at real risk of collapse.


Habitat destruction, land clearing, extended droughts, increased risk of catastrophic bushfires and pollution are all pointing to major tipping points in ecosystem sustainability and the extinction of a wide variety of native plants and animals which are unique to Australia. Nowhere else on the planet do these species exist.


How Australia preserves its unique natural floral, fauna and ecosystems for future generations in the context of future development is getting little attention in the major election debates and mainstream media coverage.



Indigenous recognition and the Uluru Statement


Part of any discussion about Australia’s long-term future must include better recognition of Australia’s First Peoples and the promotion of reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.

Commitment to and implementation of the Uluru Statement is vital. It proposes things like a First Nation’s Voice in Australian decision making, a Makarrata Commission to encourage truth-telling about Australia’s history and developing an agreement or treaty between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia. To be fair, different political parties like Labor and the Greens have committed to and discussed the Statement through the election campaign, but it has not been centre stage as it deserves to be.


Issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement, ongoing failures to close the life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, the unresolved problems of Aboriginal deaths in custody and the continual lack of respect for indigenous heritage and historical sites through actions such as the destruction of the Juukan Gorge caves all show we have a long way to go.



Australia’s place in the Asia-Pacific and the world


Finally, new figures on Australia’s overseas-born population were released last week showing a transformation in Australian society.


Today, around 30% of Australia’s population was born overseas – rates not seen in Australia since the 1890s after the gold rushes. This internationalisation of Australia’s population, society and outlook is fantastic. It is one of the country’s great strengths, both for economic growth and for our openness and tolerance as a society.


Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2022. "Australia's overseas-born population drops during pandemic", Media Release, 26 April, https://www.abs.gov.au/media-centre/media-releases/australias-overseas-born-population-drops-during-pandemic, accessed 7/5/2022.



One of the key social transformations for Australia has been where our immigrants come from. Compared to a decade ago, while England still ranks first as the source of our immigrants, big changes have meant that India and China now account for 2nd and 3rd spots on the ladder respectively for country of birth for overseas-born Australians, knocking New Zealand out of second spot. More of our immigrants come from Asian countries today compared with 10 years ago and today the number of overseas-born Australians from India and China combined now outnumber those coming from England.


Source: Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2022. "Australia's overseas-born population drops during pandemic", Media Release, 26 April, https://www.abs.gov.au/media-centre/media-releases/australias-overseas-born-population-drops-during-pandemic, accessed 7/5/2022.



Discussions about learning about Asian languages and cultures, engaging as a constructive partner in the ASEAN and Asian regions, being a strong Pacific partner, working in partnership with our allies, respecting our friends and regional partners and expressing confidence in our ability to lead in our own right are largely absent in this election campaign.


Australia’s multicultural community, it global international engagement and the role of immigration in growing our society and economy are pivotal to our future success as a nation. We should celebrate this and strive to do better, because when we embrace the diversity in our nation, Australia thrives.


It will be interesting to see the extent to which these and other issues are covered in the remaining two weeks of the campaign. There's a lot to talk about.







#australia #election #politics #policy

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