Future success needs good leadership now

IN PART the abysmal level of the exchange rate for our dollar against the US dollar is symptomatic of deep emerging problems for the Australian economy. In part it is symptomatic of both a harsh reality and of how we are perceived by the international business community.

The harsh reality is that we are dissipating our potential to be acknowledged as a vibrant, internationally competitive technologically-advanced country such as a Switzerland, Finland or even as the US of the Southern Hemisphere. Unless we change and change dramatically, we and our children will suffer economically, socially and from reduced national security because of our present lack of vision.

A familiar theme expressed by international business leaders such as Bill Gates and Jack Welch when visiting Australia during the recent Olympics was that for Australia to achieve international business success and to re-establish its rightful place among leading developed nations, it needed to invest heavily in research and development and in the education, skilling and motivation of its people.

The reality is, of course, that over at least the past five years we have done precisely the opposite. Research and development incentives to industry have been cut, funds for the upgrading work force skills have been reduced dramatically and our universities and public school systems, starved of funds, are descending into chaos and mediocrity.

Australia’s performance during the Olympics proved our capacity to deliver at the highest standard the most difficult and sophisticated event in the international calendar.

We were not always successful in international sport. The Rome Olympics for example, represented a depressing nadir in Australian sporting achievement. Public dismay at this led the Fraser Government to introduce the Australian Institute of Sport which lifted Australia back to near the top of the medals table. If we can do that we can do it also in a field of far greater importance to us – international business. What we lack is the leadership to guide us in what we must do to realise our potential.

Two things are required to effect the necessary transformation.

The first necessitates a combination of leadership, wisdom and courage on behalf of our political leaders to devise, to sell and to implement policies which optimise our capacity to be a creative, competitive and successful country. Both governments and oppositions know what these are and the short-term sacrifices required to achieve this goal. At the very least further tax cuts must be removed unequivocally from the political agenda.

The second requirement is for recognition and acceptance by us, both as taxpayers and as voters, that we will need to underwrite, both financially and politically, the significantly increased costs of the major reforms required in education, training, industry policy and research and development if we are to regain once more a place near the top of the international business “medals table”.

* Bruce McCallum is senior lecturer at the Graduate School of Management, University of WA.

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