Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Australia's experience and development issues

An extension of enquire can be made from this self-fulfilling Australian experience of a well balanced place of development. All major development issues of the world boil down to two judgements. One is the possibility and prospects of development, evolving from a poor status to a developed one, implying a catch up and narrowing of the gaps between the two clusters. This has been a vital issue to poor countries and also a thorny one to developed countries. The latter in fact had made extensive transformations from poor regions to rich ones of modern times. The challenge now is finding the path for poor ones to make it as well. What paths are plausible enough to be chosen? Are these paths merely similar to that of the West, or there can be multiple alternatives? Responses from developed countries may first cast doubts over a chance of developing countries ever reaching their current levels, and then suspect whether their own paths should be faithfully copied in the absence of viable alternatives.

It has been a casual and common happening in world history that previously weak economies emerged to rule. There is nothing exceptional that waning powers attracted fierce assaults from rising, fresh leaders. When Europe stuck in the dark medieval times, few expected them to have a great future or climb above the status of other matured cultures, on the basis of their evident backwardness, chaos, fragmentation, and hopeless stagnation. For some reasons, they rose to the challenge, cumulated wealth in a steady fashion, encroached on others’ territories persistently, and eventually secured international dominance, the British Empire as the outstanding representative. They began to realise that an uplifting of their societies and attached ideals could be achieved such easily and then proceeded to trample over other cultures they used to respect and admire immensely. This course of ascendancy gave them an unwavering sense of eternal justification of Western superiority and fostered a belief of never falling again to the level equal or below other cultures.

As they passed a plateau of development due to exhausting expansion and self-inflicted wars and mayhem, another power stepped onto the centre stage to replace old European powers, in the shape and form of the US. Those wars of little loss, pure gains brought the US with unprecedented power and influence, but short of domination, because it had to share war loots and gains with an ideological enemy. By the time that opposite power collapsed by its own self-destruction, the US got what it wanted all along. This triumph at the end of the 20th century gave it supreme confidence over another eternal rule of its power alone in the world, including its ideologies and doctrines. European powers experienced spectacular rises and painful falls, and have vivid memories of traumas of leaning too heavily on one side and losing sight on long term goals. They also had the experience of falls, so that too sure of one’s beliefs does no good and the fate could be reversed later on. The US as the new world power has so far suffered minor setbacks and has had no valuable European experience for guidance, so people there assume their right path is right for all time and all types. It is thus understandable that the US would not admit or concede any wrongdoing or mistakes of principles.

With their past achievements and current wealth, developed countries in general see no viable alternatives to their own paths, as long as a Western entity dominates the world economy and the ranking of wealth holding. This has become an ideology, taking the path to development as a wholesale deal, all or nothing. Development of certain poor countries have strings attached, either they fit the prescriptions and are granted generous treatments, or they fail the test and are discriminated against. This uniformity request comes from a hidden fear of open competition from those non-adhering but growing countries. Restrictions on those entities become a necessity in justifying the certified right direction of development. It is likely that the issue of development today is ideologically driven and politicised. Taking away the smoke screen of the debates, a development under reasonable conditions is plausible, and market forces allow demand and growth to occur, thus spur development of a particular economy. There should be emphasis on removing restraints, barriers, and discriminations. Development is not a particularly difficult issue; only when development forms a challenge to the status quo and power balance that it becomes serious and even threatening to the leader of the pack. How this development fits in the existing rules and cause unease and even countering measures from developed countries comes to be the centre of controversy. The more difficult tasks of the WTO in recent years openly illustrate the conflicts and changes in the world economy. The issue of development, along with a catch up, thus becomes more complicated than routine economic growth.

Taking a longer view, there is no guarantee that a leading power sustains its rule and dominance for an indefinite long time without a down phase or fall. It is also feasible that development outside the power bloc will move forward as a common phenomenon, gradually re-arranging the existing order of matters.

The other judgement is the real meaning in all these development. Development signals achievement, but tradeoffs remain, between material gains and quality of life. Suppose one economy is not completely efficient or advanced, and maintains its own lifestyles, a common perception is that this is bad for people there, and they should pursue wealth in a more extreme fashion, so that their demands for a good life could be met. This view does not prove to be true, in development or in life. There should be a point of balance that economic gains match standards of living and welfare. The question of quality of life is so far primarily an issue for developed countries. The varied European and American experiences attest to a divergence in choice. Australia has maintained its European traditions and preferences, staying well short of worshipping of productivity, and thus is less likely to put in long hours of work for higher output or returns. Allocation of time is balanced between work and leisure. In addition, since human societies are merely in a very short time of existence on earth, pushing production and consumption to the limits, in order to get maximum returns at current time, will only exhaust the resources at an alarming rate and make later life more unbearable and intolerable. Current gains essentially imply future losses. This approach is affordable, but not sustainable, being particularly unfair to future generations. I short, a pursuit of development could incur multiple costs and inadvertently harm quality of life, instead of enhancing it.

The world is indeed moving and changing face fast, swiftly churning out numerous new attractions and easily breaking old norms. With all of these shocks and distractions, the question that really matters remains whether life is getting better, or just more complicated, annoying, and stressful? Fast pace unavoidably generates heightened stress, accompanied by temptation and hypes. More to the point, these induce people to confusion and disillusion of their wellbeing. No matter what happens in economic development and how many long historical periods fly past, people’s desire since the dawn of civilisation are for peaceful and tranquil life, and that will not disappear or fade in the face of certain contemporary dramatic or exciting changes.

This lasting pursuit has been carried on by generations of people who held firm beliefs of a continued betterment of human societies. Without doubt, the mixed reality of early modern time, supposed to be a new dawn in human history and breakthrough in liberation of man from shackles and restraints, proved less satisfactory and led to earnest searches of new balances in the society. Worthy trials were seriously undertaken, as shown in the establishment of New Harmony, a utopian trial site by the initiative of Robert Owen since 1824. The experiment, for the purpose of setting up a just and fair base in the world of ruthless capitalist exploitation of the working population, generated high expectations. For the lack of funding, this experiment ceased to function shortly after, but it had just long enough time to explore multiple novel social practices, in the forms of the first kindergarten, public library, public school, equal education for boys and girls, etc. The community experienced free speech, communal life, democratic mechanisms, and a rudimental classless living environment. Such pioneering work is indeed remarkable. The experiment was apparently way ahead of the contemporaries in a frontier market economy of the US, but it demonstrated the practical ways of implementing social democratic ideals. Many of those pioneering work are now common, standard institutions in Australia, especially social welfare, equality, and the spirit of fair go. A good one and half century passed for the political acceptance and faithful application of those daring trials of earlier devotees and volunteers.

From this trying process, it should be clear to all that there is no base or excuse laughing at or ridicule idealist European experiments and legacies in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Owen’s, making dismissive judgement by criteria of a rational and pragmatic world these days. Those people searched hard for reaching a fair and progressive society, which should also be the primary purpose of work and administration of societies today. The important point is that, despite dazzling happenings and occurrences of this new century, they should not shake the fundamental goal of human existence, the improvement, not worsening, of quality of life and basic decency and rights, rather than temporary success or gains.

In this context, the issue of development is to be put in perspective, up against people’s real needs and desires. A development priority could easily breed killer instinct in market competition, which increases stress and disrupt essential components of life, such as work routines. The relative smoothness of Australian experience is perhaps out of their customary views of work and life, similar to western Europeans’, stopping well short of ultra competitive and lean rationales persistently in fashion in the US, those rationales dreading ultimately losing to adversaries badly. There are generally contrasting attitudes toward economic activities and business, wars to win to the Americans but ways of sustaining reasonably comfortable living conditions to the Australians. The essence and purpose of development fully illustrate their merits in the case of Australia.

In contemporary history so far, the disappointment over the US’s let down is the most striking and heart-breaking, since the country trumpeted great promises and generated incredibly high expectations. That hope quickly waned after the brutal nature of this super power and its ideologies were fully exposed in recent bloody conflicts of America’s doing. Sectoral and national interests hide behind rhetoric of moral and religious justifications for unilateralism in this virtual global village. As this once standard bearer of freedom and so-called mankind’s last hope on earth disappoints with familiar materialist calculations, extreme selfish hypocrisy, and imposing indoctrination, it makes little sense for people to hinge future hope and choice on the now widely discredited American way. Bad human characters are in full display soon after the inception of the new century, in both so-called “failed” states and the civilised super power. Attempts to reverse historical trends of progress also emerge with constant repudiation of social democratic traditions and unabashed advocacy of greed and naked self interests.

In this disheartening environment, the fair minded, non-fundamentalist, non-radical Australian mentality shows its worth and value, precious and rare in this age of extremists. It is basically not shockingly strong armed, unlike some ideologies which come out to prove them worthy of everything and prevailing over all the rest. This model is not radical either, as opposed to the revolutionary Marxism or resolute ultra conservatism. It has grown out of well developed market economies, gaining a sound economic foundation, rather than of poor and developing countries where a radical thought could provoke positive responses and cause mass social movements, in the meantime may also be quite destructive. The underdevelopment status is a crucial reason for those economies to turn to authoritarianism, because that approach solves contemporary problems and achieves certain marked development. The real hope, however, will lie in a social democratic model in examples like Australia’s, since there is a much more desirable balance of clashing social forces and ways of democratic participation while maintaining higher living standards. This model undoubtedly excludes the strict socialist doctrines of the 20th century, but it also differs sharply from the ultra right tendencies currently prevailing in the US.

The social democratic nature of Australia is the best bet so far in the tug of war between the left and the right raged on for centuries. This tradition comes from repeated trials and corrections, in order to reach a right balance and maintain acceptable social cohesion and harmony. The Australian experience amply shows that social democratic beliefs are to be treasured, and the most likely solution is a combination of both elements, making it work under a market economy with adequate social welfare for all. This experience builds on what people have tested and already achieved. It is extraordinarily unassuming, claims no end of history or a solution to all worries, especially in regard to super wealth, but only tries to address problems in social justice and equality, involving constant adjustments. This in general demonstrates the future trend of progress, turning sideways from time to time, but keeping the principles and essence of an egalitarian society in tact.

Other peoples are attracted to the Australian life not merely by accumulated wealth, high standard living, relaxed lifestyle, or welfare benefits, but also by their appreciation that this country offers a fair chance to all citizens, an emphasis on social equality, and fair dealing with issues and problems in the society, considerations more important than being granted the right to bomb, attack, humiliate, or pressure other peoples at will. This Australian way gives people a peace of mind that this society is just, seriously guards people’s rights, and opposes unrestrained state power or extreme ideologies. The origin of this freedom and security is a lasting social democratic tradition, rather than power and influence grown out of enviable wealth. It includes specific rights to be free of fear and threat, such as fear of the authority and of destitution after retirement. Providing pension and social security is unquestionably the government’s job, never a job completely for private organisations or individuals.

Australia as a medium power is spared of the dramatic experience of rise and fall accorded to past great powers. It is steady and smooth running, only with usual economic cycles of ups and downs. This instead makes it manageable for Australia to sustain economic difficulties and problems, unlike the US which will inevitably feel very bad about losing and decline. The 2001 US tech bubble bursts, for example, gave Australia a mild shock and made tech people panicked for a while, but the scene of large numbers of bankrupt tech companies did not occur. The HIH insurance collapse represents a typical company fraud, rather than tech related rocket rise and hard fall in the US. The economy has maintained its pace fairly steadily, relying on mature business sectors and promising export for investment, consumption, and growth.

Australia needs not to fear open competition in international business. It has enormous resources and reserves under the soil for export and benefits from swings and uncertainties in international markets. Along with an increasingly acute prospect of scarcity in the world, the real value of Australian export will surely rise. Australia can also learn from others’ tested ways to compete, such as practices in outsourcing and off-shoring. These are simply techniques, and their application does not flag a change to the principal aims of economics and business: supporting and sustaining people’s wellbeing and security in life. It is not the right way to interpret what happened under globalisation as having reasons or pretence to treat employees and their welfare as a non-issue. Welfare has to be the central concern of all governments, left and right or extremely economical and ruthless. A top priority is to prevent bottom lines from being crossed.

Recent debates on social trends have got so much one-sided and right wing market fanatics got so excited that they would rather forget market failures and desperate situations of free exploitation of labour in the past. This deviation comes from Americanised globalisation and ballooning power of capital markets. The flexibility in choosing approaches and adjusting is seriously lacking under fashionable worshipping of economic rationalism and drive to success, and alternative academic thinking are not taken into account in government policies and mainstream media advocacy. It seems that there is a paucity of indigenous creative thinking, and the most productive way of formulating policy is simply imitating the fashionable celebrity models or agendas from the US.

What is fairly worrying is that the right wing conservatives under the Coalition government are losing Australia’s values and humanist touches and making people loose confidence in upholding their treasured principles. Previous Labour governments started a process of erosion through deregulation, and the Howard administration happily push that initiative to the limit, depriving more rights and benefits from the working people of Australia. And all these are justified in jargons borrowed from American right wing think tanks, typically business competitiveness and market demands. When Howard identified something un-Australian, it caused confusion as he might from his heart prefer Australia to get more American, because those Australian values are undermined and attacked right at that moment by his party and followers. Even in deregulated Australia, this government obligation for social welfare has held on, but the risk that a conservative administration may alter or shirk from that obligation looms larger. If that happens, people have to bear with more fears and curtailed security. It is for the remaining social democratic forces to salvage the progress making mission and halt the erosion of rights Australians used to take for granted in a just and egalitarian society.

This Australian experience has come to a full circle, in many respects in the course of a century. In regard to political parties, for example, they have evolved from many competing minor parties of the early times to two major parties of national governing mandates, and there have been more recent calls for giving small parties a chance in politics and administration, seemingly a rendezvous or a backtrack, but in effect a sign of renewed efforts to better respond to public demands and requests. In guiding principles, there were wide swings to the left and the right, from social welfare doctrines to more economics-oriented practices, such as deregulation, argument for figure-based productivity improvement, and welfare cuts in the name of efficiency. These recent tides are now accepted wisdoms in the Anglo-Saxon bloc including Australia. The country also proceeded forward in strategic positioning, from a colonial outpost and a despise of its Asian neighbours in the era of frontier discoveries and uncertainties to a shifted focus on East Asia and multiculturalism, and to the latest realignment of the triple relations with Europe, the US and the Asia Pacific. Among all these swings and turns, the central theme of domestic policies remains how provision of essential social welfare for citizens sustains costs with greater output, export, and added value in the economy. This is an issue more crucial and troubling to governing social democratic parties, while the parties on the right simply steer a market-driven economy on models from the US or reformed British Labour Party.

Australia’s position and future role have also run a complete circle and moved into the next course. Alfred Deakin in early years of Federation claimed for an Australia reserved entirely for white Australians only, especially for whites from Britain, to be pure blood and with same traditions, so that the country could have hope in future. This flagrantly racially based political correctness of that era has been replaced by the Commonwealth of multiculturalism today, by law, tolerance, and participation. The country is still great and remains fundamentally humane and economically sound. To some extent, certain truth in Deakin’s singular statement of vision could be easily turned around in a 21st century context and come to indicate Australia’s extended roles in supplying necessities for the needy of the world and in preserving crucial resources and hidden wealth underground for the survival of the human race, at the very least, maintaining consumption and living standards of populations for a long period of time. Global missions or a power status notwithstanding, this designated salvation responsibility places a social democratic Australia in a more prominent position of being a rare oasis of the world.

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