Over Christmas, my wife Jane and I took the punt and travelled to London to visit our daughter who is based there as a Master’s student. And while there I made a rather startling discovery. As I was, somewhat forlornly, following my wife and daughter around a seemingly never ending set of vintage and antique stores – on this occasion in the rural town of Leominster - I came across a very well preserved copy of an old magazine titled ‘Australia To-Day’. This particular version was published in November 1945, just post the Second World War, and I bought it on a whim.
And it is a fascinating read. Here is a country that has just survived a horrific period in world history and yet the clear sense throughout, from the Prime Minister’s introduction to the quaint advertisements on every second page, is one of optimism and a determined desire to rebuild a stronger, more sustainable version of Australia.
There is a significant focus on the need to invest in nation and community building infrastructure, with a particular emphasis on transport and housing (including discussions of an estate that would become part of the Heidelberg area of Melbourne where I grew up). There is a core message about the importance of workforce development and the desire to attract skilled migrants to our shores. There is a strategic and forward-looking view of the industries we need to invest in and develop, with a specific focus on building Australian mining and manufacturing industries - including putting in place the foundations for a nascent automobile manufacturing capability. And there is an important discussion of the national social infrastructure we need to establish, including plans for our current day Medicare, Pharmaceutical Benefits and pension and social welfare systems.
It is difficult to read this magazine without a genuine admiration for the positive ambition of the leaders of the day, despite the very deep and real challenges that the country faced in terms of its isolation and workforce shortages. Reading through these pages and taking myself back in time, there is also a strong sense that we have somehow lost that strategic aspiration and ‘can do’ national attitude over the intervening decades.
But, on the back of the dislocations and disruptions driven by the global COVID pandemic, it feels like we are at a strikingly similar point in history and have a unique opportunity to reset our vision and to reimagine and remake our future as a nation.
In doing so, some considerations remain the same and new ones have arisen over time. Infrastructure, industry development, skills, and social policy remain critical priorities for our future, 75 years after this magazine was published.
In 1945, Australia’s exports were dominated by the wool industry, today they are dominated by our resources sector. Then, as now, there is a desire to diversify our economy, to be more economically self-sufficient, to build new and emerging industries, and to add more value beyond the supply of raw materials. But this won’t happen by accident. As our leaders realised back then, we need thoughtful, long term national industry development plans created in partnership between government and the private sector.
In 2022, we have a genuine opportunity to consider how we leverage our traditional strengths in resources and agriculture to build a smart, next generation manufacturing capability and establish deep, sustainable and global leading industries in fields such as biotech, renewable energy, defence, space, education, professional services and technology innovation.
On the back of this agenda, we need a clear and considered national skills strategy. At the heart of this strategy should be investing in building an Australian workforce with the depth and breadth of skills required to support our next generation economy. This will require a more concerted and coordinated focus on skills pathways and training across all parts of our economy.
Within the context of a national workforce strategy, we can have a mature and targeted discussion on our skilled migration policy. Migration has been, and will continue to be, core to our successful development as a country and going forward this program – outside our humanitarian obligations - should be focused on enhancing our existing workforce capability in strategically important domains.
Underpinning our industry and workforce strategy should be a consideration of the physical and social infrastructure we need to support our future economy and society. We could learn a thing or two from our past leaders and our Asian neighbours about how to do this in a more strategic, coordinated and deadline oriented way. We should take the opportunity as a nation to plan, prioritise and action the next set of nationally important infrastructure investments across domains such as energy, transport, housing, telecommunications and healthcare. And, as we do this, we should carefully consider how we develop our regional communities and support and elevate the more underprivileged elements of our society.
Which brings me to a few important things that have changed since the end of the Second World War. Chief among these are technological advances, a much heightened awareness of our Indigenous history, the visible impact of climate change, the increased importance of Asia, and the building of a much more multi-cultural society.
These are all factors we need to seamlessly weave into our future plans. We need to invest in technology skills and infrastructure and set a goal to be a leading and innovative technology nation. We need to properly recognise and embrace our Indigenous history and be willing to listen to and learn from our First Nations’ people. We should aim to be a world leader in climate action and innovation and work together to mitigate climate risks and create economic opportunity and jobs from the climate agenda. We need to overcome our Island insularity and connect more meaningfully and strategically with our Asian neighbours. And we should actively celebrate and learn from the rich mix of cultures in modern day Australia.
We have much to be thankful for as a country. We also have much to look forward to if we are prepared to embrace our history, think long term, leverage our strengths and work boldly and inclusively to tackle our most important issues and opportunities. In the closing words of Ben Chifley in Australia To-Day 75 years ago:
Australia faces a great prospect. The co-operative striving of all sections of the community for the national good offers much in the future … I repeat the call to all to work towards Australia’s future greatness.