Date published: Wednesday 9 May 2018
BY MARCIA BALZER
Physical infrastructure is an important component of a healthy economy, and the government clearly recognised that in last night's Budget announcements.
But I think that the government may be missing an important point. Investing in creating a strong society – in the humans who drive our economy, workplaces and communities – is the other side of the infrastructure coin.
The reality is that Australians are a diverse bunch. We’re stronger for it, but this also means we need to work at being a connected, trusting community. Every government in 21st Century Australia needs to grasp this reality if we want to move from where we are to the stronger, more cohesive Australia where we all want to live. This means paying as much attention to the people who make up our society as the infrastructure that fills the landscape.
Economies and societies alike can only operate where people trust one another. There can’t be a strong economy where society is divided, distrustful and combative. Imagine how chaotic life would be if you could never be sure that you’d get the goods you paid for at a shop. Or that your employer would pay you for the work you’ve done. Or that your client would pay you for the service you just delivered. Our economy would grind to a halt.
We’re certainly a diverse nation, with more than 28% of us born overseas according to the 2016 Census. More than 45% of us have at least one parent born overseas. 13.6% of households live on less than $500 per week, while 7% of households receive $4000 or more each week. We spend our time in paid work, volunteering, caring for others, studying, and no doubt in many other endeavours.
Last year, the International Monetary Fund listed Australia as the 18th richest country per capita in the world, sandwiched between Germany and Taiwan. But with increasing costs of living and stagnant incomes, many Australians feel they’re missing out on the benefits of our relative prosperity. And an increasing sense of mistrust and insecurity is fuelling the sense that things are getting worse rather than better.
I wonder whether our governments are doing us a disservice by not paying enough attention to our society’s infrastructure – to our need to be connected to one other and our communities, to work together, help each other out, and to enjoy the benefits of being a ‘lucky country’.
So how can governments help us to become a stronger and more cohesive society? I don’t have a complete answer, but exploiting our fears, and our natural instincts towards ‘us versus them’ isn’t going to cut it. These approaches are making our divisions worse, and creating a mistrustful, combative and less productive society.
There’s a growing chorus of voices calling for government action to heal some of our society’s cracks by seriously addressing poverty – by raising the lowest income support payments and providing better opportunities to those in low-paid work.
There’s a widespread recognition of a growing housing crisis across the country. This issue has been ignored for so long it’s now a problem of momentous proportions. It’s going to take a concerted effort by all levels of government to make a dent. But what sort of society can we be without safe, secure and affordable housing for everyone?
Sadly, racism and other discrimination continue to see some people treated unfairly and harmed through no fault of their own. It’s long past time for us to take steps to recognise Australia’s First Peoples in our Constitution in a spirit of reconciliation and generosity.
These would be good places for governments to start if they wanted to seriously balance an economic viewpoint with strengthening the infrastructure of Australian society.
For governments handing down budgets, the economy and the physical infrastructure necessary for growth are important. But we also need to look beyond those considerations to the people that make the economy work. A strong cohesive society is just as important to our economy as to our quality of life.
And for anyone feeling a bit powerless or hopeless, a strong, cohesive society is something we can all help to create – by recognising our similarities, understanding our differences, and treating our fellow citizens with generosity rather than fear or suspicion.