Opinion

Australia’s Intergenerational Report: the budget has a new blue ribbon

Christine Winter discusses whether the 2015 Intergenerational Report does enough to consider the environmental challenges facing future generations

Image by Michael Scott

The Australian Intergenerational Report (IGR) is published every five years: the fourth was released on 5 March 2015, by the Treasurer Joe Hockey.

The IGR intrinsically acknowledges that while  Governments are notoriously short-term focused, their vision hemmed by electoral cycles, decisions made now will continue to rebound long into the future. In the IGR they must project forty year ahead.

Here I will step back a little, establishing some fundamental elements of intergenerational justice and equity, before leaning in and testing the 2015 IGR against them.

Some intergenerational justice considerations

The actions of today’s government will directly impact the life potentialities of Australians beyond the next 100 years. Environmental impacts, combined with the social and cultural heritage we gift future generations will stem from decisions made today, just as we are the heirs of past acts.

Farsightedly Australian’s forefathers established networks of primary, secondary and tertiary education opportunities, built roads and bridges, ports and airports, reticulated power, water and gas, built cities and magnificent public buildings, established libraries and set aside swathes of land for communal enjoyment, all at sacrifice to themselves and with the goal of longterm society-wide benefits. They gave women the vote, and improved working conditions for all, established a robust legal environment in which business now thrives, directed incentives for innovation and development, and invested in world-class research.

They generated harms too, for which the living continue to pay. They appropriated indigenous peoples’ lands, killing and enslaving many of the first people of Australia. Ignoring the knowledge and knowing of those same first people, they cut down forests and degraded the soils with inappropriate farming practices. On balance the indigenous population while acknowledging their own forebears, has little to thank old ‘white’ Australians for.

The majority immigrant and immigrant-descended population has inherited many advantages wrought from the foresight and sacrifice of generations past. The present government and population must consider obligations and duties to honour this foresight and forfeit of immediate satisfaction and learn from past mistakes as it shapes forward looking policy.

Parameters

I have identified some parameters for intergenerational justice: it looks backward and forward; it considers economic and social and cultural and environmental factors; it is far far sighted (and must be increasingly farsighted as technology’s tendrils stretch across hundreds and thousands of years). Intergenerational justice requires the government to respect and honour received benefits, the gifts of past generations’ sacrifice, and to pass to future generations at least as good or better life options as they inherited, while looking to history for cautionary tales—and Australia has some shockers.

The biggest intergenerational challenges in Australia are environmental and indigenous justice.

2015 Intergenerational Report

How well does this IGR meet these demands? Firstly I acknowledge the document is a Treasury document and therefore has an economic focus. However, it should reflect that 1) the economy is embedded in the environment, 2) wellbeing of citizens is multidimensional and not derived from economics alone. Unfortunately it does neither.

With a forty year time horizon its temporal scale is limited. How differently Australia might be shaped in the glow of a 100 year or even a 500 year vision:  the quality of government decision making would become far more robust, based in values with longevity rather than finite self interest. I’m not sure what the Treasurer visualises for society just forty years hence, other than that we should each be financially richer and pay less tax.

It is absolutely and solely economically focused. Economics are important, but in assuming the primary measure of human wellbeing is ongoing economic growth it overlooks resource and eco-systemic limitations. And it ignores the complexity of the components of the good life. Social infrastructure, cultural heritage values, environmental protections and long term visionary environmental projects are absent.

While taking a broadside swipe at other nations’ lack of robust environmental policy, this report offers nothing to future generations in way of real environmental protections, or compensation for damages caused by todays’ agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining and greenhouse gas emissions. Where is the vision for generating innovation and green energy options? Certainly not in this report.

Glaringly missing is an account of how the Government is planning to fund the costs of climate change adaptation, compensation, and disaster relief. There are no contingencies for food security. Nor are reserves being put aside to protect cultural heritage—the buildings, infrastructure and monuments gifted by past generations—as sea levels rise, weather patterns change, and flood and drought threaten their integrity. Nor for protecting globally significant, rare and precious indigenous artefacts bequeathed to country over 50,000+ years. Is the government planning to assist protect personal property threatened now through years of government paralysis. procrastination and pig headedness over climate change?

Where is the strategy to cease mining coal, oil and gas? Will the Future Fund be protected from stranded assets? Where is the vision?

Absent too is the ongoing and intrinsically intergenerational nature of our obligations to the first peoples of Australia: reparations for harms done to their peoples past and a visionary approach to partnering with them to create empowered futures. This is a particularly egregious and glaring omission. There is nothing, nothing at all.

What’s missing?

The 2015 IGR is pedestrian: a pedestal on which to redisplay current liberal policies.  It has failed to provide any visionary path into the future. It fails to acknowledge debt and obligation to the past. An opportunity to reorient from an economic measure of well being—a blunt instrument at the best of times—to a more holistic model not taken. Indigenous justice is ignored, and the environment receives short shrift.

Joe Hockey has missed his chance to reshape the national dialogue: the opportunity to provide a bold, exciting strategic direction reorienting government from tactical zigzags to visionary constructions, building on a history of selfless nation building.

Far from insightful, innovative or even simply responsible reform, it is the same package of short term-ism—less tax-more individual wealth—tied together with a new blue ribbon.


Christine Winter is an SEI PhD Candidate, through the Department of Government & International Relations. Her research interest is in the intersection of intergenerational, indigenous and environmental justice. As politics particularly, but also business and personal philosophies, struggle to allow for future generations in societies focused on optimising current economic benefits and individual good, finding a balance between present needs and wants and the welfare of future generations is challenging.