This month, Black Inc. is delighted to launch a new imprint: Redbacks – Books with Bite. Redbacks are short books on big issues by leading Australian writers and thinkers.
The series launched with Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia, by Andrew Leigh, and Why We Argue About Climate Change, by Eric Knight.
Here, Andrew Leigh and Eric Knight talk about Australian politicians, the mining boom and Australia’s economy, and why their new books have bite.
1. The Redback series is about short books with bite – with a focus on the big issues in politics across Australia. What is the most biting idea in your book?
The notion that inequality falls as well as rises. In fact, my 91-year-old grandfather, Roly Stebbins, has seen inequality fall for most of his life. Australia can increase prosperity without increasing the gap between rich and poor.
My biting idea is that freedom is the real reason why we argue about climate change. It is not the science or a sense of moral duty to one's children, even though that is the superficial sense in which the argument is framed. Francis Fukuyama once argued that we faced the end of history where ideas like economic freedom and liberal democracy were settled. I argue in this book that these issues have just resurfaced in more complex, wicked forms.
2. As mining boom revenues taper off, what might replace them in the Australian economy?
Growth has been strong in healthcare, financial services and education, but the honest answer is that we’re never very good at projecting with certainty the next source of prosperity. That’s why investments need to be general – in things like a great education and superfast broadband – rather than devoted to particular industries.
I'm bullish about the digital economy. I think we could do more to encourage people coming out of our schools and universities to consider non-traditional careers in entrepreneurship and starting new businesses in web, software, mobile, e-health, online education technology, and consumer internet.
3. Are we entering the Asian Century? What are the implications of this for Australia?
Rapid growth in Asia is very likely to be the norm for the coming decades. Australians will travel more in Asia, trade more with Asia, and be more likely to fall in love with people born in Asia. That means we need more Asian literacy – to speak languages like Korean, Hindi, Mandarin and Indonesian – as well as having experience studying and working in our region.
I'm not sure it makes sense to say we're entering an Asian Century. Asia has been deeply enmeshed in Australia ever since the mid nineteenth century. We talk about Australia and Asia – as if these were two separate spheres of existence. As someone whose mother is from Hong Kong, I've only ever seen both at the same time. Having said that, in purely economic terms we'll no doubt enter a period when the economy will get a huge boost from Asia's burgeoning middle class.
4. How will history remember today’s batch of Australian politicians?
As a batch, politicians have never been fondly remembered. But I do think that ensuring we avoided the global slump – which saw 28 million people worldwide lose their jobs – is a pretty extraordinary achievement. Not to mention little things like putting a price on carbon pollution, implementing DisabilityCare, and finally striking a Murray Darling basin deal.
We are going through a period of extraordinary, disruptive change with the rise of a digital age and an increasingly global workforce. I think that many of the current batch of political leaders have struggled to put people at ease with that pace of change. They haven't been able to sell the bigger vision of where we are going and why.
5. What is the biggest challenge Australia faces from a more globalised world?
There’s a natural risk that people "hunker down" in the face of difference. We saw this with the rise of One Nation in the late 1990s, and occasionally in other debates, such as discussions over foreign ownership. It’s vital to realise that Australia is at our best when we are at our most open – engaged with ideas, trade, investment and migrants.
I think the biggest disruption that governments face worldwide is the role technology will play in how we are governed. Over the last ten years technology has fundamentally disrupted the world of consumer products. Facebook has changed how we connect with friends. Google has transformed how we prioritise information and search. Apple has given us the internet in our pockets.
For countries like the USA and China, Snowden and Assange have shown that data transparency can shape national security in a fundamental way. For Australia, I think the implications are more specific and functional. We have a federated model of public service delivery. I think we will begin to see technology giving citizens more choice in how they use and select front-line services. That means more transparency and accountability, which is a good thing for all of us.
Battlers and Billionaires and Why We Argue About Climate Change are out now.