A plea to think big: a vision for a budget beyond self-interest

A missed opportunity to resuscitate our rivers. Flickr/wazzas world

A vision splendid of the sunlit plain extended?

The federal budget acknowledges the profound impact of flood, fire and cyclones on our economy. It compensates, rebuilds and funds mental health programs.

The budget will get us back to work. No shirking and lurking behind domesticity and disability.

The budget looks to the regions and offers ambitious redevelopment plans.

But where is the vision of an Australian society that lives with the rhythms of our ancient land? This is a bitsy budget that gestures to redistribution but hints at a fairer Australia with piecemeal offerings.

Australia may have weathered the GFC but can we survive the GEC – the Global Environmental Crisis?

Can we continue to compensate and clean up the oils spills, nuclear leaks and polluted ground water? Or do we need to re-examine our relationship with the land?

Through my anthropological fieldwork over the past 35 years with Warlpiri and Kaytej in central Australia and the Ngarrindjeri in southeastern Australia, I have had occasion to reflect on how our relationships to our land and rivers are configured.

Now that I live near the Murray Mouth, I see the environmental degradation of this mighty river on a daily basis.

So, in terms of our relationship to our land and its rivers, I ask: when we speak of our waters are we talking about a commodity to be managed, bought and sold? If so, how well are we doing?

Or, when we speak about our rivers, are we talking about a living body of water, albeit a body with an erratic pulse? And, if so, how well are we doing?

I’d say, “not well” on both accounts.

The waterways are over-allocated and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority seems to be at an impasse in returning water to the river.

The communities that live along the rivers are ailing. We know the health of our communities and economies depends on a healthy river but shy from making policies based on our connectedness.

The delivery of the budget could have been a defining moment, one where we paused as a nation to reflect on who we are and what we might be.

We could be discussing the why, how and where of rebuilding in the face of devastating floods, fires and cyclones.

These are not random events. They are part of our land.

We could be discussing the role the economy can play in creating a society where the regions flourish and where our cities are sustainable.

We could be discussing the very concept of a balanced budget: who benefits and who bears the burdens?

One big loser in the balancing act of this budget is the environment. Australians might be put back to work but in what sector and with what impact on our stressed environment?

Who speaks for the environment in this two-speed economy? Where does the environment sit in relationship to the triple bottom line? How might we reimagine ourselves? What vision splendid might extend before us?

So, here is my vision of an Australia that is a land of hope and opportunity, where the fair-minded flourish, where greed is not good, where well-informed citizens participate in politics, where science is not for hire, where advice to decision-makers is forthright and fearless, where those who critique and challenge entrenched power are valorised, where human rights are respected, where the quality of our democracy is judged by the quality of life enjoyed by those who live on the margins.

A country of modest proportions, living sustainably, growing its own food, managing its resources for the greater good, a country where we all have a future, where we are good stewards for future generations.

This is a vision not a policy. But we can’t have sound policy without vision.

This is an invitation to think big about ourselves and to reach beyond self-interest.

This is plea for the future.

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