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There are two competing visions for Australia’s future, argues former prime minister Kevin Rudd. AAP/Dean Lewins

Kevin Rudd: reflections on a troubled country and a troubled world

This is an edited extract from a speech delivered by Kevin Rudd, the 26th prime minister of Australia, on his receipt of an honorary doctorate of laws from the Australian National University on December 16, 2016.

We live in a deeply unsettled world, where once again the great questions of war and peace rumble across the international headlines, casually, almost as a matter of routine, as if we have become inoculated to their actual meaning.

We live too in a troubled country, with growing uncertainties on how we carve out our economic future.

We also live, some of us, in troubled communities, where the politics of race once again raise their ugly head.

In Indigenous Australia, where reconciliation seemed possible, we now seem to be sliding back into older, more familiar patterns of division and despair.

And then there is the planet itself, which we all share. Despite the best efforts of many, we will pass it to later generations in sad disrepair.

But our national cup remains more than half-full. There is much to celebrate, much to be grateful for from those who have gone before us, and even more to encourage among our fellow Australians for the future.

Our land and our people have indeed been deeply blessed. Yet I fear that part of our cup that remains empty may become the larger part.

But somehow we seem powerless to act. It is as if we have lost our national bearings. Lost in a national culture of learned helplessness. Lost in what the Jesuits call “the globalisation of superficiality”. Losing faith too in our national institutions.

We are satisfied instead by this shrieking culture of partisan recrimination, and the kabuki play that now passes for our national politics – where the room for discourse on the deep questions of our future has become increasingly marginal; where any discussion of national vision, let alone global vision, disappears amid the deafening howls of derision from a political class and large parts of the commentariat whose first instinct is to tear down, never to build up.

This is all reinforced by national elites, both of the right and the left, both corporate and union, including both academia and the media, increasingly incapable of honest self-reflection.

It is as if we have produced such a vicious public culture, well beyond the realms necessary for robust disagreement and debate, in which to admit error is to admit weakness and therefore to yield to defeat.

These seem to me to be some of the core cultural elements of our current national malaise, which places facts last and opinion first, with what we once called truth now seen as little more than subjective illusion.

And it is this malaise that infects our ability to even begin to conduct a civilised national conversation about the substantive policy, corporate and communitarian possibilities for our country’s future, and its future in the world.

As a former prime minister of this country, I am not innocent of any of these charges. And some may say that now that I live in America, although returning here several times a year, that I am now least qualified to comment.

Perhaps they are right. Perhaps, however, it gives me a different perspective. A perspective that sees these forces now at work not only in Australia, but across the collective West, where the very notion of “the West” itself, and the combined traditions of faith and the enlightenment it represents, begins to slide into civilisational irrelevance, as collateral damage in a post-modern world.

I retain a passionate commitment to this country, its future, and what we Australians can and must do in this troubled world.

And that is where the next generation of Australian leaders come in, because it is this generation that will decide which path we take – and the hour is already late.

The two visions for Australia’s future

When it is all boiled down, there are two visions for Australia’s future: one broad, the other narrow.

One is confident of its core values of individual freedom, fairness, compassion, creativity, enterprise – all anchored in the institutions of our democracy.

One sees our future lying in an expansive, inclusive, tolerant society, based on the abiding principles of mutual respect and the guarantees of equal rights and protections for all.

The economy is driven by innovation, enterprise, fully wired to global markets, where small businesses are encouraged to become big businesses and then global businesses, and where employees are seen as partners rather than objects.

This is an Australia whose national politics is capable of seeing the paramount importance of investing in the infrastructure, the industries, the skills formation and the immigration levels needed for tomorrow, in order to boost our national population, our workforce participation and our economic productivity for the future.

An Australia that sees itself as an integral part of the regional and global community, where our values and our interests are enhanced by comprehensive international engagement, where we are active contributors to the global solution to challenges like sustainable economic growth, climate change and asylum seekers, rather than just being part of the global problem.

There is, however, an alternative Australia.

This is a society that is insular, judgemental and intolerant of diversity. We are retreating to the illusions of a racial and cultural laager, the legacy of what we thought was a long-distant past.

This economy is governed by the self-congratulatory arrogance of many of our corporate elites, whose mediocrity is such that in 100 years we have failed to produce a single, memorable, “made in Australia” global brand, content instead with the comfortable confines of a domestic market of 24 million, and content too with a market seen by the rest of the world as little more than “treasure island”.

A narrow politics is content with the continued appeasement of BHP and Rio, as if these two corporate behemoths should mystically be equated with the national interest, nourished by the illusion that the mining boom would magically last forever, and that building a more resilient economic foundation based on national broadband, higher education and the industries of the future, reinforced by strong immigration, was therefore somehow redundant.

Or, more broadly, a narrow, inward-looking Australia sees the region and the world as a threat, rather than an opportunity, and one ripe therefore for playing the ever-diminishing politics of race, xenophobia and fear.

A big Australia

These are the alternative futures we face.

We can dream and build a big Australia – not just in the size of our population and the scale of our economy as necessary guarantees for our national survival, but, more importantly, an Australia that is big in heart, big in imagination, big in innovation, big in its entrepreneurial spirit.

This would include a politics capable of sustaining big ideas, not cringing from them, and Australia playing a bigger role in the region and the world – a role of which we can all be proud.

Or there is the alternative, a small Australia, which increasingly disappears into itself.

I stand, unapologetically, for a big Australia.

Leadership is not about the title you have. Leadership is about the values, the ideas and the initiatives you bring to the table – in your family, your workplace, your enterprise, your community and your country. It’s a question of whether, together, this great national family of ours can paint a bigger, broader canvas for our country, and as good international citizens in our troubled world.

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