Many people who write for The Conversation like to think of themselves as ‘public intellectuals’, or that they are at least making a contribution to public policy debates. Few can claim to have had anything like the impact of Ross Garnaut, however. Whatever you think about his ideas, the odds are you have thought about them — even if you aren’t aware of it.
Garnaut’s an economist and a pretty orthodox one at that, so it’s no surprise that this is where he has made his biggest contribution. Indeed, it’s not too much of a stretch to claim that Garnaut provided the intellectual rationale for much of the discourse that has come to surround ‘Asian engagement’ and the bipartisan acceptance of much that that phrase implies.
When Garnaut was invited by Bob Hawke to analyse Australia’s economic relations with Northeast Asia, in the late 1980s, the idea that Australia’s economic well-being would be intimately bound up with the region, was far from the conventional wisdom. It is partly thanks to Garnaut that has become so. True, the brute material reality of the rise of first Japan and now China also helped, but Garnaut’s a powerful reminder that ideas matter—and so does the ability to sell them.
This is why the recent publication of Garnaut’s latest book, Dog Days: Australia After the Boom, is noteworthy. The take-home message is in the title and is another reminder of just how quickly the conventional wisdom can change. Only a few months ago many pundits were fretting about labour shortages and the apparently inexorable rise of the dollar. Now the outlook looks rather different and the debate is about managing the seemingly inevitable downturn.
Readers with long memories or a sense of history may be unsurprised by all this. We have, after all, been here before. The resource sector is notoriously prone to cyclical booms and busts. What Garnaut’s new book makes clear is that much of the windfall gains of the resource sector have been squandered or privately appropriated during what he describes as ‘the Great Complacency’.
Neither side of politics emerges with great credit from this analysis. Indeed, one might be forgiven for wondering whether Australia’s political system, with its chronically truncated political cycles and perennial inter-state rivalries, is actually capable of generating the sort of long-term perspectives that underpinned Norway’s very different approach to the management of its resource wealth.
But as Garnaut points out:
…disinterested analysis of long-term policy issues was crowded out by daily commentary and the noisy firing of hired guns of business and political interests.
The chances of establishing a Norwegian-style sovereign wealth fund, for example, dedicated to locking away the fruits of ‘Australia’s’ resource wealth for future generations, not to mention stabilising the dollar, were risible at the height of the boom and all but impossible in its aftermath.
Garnaut’s economic analysis makes for sobering reading and provides the proverbial ‘wake-up’ call for Australia’s political elites. Even if it remains unheeded, Garnaut’s standing as one of the country’s foremost economists assures it will, at least, be heard and debated. The same cannot be said about his views on climate change policy. Although this takes up less space in this book than his analysis of the economic boom and bust, it is arguably an even more important contribution to the public policy debate.
Two points are worth emphasising. First, despite being exhaustively researched and based on the best scientific evidence, Garnaut’s recommendations on climate change policy have been systematically attacked in an effort to undermine his authority and their impact. Even the right ideas at the right time from credible sources are no guarantee of impact in the face of powerful vested interests and a limited range of media outlets.
Second, the time frame Garnaut is interested in is almost comically at odds with political horizons in Canberra. One can imagine the eye-rolling and incredulity that will greet the suggestion that the gains from climate change mitigation will be evident ‘within about half a century’. And yet if Australians, let alone the human race, are to address some of the formidable problems we collectively face, these are the sort of perspectives we need to adopt.
No doubt Garanut’s analysis of Australia’s economic problems will get most attention. While this is understandable and welcome as far as it goes, he has a bigger message, and not just about the perils of unaddressed climate change. As Garnaut points out:
Australia’s continued success is important for the welfare of Australians, and also for the standing of democratic capitalism in a changing world.
Put differently, if Australia with all it natural advantages, wealth and abilities can’t do something about responding to what one deposed political leader called ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’, who can? Curbing the influence of powerful vested interests is, Garnaut argues, part of the process of creating a political space in which a more disinterested debate can take place.