Time to turn off the Simpsons

| September 8, 2010

Why do Australians take the worst and leave the best of what the USA has to offer?

Having a Mum from Sydney and a Dad from Texas, over the course of my life, I’ve lived, studied and worked in both Australia and the USA. It’s an interesting perspective from which to view the way the two cultures regard one another.

Whilst Australians are often quick to generalise that Amercian culture is bad, we are also disturbingly quick to appropriate the very worst parts of it. Obesity, increasing crime rates, banal sit-coms, there’s even talk around the absurd notion of changing the legal drinking age to 21. It would be much more helpful to take a look at the positive aspects of American success and aim to emulate those traits.
One thing the USA does better than Australia is a healthier attitude towards innovation and entrepreneurship with more widespread government and civil support for these notions.
The Australian “she’ll be right” attitude is a big part of our global identity; and it serves us very well when we’ve just walked through the door of a dingy run down old backpackers in Lisbon and need to make the best of it, but it leaves us lacking when we are trying to innovate new solutions, let alone commercialise them, to solve some of life’s more serious problems.
Tales of Australian inventors being forced offshore to find investors are legendary. If we want to stop this brain-drain and make the Cochlear success story really part of our national narrative and not just a freak episode then we are going to have to get much better at not accepting our limitations. What can governments and citizens do to encourage the growth of innovative ideas and productive research so that we become a society that innovates and invents?
Researchers in Australian universities are doing some exciting work; it’s the leap to commercialisation that is missing. The percentage of R & D funding provided by government in Australia is much higher than in the USA, but instead of being an advantage, it seems to hold back innovation back as we search for non-existent private investors. This over reliance is a catch 22.
Then there’s the fact that Australia consistently ranks as having one of the highest costs of living of all OECD countries.  Many things which are inexpensive in the USA, and elsewhere in the world, are nowhere near as cheap in Australia, why?
When you pose this question to some of the most knowledgeable minds in Australia it tends to be met with defensivesness and a stock response justifying the inequity by the limitations of Australia having a smaller market spread across vast geographical distance and numerous time zones. That’s part of the story but it does not explain the whole story and we shouldn’t be placated by it.
To begin addressing the difference and start decreasing prices in Australia we have to look more broadly than just market size. We need to address barriers to market entry; policies that support and enforce duopolies. We need to look at things government and consumers can do to ensure more competition.
In today’s economy many multinationals are selling exactly the same products and services in to different markets at different prices based upon what consumers are willing and able to pay. The African mobile telecommunications market is a startling example of this. The purchasing power parity of Australians is not good enough.
Which brings us to a fundamental question we need to ask which is, will Australia continue to be a society that simply digs things out of the ground and exports them, or can we transition to a knowledge economy? What can we do to become the Switzerland of our region (a knowledge and services economy with the highest per capita incomes  in the world)? Israel transitioned from a company that exported oranges to a high tech economy in 30 years; it is possible in our lifetimes for the Australian economy to reinvent itself.  
In 2009 I joined Global Access Partners (GAP) as Executive Director of the National Economic Review 2010: Australia’s Annual Growth Summit. The first in a series of three annual Summits will be held in Sydney on 17 September 2010.
One of my first tasks was to begin assembling the program for the Summit these observations were front of mind when we decided upon the themes for our plenary sessions:
  • Research, Development & Innovation
  • Costs & Prices
  • Trade & Investment Policy
  • And because a society is more than an economy which can be summed up by GDP, we’ll also be examining alternative measures of progress.
The Summit will bring together an excellent combination of public and private sector thought leaders who are capable of not only pondering these questions, but of taking a step further to actually provide living examples of how to put them into practice.

Originally appeared at www.openforum.com.au on 14/7/10


Lisa Middlebrook is Executive Manager Strategy & Policy, at Global Access Partners (GAP). Previously Lisa spent two years as Director of the Federal Labor Business Forum, and prior to that, she served as the Director of Business Development at the Lowy Institute. Lisa spent six years with the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and Progressive Policy Institute in Washington DC where she was a Senior Adviser on trade policy and was also responsible for external relations with the corporate community and non-profit foundations. She was instrumental in helping establish political relationships for Australia with regard to the US/Australia Free Trade Agreement. Prior to the DLC, she served at the Australian Embassy in Washington working on US Congressional Relations and trade issues. Lisa is a graduate of the University of California Los Angeles (political science and international relations) and serves on the Board of Directors of the Johnny Warren Foundation and the organising committee for the Steve Waugh Foundation. 

Contact lmiddlebrook@globalaccesspartners.org