JOHN Howard squandered the benefits of the $80 billion-a-year resources boom and wanted to be re-elected so he could retire, Labor leader Kevin Rudd said yesterday.
Defining the choice facing voters in one of his last major speeches of the election campaign, Mr Rudd said that on Saturday voters would choose either the future under Labor’s new leadership or a Howard Government that had wasted its mandate.
Instead of using the opportunity to take the proceeds of the mining boom and re-invest them in schools, TAFEs and universities, the Howard Government had disinvested, he said.
“It has been a decade marked by opportunities squandered,” Mr Rudd told the National Press Club.
“We are a great country but we are not yet as great as we can be.”
That’s a strong claim, although it’s one that I agree with, and it would seem to have support from former Australian Chief Scientist and current Group Chief Scientist for Rio Tinto Limited, Robin Batterham (also President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, which is having a conference in Perth this week).
Batterham wrote a monologue for RN’s Perspective program which was broadcast on Monday, in which he points out that current planning around the resources boom seems to be based on a very short term view and a belief that the boom will be sustained indefinitely. It’s very important to note that the current boom is unprecedented, and while it has a good while yet left to run, once it is gone, it’s gone.
For instance, will the demand be sustained? The short answer is ‘we don’t know’ but all the indicators are that the demand for minerals to underpin the economic development of the roaring economies of China and India will be sustained for a generation, unless, of course, its truncated by political upheaval or natural disaster.
We have to plan for demand to be sustained and for the boom to end. And this elicits a huge raft of questions that should be exercising the best minds in the country.
It is the planning for the boom to end, and how industry practice and environmental constraints might vary in the meantime, that is not happening. How do we make sure that the minerals industry has the knowledge and technology base to be flexible in response to changing circumstances, ensuring the productivity of the industry? What do we do in a generation when we have dug up all our resources that can be profitably extracted? What will Australian workers do then?
If Australia doesn’t get the exploration-development equation right we could face a long-term decline in the size, influence and revenue of the minerals industry, which will hurt the economy and our standard of living.
Will we have the appropriate polices and infrastructure support? A principal impediment to Australia’s future success is our ability to undertake effective long-term planning.
These points are largely industry-specific, but then Batterham gets on to the same page of social policy as Rudd’s statements to the Press Club.
And how will we spend the profits? There is a political attraction to spend the profits ‘easy’ – on projects for the nation and benefits for its people that demonstrate immediate positive results from our good fortune.
But the tougher decisions to invest for the future will equip Australia far better for the decades ahead – both from the upside and the from the downside perspectives.
We must drive for increased investment in education, a greater focus on science and technology, greater risk-taking in R&D, a narrower focus on what we do best and a national understanding of and commitment to long-term, over-the-horizon planning in the interests of the whole nation.
This is not just about governments – we all need to move our thinking paradigm from ‘me’ to ‘us’ and work for the longer term to make the best of this once-in-a-generation or indeed this once-in-a-century resources boom.
Howard’s policy has always been to plough back revenue surpluses from the resources boom straight into the electorate’s hip-pocket nerve, with no banking of the windfall in social investments. Squandering is exactly the right word. Without infrastructure investment we will all pay the price as the fractured public health system’s cracks gape wider, and our children and grandchildren especially will pay the price of the rollback in public education.
Why did Rudd wait until now to make this point so strongly?