Opinion- 29 December 2007



pdf file-available from Australasian Science




Harry Robinson Assesses Richard Pratt's Vision  for Australia's Future

You could have missed it since it appeared in The Australian's Business Section on December 26 -- Boxing Day. It's a fair bet that most Oz readers were more intent on sun and sin that day and all that week. Their bad luck. On a good day, the Richard Pratt manifesto for Australia's future would have reached a much wider audience.


Yes it was that Richard Pratt, chairman of Visy, the company in trouble for collusion on prices. He acknowledged the glitch briefly and went on to offer his thoughts on strategies for the next decade and beyond.


He spent no words on the Howard Government's shortcomings. He spent many on the theme that "the new year brings in a new dynamic," taking climate change as the mainspring.


In one long paragraph, Mr Pratt gave a laundry list of things we need to master --


Clean coal technology, carbon capture and storage, emission controls, wind power, geo-thermal power, energy from manufacturing waste, nuclear .. water recycling, plantations for biofuel.


A reader might gasp that any government which could accomplish half those noble projects would be astoundingly effective. The Pratt mind is nothing if not visionary. "The 21st century green revolution has the potential to surpass the 19th Century industrial revolution and the 20th Century technology revolution."


But how to bring all this about, how to marshal the resources needed? The denizen of conventional commerce is not above heresy. "...it is government that must lead on large scale infrastructure development to make a real difference... Government will need to borrow heavily but sensibly -- Dare I say, 'debt is good'?" He qualifies of course but his thinking leaves the Costello habit of piling up piggybanks in the shade.


Business must, of course, be business and here the denizen proffers a carrot to the profit minded. "During the next decade or so, say to 2020, we should be able to build at least 100 businesses each worth $1 billion or more which deal with climate change or solutions."


Like Prime Minister Rudd, Mr Pratt comes later to higher education, research and the universities but he leaves no doubt of his belief in the ultimate value of investing in Australia's human infrastructure at the highest levels.


The whole piece says much in little, gives a well fashioned overview of what needs to be done along with how it might be done. It's worth going to the archives to read in full.


The significance lies not only what Richard Pratt has to say but where he said it. The Australian is conservative, its Business Section especially so. Moreover, The Australian is Rupert Murdoch's flagship in this country. Mr Murdoch might or might not have seen Mr Pratt's contribution before publication, but he is very likely to be in tune with it. After all, he came here some months before the election, tried to spur the Howard Government into positive action on broadband and left in disgust when nothing happened. The fact that the Pratt road map was published prominently on that conservative page says two things: One, that the country's industrial and commercial leaders will take note and Two, that Murdoch and his editors will be inclined to use it as a signpost in 'the next decade or so.'


On one score Mr Pratt was too polite, too gentle.


He made little of media failure to examine the stalled policies of the Howard Government.


Where were the media all the time Treasurer Costello was acting like a bookkeeper pure and simple, taxing, taxing with the single aim of retiring debt, giving consumes tax brakes which upped spending and inflation, and building piles of money in the bank? Where were the media when money was not spent on railways, roads and ports thus allowing bottlenecks to clog export lines? Where were media when Australia began to fall seriously behind in broadband? Above all, where were media when it became blindingly obvious that the universities and research institutions were suffering financial starvation? Where were the media as foreign debt and the current account deficit soared.


Most of the time the media were occupied with opinion polls or the minutiae of inter-party argy bargy. The big questions were too big for most commentators.


This leads us to think about how the Ed-Sci community ought to represent itself in Mr Pratt's world of new dynamics.


Supposing only half the laundry list is put on the national agenda, suppose only 50 climate change businesses worth $1 billion each are created, suppose we make solar work but not geo-thermal? Government would still have to win public acceptance, would have to set flexible priorities, navigate industrial shoals and all the while businesses would have to seek and form new alliances while coping with new legal frameworks. Even half Mr Pratt's wish-list would call for a mountain of work by information experts, for a tribe of opinion leaders and a whole clan of lobbyists.


In such a climate, could the Ed-Sci community simply go with the flow? Hardly. The sign of the time is that the community needs its own agency to spread information, to suggest attitudes, to encourage debates on public aspects of intellectual challenge. Vice Chancellors can't do it: they are the wrong kind of people. Research councils and such can't do it: their writ does not run to human engineering. Something like The Lowy Institute is indicated. Frank Lowy's outfit concentrates on international relations. It has achieved remarkable influence in a few short years. It could be a template for an engine to help realise the Richard Pratt manifesto.


Harry Robinson -- for 25 years worked in television journalism in Oz and the US and was for several years air media critic for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sun-Herald.