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Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Turnbull's fearful, pessimistic vision for Australia

Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump might be at loggerheads over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but in other respects they're in sync.

Trump's inaugural address focused on what he was against: elites, Islamic terrorism, crime and gangs.

Turnbull's remarkably dark new year message was about economic challenges, international conflict and "Islamist terrorists". It was about fighting things rather than doing things.

We expect it of Trump. He seems to need to be against things. But Turnbull promised something grander.

Tackling Tony Abbott for the leadership in 2015 he acknowledged challenges, but spoke of "enormous opportunities".

"We need a style of leadership that explains those challenges and and how to seize the opportunities," he said at the time. "Our values of free enterprise, of individual initiative, of freedom; this is what you need to be a successful, agile economy.

"What we have not succeeded in doing is translating those values into the policies and the ideas that will excite the Australian people and encourage them to believe and understand that we have a vision for their future."

The people who were most excited by that promise have been disappointed ever since.

At its best the Turnbull government has been about administration, at its worst its been about opposing things: Labor, the unions, external threats and the previous government.

In welcoming the 16,000 people who will become Australians on Thursday his Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, made only a perfunctory reference to the good they would do and spoke instead of "unprecedented security threats from terrorists, extremists and criminals who seek to exploit migration pathways to citizenship for their own ends".

"The lesson of terrorism here and in Europe is that we must prevent foreign extremists from arriving in the first place, and remove them once detected."

As a vision for the future, it was fearful.

Turnbull's Human Services Minister speaks rarely about services but often about fraud. His Trade Minister talks about Labor almost as often as he does about trade. His Energy Minister is as likely to score political points as he is to talk about energy. His Attorney-General spent much of last year feuding with the Solicitor-General while his Deputy Prime Minister was moving a division of his department into his electorate.

It's anything but a vision, but I don't think it's entirely Turnbull's fault.

Whether he realises it or not, Turnbull (like Trump) might be in tune with the times.

Australia was indeed bold and optimistic when he was growing up. In 1966, the year decimal currency was introduced, half the population was aged under 30. Only 7 per cent were 65 or older.

Today it's double that: 15 per cent are 65 and older. Seven per cent are 75 and older.

As we get older we usually become less adventurous, more fearful and more inward looking. There's every reason to believe it's the same with populations.

The $2, $5, $10 and $20 notes introduced with decimalisation were vibrant – in your face greens, blues, lilacs and pinks.

When they were replaced with plastic notes a generation later in 1992 the new designs were more muted, the colours more pastel.

In the next upgrade to incorporate new security features another generation later in 2016 the designs changed little. Queen Elizabeth lives on the new $5 note, perhaps because removing her would be controversial.

By 2060 when almost a quarter of the population, and almost half the voting age population, will be 65 and over the designs are likely to be more muted still.

We are already becoming more timid and inward looking. Parliament House is now patrolled by police with machine guns. A 2.6 metre fence is about to go up on top of it to keep terrorists away from the lawns.

Radio Australia is about to turn off the shortwave service used to broadcast emergency information to remote Pacific islanders. Our foreign aid budget has been slashed by 16 per cent during three years in which our defence budget has grown 26 per cent.

And care for ourselves, should we become sick, has become our No.1 priority. The ANU election survey finds that in 1990 only 9 per cent of us nominated health as the top political priority, far fewer than >nominated unemployment or taxation. By 2016 it was 24 per cent, more important than any other priority including the economic ones.

It's natural to want to care for ourselves as we get older, just as it's natural to invest more conservatively. Developing a city from scratch, as we did with Canberra a century ago, or the developing the Snowy Mountains Scheme as we did half a century ago, becomes less attractive the older we get.

We'd welcome vision of course. Some of us felt nostalgic when Turnbull talked about it. But what's becoming really important to us is preserving what we've got. Promising to keep us safe might be almost enough.

Not for all of us of course. But fearless, outward looking Australians are becoming lonelier. Like other ageing nations before us, we are becoming more cautious.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald