Big ideas? Or big mistakes?

Ideas@TheCentre – The CIS newsletter (Sydney), 6 August 2010

The ‘big idea’ at the Centre’s annual Big Ideas Forum on Monday was sad and depressing: Europe as we know it has ceased to exist and is facing a difficult future.

After a turbulent year for the European economy, few people would be surprised by this analysis. It is well known that Greece has severe budget troubles. We have heard about Europe’s ageing society. We are aware of the failings of the so-called multicultural society (which often is only a polite way of saying that anything goes). And yet, despite this knowledge of Europe’s problems, we have barely understood what this really means—not for Europe but for us.

Modern Australia was established as a European outpost and despite of decades of Asian immigration, it remains a society still deeply rooted in the European tradition. Being a truly ‘lucky country,’ it had the good fortune of mineral wealth and more than two decades of reform-minded politicians, creating an economy in which many of Europe’s current problems are absent. This is the crucial difference between Australia and Europe.

But here comes the rub. Although we may be ahead of our European cousins in terms of economic success, we are actually only a few decades behind them in terms of social problems.

The ageing process that Europe is going through has already started in Australia and by the middle of the century, the median age in Australia will be as high as it is in Europe today. Europe’s debt problems started with big government deficits in the 1970s, which were never repaid. And we just started accumulating debt recently. The tensions between migrants and mainstream society were seeded two or three generations ago when Europeans failed to realise that it’s not enough just to open the door to newcomers but also to make sure that migrants become well integrated citizens. Are we really doing enough on this front in Australia?

Many of Europe’s problems were the result of complacent or, shall we say lazy, policymaking. Looking at the Australian election campaign, you get the impression that our politicians are hell-bent on repeating many of Europe’s mistakes.

It is for this reason that Australians should watch Europe closely. Europe is the looking glass through which Australians can see their future gone wrong. It is our task to make sure that it will go right.

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