By Anand Kulkarni, Robert Masters, Kay Clancy, and Victor Perton
Updated March 2023
There is a need for a new positive, optimistic narrative for Australia.
The Australian national narrative has descended to a politics framed in negative language; news reporting dominated by bad news, and legacy thinking; state-federal squabbling over policy and service responsibility; hand-outs supposedly addressing market failures; institutional inertia; and short-run responses to crises.
Despite these challenges, there is an opportunity for renewal and growth as the nation has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic with a new federal government with a Prime Minster who views fundamental optimism as the very best of our national character.
There is another way.
We can reframe the narrative to an optimistic, collaborative and care-driven one.
The Loss of Optimism is a Global Challenge
COVID-19 has altered the economic, social, and environmental landscape. Freedom House and Edelman's surveys find a global disquiet about the state of the body politic, government and institutions.
That disquiet reflects a loss of optimism and increases in pessimism, anxiety and fear.
"Historically, democracies have always depended on economic optimism," noted the English Lord Jonathan Sumption in a recent article entitled, "Death of democracy is now a live threat."
In the context of American polarization, President Joe Biden echoed those words, "Democracy begins and will be preserved in we, the people's habits of heart, in our character: optimism that is tested yet endures, courage that digs deep when we need it, empathy that fuels democracy, the willingness to see each other not as enemies but as fellow Americans."
In a passionate address entitled, “Creating Bases for Optimism in an Era of Insecurities”, Singapore’s senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam noted, "We have entered an era without precedent, certainly not in living memory, and it has led to a loss of optimism almost across the world."
Fear and intolerance are undermining our world order.
The World Economic Forum included the loss of global optimism in its global risk register for 2022.
The World Happiness Report 2022 picked up a shortage of global optimism.
McKinsey & Company and Rabobank Australia picked up the same trends for Australia - falling optimism in a country with a stereotype of relentless optimism.
The musician Michael Franti put it well, "I believe the great battle that's taking place in the world isn't between left and right. It's between cynicism and optimism. There are people who believe it's possible to create a better life and a better world. When we lose that sense of optimism is when we quit, when we give up."
Penny Mordaunt MP, UK’s Leader of the House of Commons and Lord President of the Council, said, “The faultline in politics at the moment is not between left and right but between optimists and pessimists. We need optimists for the next tough shift.”
A Desire for Hope and Optimism
The Centre for Optimism has identified a groundswell for change through its regular global and national surveys. So too, research companies, consumer-goods corporations, consultancies and design experts have found the public yearns for optimism and hope rather than pessimism and public squabbles.
As a result, the Federal government has the opportunity to adopt an optimistic lens on policy-making and processes.
The Centre for Optimism’s vision is for a future that is built from an optimistic mindset which reframes strategic and political thinking; which turns challenges into opportunities rather than constraints; which brings people together on the journey; and which is aligned to new possibilities that are limited only by individual and collective imaginations. In short, a future where optimism is the fuel for a better normal.
The Centre’s research shows that an individual’s optimistic outlook is underpinned and supported by personal factors, including life experience, mindset, Spirituality, faith in science, family and friends.
Similarly, several recurring features stand out when people are asked what keeps them optimistic: regular positive conversation; strong stories of hope and optimism; meditation and mindfulness; smiling at people; and more laughter and gratitude.
Volunteering is strong, but traditional volunteer organisations like Rotary and Lions Clubs have experienced a decline in activities because of the challenge of fitting volunteering commitments around paid work, family, or caring responsibilities.
An ABS Survey noted that 67% of people had received excellent or very good support from family and friends; almost half reported having an excellent or very good sense of being part of a community or group, and 60% reported having an excellent or very good level of confidence to have a say about issues that are important to them.
The conclusion is that people want to remain connected, are driven by wanting to engage in the policy agenda, speak up and be heard, and want more optimism and hope for the nation.
These features transcend Government and corporate influence.
To meet these wants, there is now the opportunity to implement dimensions of new practical policy agendas based on optimism and hope.
As Tharman Shanmugaratnam said, "Creating bases for optimism has to be our central task everywhere in the world and through global collaboration. We must create bases for optimism to see ourselves through this long storm and to emerge intact; emerge a better place, and it can be done."
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese understood this when on election eve, he said: "I want a country where hope and optimism are the major emotions projected from our national government to the Australian people."
On the doorstep of his home before heading to Canberra to be sworn in as Prime Minister, he said: "I want to lead a government that has the same sentiment of optimism and hope that defines the Australian people. I want to be positive and channel the opportunity we have to shape change, so we bring people with us on the journey of change."
And during his visit to Indonesia, he tweeted: "President @jokowi is ambitious about #Indonesia’s future and I share his #optimism.”
"There is no country on earth that prospers without optimism,” said Indonesian President Joko Widodo.
More recently, Anthony Albanese argued that "our fundamental optimism" is the very best of our national character.
The Centre for Optimism has identified six core interrelated elements as the basis for this change and the new narrative:
- Economic Development
- Institutional Change
- Framing around Optimism.
Collaboration of all types, at all levels and organisations, irrespective of size, needs to be a primary goal. COVID-19 has highlighted the global gains that can be achieved when we unite to fight a united cause. The lessons from this are transferrable and include collaboration that links communities with each other, broadening science to all and creating a space for citizen scientists to bring their knowledge and experience and national projects with activities that can be executed locally. This requires a conscious shift so that behaviour reflects the desired culture where collaboration is not simply a task but relationship-based. There are many possible avenues to achieve this; one could be establishing a National Collaboration Commission, alongside the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and National Competition Council. Its core purpose would be to pro-actively generate and encourage collaborative projects across all segments of society. In doing so, it would capitalise on and leverage disparate capabilities, co-creating shareable and re-useable knowledge to address complex challenges.
A focus on vision where government agencies establish teams in each Department whose core purpose is to develop a vision, a long-run view of the future and invite public comment and participation, influencing policy formulation and implementation. Grounded in optimism and presenting opinions about what is possible, this change could position the nation as an exemplar for global change. It could influence the face of aged care, renewable energy, and climate management, among other things. In a similar vein, a recent article in The Guardian called for the establishment of a Government Department for the future. Another possibility is the establishment of a Health, Education and Manufacturing Ministry, bringing together care sectors and industry development components.
The focus should be on ‘optimism’, much like the Departments of Happiness in several nations, which celebrate not only an International Day of Happiness, but also set down key milestones around real GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption.
Active engagement of the broader community in the development of policies and programs. This approach has worked well in Australia through citizen juries, in which citizens have the opportunity to assess policies and plans that are either prospective or already in place. This approach could be used as part of the annual budget process, inviting citizen juries to provide feedback on prospective Government policy changes that are tangible and practical and based on “on the ground” impact. Rather than this becoming an additional layer of the process, it could replace the annual budget submission process in which established lobby groups are seen to dominate the process. Its outcomes and measurements could be based on the 4 A’s developed by Arthur Shelley: Action; Ability; Attitude, and Awareness.
Reframe the way we measure things. GDP is not a good measure of well-being, and our preoccupation with GDP and its parts comes at the expense of indicators such as social capital and happiness. The introduction of a new Optimistic Wealth Indicator would add valuable insight in a departure from traditional metrics reducing the focus on marketised goods and services and increasing attention on (a) volunteerism, (b) community engagement, (c) non-market work, (d) care for disadvantaged segments (e) satisfaction with life, and (f) confident and optimistic outlook. In addition, there are projects abroad, including the Happiness Index, which seeks to reframe how success is measured with human happiness as a key component. Such an activity could be prepared as a two-yearly survey of citizens and be presented alongside GDP. One approach to measurement, rather than simplifying everything to a single number, is to use a characteristics-based method, i.e. defining the characteristics of optimistic societies and measuring them accordingly. The 4 A’s framework or others may provide some important guideposts.
The New Zealand Well-Being budget comprises two frameworks: a comprehensive Living Standards Framework; and He Ara Waiora, which is in the Maori tradition encompassing working in an aligned, co-ordinated way, decisions based on values and processes, shared belongings and kinship, care and respect and guardianship and stewardship of things such as the natural environment.
The Australian Federal Government in Australia will deliver a well-being budget document, and we are informed it will be published sometime after the May 2023 Budget. Federal Treasury is undertaking a consultative process, "Measuring What Matters", to determine potential new metrics to drive community well-being.
The views expressed in this narrative, a submission we have made and the New Zealand experience could be essential guideposts.
Reframe the debate around economic development where the ongoing narrative has been centred around size of Government and hand- outs. Reframing sectoral policy based on need would involve focussing on, among other things, care and health, innovation (technology and manufacturing) education, green capabilities, energy development and supply and supporting these and accompanying (either horizontal or vertical) sectors in the manner of “needs clusters”. It would require instruments such as public-private partnerships, the development of socially responsible funds, including social impact funding, to channel into these sectors and step away from the traditional hand out/subsidy mindset. This economic development can be seen as a “bottom up” approach based on the capabilities of organisations, employees and industries rather than a “top down” approach.
The assassinated former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe proposed a similar concept at the World Economic Forum in 2019: “Let us make it a chance to regain optimism for the future, providing reassurance that it is possible to achieve a hope-driven economy."
The Australian Treasurer Jim Chalmers has an instinctive feel for this: In his first ministerial statement on the economy he said, "Australians are overwhelmingly optimistic and confident people. Our optimism, and that confidence, is well founded—because it rests on our ability to navigate difficult times together, and emerge stronger." (28 July 2022)
Broader institutional change. In fighting COVID-19, the National Cabinet process worked effectively. However, at other times it descended into rancour and disunity. Understanding the “what” and “why” of what has worked and what has not is essential. There are two possible solutions to address this. Either the National Cabinet include Opposition members to promote bipartisanship and a collective view; or delineate up-front a series of issues and topics which would be the domain of the National Cabinet. This could include climate change, energy, education and immigration. Some flexibility to add topics or remove them from the agenda of the National Cabinet could be built into the system.
Framing Around Optimism
Most importantly, to achieve a new narrative and re-frame thinking and our focus on the future, we require new framing around optimism in all its forms and endeavours. This includes an optimistic lens on how progress is measured, a focus on boosting capabilities and industries with promise, a commitment to developing institutions in accordance with a positive, uplifting mindset emphasising collaboration, and participation and transparency in tackling any challenges in a manner that reflects this re-framing.
The Centre for Optimism’s recent poll asking Australians about leaders who inspire them had a surprising result: The top-nominated leader was Angela Merkel. Angela Merkel adopted an optimistic mindset seeing opportunity in drawing the old West and East Germany together. On the international platforms of the G8, G20 and the EU, she excelled at pulling people together in conversation. She held office for 16 years; in the same period, Australia had six (6) Prime Ministers.
Optimism owes more to mindset, life experience, faith, and family than to politics or economics; it is the fuel that drives people and the foundation upon which leaders build greatness. Building a more optimistic nation, or community requires leadership that fosters and generates a mindset for collaboration and harvesting the essence of the community’s optimism.
Professor Mary McNaughton-Cassill
"Polls show that people consistently report that their future is brighter than that of the country. This optimism gap has been well documented in the psychological literature and is probably why we can get up and face a potentially dangerous world every day."
Marion Scrymgour, the new MP for Lingiari, in her maiden speech nailed it, "As a nation we need to be able to present a different narrative, one which demonstrates support and resourcing for remote communities and emphasises success stories and reason for optimism."
Ahmed Reda in "The untold Egyptian narrative"
"An effective strategic communications strategy needs to understand the various challenges facing the national strategy in addition to the examples above. It needs to adopt a dynamic course of action when building action plans, responsive activities, and initiatives that will help to drive the national narrative, train spokespeople, attract and retain personnel, and instil a culture of optimism and appreciation."
The Member for Goldstein, Zoe Daniel, in her maiden speech in the Parliament of Australia said, "it's time to be fierce and to be brave, to represent community, to make hard decisions, yet to lead with optimism. Be the change you want to see—that's what we tell our children... I step into this place, into the room where it happens, with determination but also with optimism, with the opportunity to look forward to what we can achieve. Australia has a chance to lead and to take our place in the world as a nation of innovation."