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Framing a New Optimistic National Narrative

By Anand Kulkarni, Robert Masters, Kay Clancy, and Victor Perton

There is a need for a new optimistic national narrative for Australia in 2022 and beyond.

COVID-19 has altered the economic, social, and environmental landscape. Many businesses have faltered and industries, such as tourism and hospitality have been teetering.

Around the world there is disquiet about the state of the body politic, government and institutions. This is reflected in research by Freedom House and the Edelman Trust barometer.

In spite of these challenges there is opportunity for renewal and growth as the nation emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic if we can reframe the current narrative to an optimistic, collaborative and care driven one.

The Australian national narrative remains framed in old behaviours: state-federal squabbling over policy and service responsibility, hand-outs supposedly addressing market failures, institutional inertia, and short run responses to crises.

However, there is another way.

The Centre for Optimism has conducted regular globally surveys about optimism and what supports individual optimism. There is a groundswell for change.  Large corporations, consultancies and design experts have correctly identified a public yearning for optimism and hope rather than pessimism and public squabbles.

Our vision is for a future that is built from an optimistic mindset which reframes challenges as 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.

An optimistic outlook is underpinned and supported by a range of factors including life experience, mindset, faith, science, family, and friends. Similarly, when asked what keeps people optimistic, there are a number of recurring features that stand out: regular positive conversation; strong stories of hope and optimism; meditation and mindfulness; smiling at people; and more laughter and gratitude. 

These features transcend Government. 

Volunteering is strong, but traditional volunteer organisations like Rotary and Lions Clubs have experienced a decline in activities due to the challenge of fitting volunteering commitments around paid work, family, or caring commitments. 

And an ABS Survey noted that 67% of people have received excellent or very good support from family and friends, almost half reported having 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 upshot of this is that people want to remain connected, are driven by wanting to engage in the policy agenda, to be able to speak up and be heard and want more optimism and hope for the nation.

To meet these ‘wants’, there is now the opportunity to put into place dimensions of a new policy and practical agenda of optimism and hope. We have identified six core inter-related elements – collaboration, vision, community, measure, economic development, and institutional change.

  1. Collaboration of all types, at all levels and in all organisations, irrespective of size, needs to be a primary goal. COVID-19 has highlighted the global gains that can be achieved when we come together to fight a united cause. The lessons from this are transferrable  and include, although are not limited to, 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 at a local level.  This requires a conscious shift so that behaviour reflects the desired culture where collaboration is not a simply a task, instead is relationship based. There are many possible avenues to achieve this, one could be to establish a National Collaboration Commission to exist alongside the ACCC and National Competition Council whose core purpose would be to pro-actively generate and encourage collaborative projects across all segments of society and in doing so would capitalise on and leverage disparate capabilities, co-creating shareable and re-useable knowledge to address complex challenges.
  2. 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 views about what is possible this change could position the nation as an exemplar for global change and 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.
  3. Active engagement of the broader community in the development of policies and programs. This approach has worked well in Australia through establishing citizen juries, in which citizens have the opportunity to assess policies or 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.
  4. Reframe the way we measure things. Our preoccupation with GDP and its component 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 marketized 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. There are projects abroad, including the Happiness Index, which seeks to re-frame 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.
  5. 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 selecting among other things, care and health sectors, education, green capabilities, and support 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 stepping away from the traditional hand out/subsidy mindset.
  6. Broader institutional change. At times, in fighting COVID-19, the National Cabinet process has worked effectively. At other times it has descended into rancour and disunity. It would be essential to understand the “what” and “why” of what has worked, what has not. Two suggestions spring to mind: That the National Cabinet include opposition members to promote bipartisanship and a collective view; and second is to delineate up front a series of issues and topics which would be the domain of the national cabinet. This could include climate change and immigration, for example. Some flexibility, to add issues or remove them from the agenda of the National Cabinet could be built into the system.

Most importantly, to achieve a new narrative and re-frame thinking and our focus on the future, we need new framings 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-frame. 

Our 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 was brilliant at pulling people together in conversation. She had 16 years in office; in the same period, Australia had 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, gives voice to the essence of the community’s optimism and activates optimistic citizens.

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