Leaders' Focus On Narrow Issues Is Missing A Chance To Tackle Australia's Biggest Challenges

Kevin Rudd and Tony AbbottKevin Rudd and Tony Abbott during the first election debate. Getty / File

This is a guest post by Pamela Young, author of Stepping Up: Lead Culture Change for Diversity and Growth in the Asian Century. Here she outlines what she sees as leadership failings from political parties on some critical issues facing the country in the federal election. There’s more information at the foot of the post.

Pamela YoungPamela Young

With just days to go until the election questions remain around the diversity of our country’s leadership and the major factors holding back Australia’s productivity and growth on the world stage.

People are looking to Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott for a message from the heart (because it’s vision, values and passion that inspire people to follow a leader – not a job title or rhetoric) but both men seem to have forgotten their voters comprise immigrants from most countries in the world and that 50% of them are not male.

Australia may look like a multicultural society on the outside, but we are a long way from operating like an inclusive society on the inside. Have you noticed that a homogenous group of Anglo-Saxon males who do not reflect the broad diversity of cultures or both genders that make up Australia’s population controls the top levels of business, society and government? Neither Rudd nor Abbott have made any reference to the needs of these substantial communities in their campaigns so far.

Given that females make up 50% of the population and 1st and 2nd generation immigrants make up a different 50% of the population, I’d say both strategists from both parties have their blinkers on.

Recognising challenges and opportunities

The challenge for Australia is not only that non-Anglo-Saxons, immigrants, returning expats and females are restricted entry to positions of power and influence, limiting the experience and knowledge around the decision-making top table, but because the ceiling on their careers are lower, they are also underproductive and their skills underutilised. That hits the pocket of households and the country’s purse too.

The opportunity for Australia is to remove the ceilings and barriers allowing everyone living in Australia to equal meritocratic access to all positions. In doing this, we would open up the potential for everyone to work at full capacity in careers they are training for and at levels they are experienced to handle without limitation.

Have we heard any recognition of these challenges or opportunities from Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott? No. Has either party made any mention of the poor representation of immigrants on government or ASX boards? No.

Balancing economic changes with social changes

What we have instead are plans from government and industry proposing tax and fiscal changes, economic reforms, infrastructure developments and investment in education. All good stuff but insufficient to lift the barriers and boost productivity of these marginalised and somewhat sizeable groups.

One such report is the Government’s Australia in the Asian Century White Paper released October 2012. It sets out 25 objectives to achieve by 2025 but there is no mention of the need to shift the assumptions or values that drive behaviours that limit the integration of Asian immigrants in Australian society; create fears about Australia being taken over by China; or resist demand for Asian language learning and cross-cultural appreciation.

Another is Business Council Australia’s Action Plan for Enduring Prosperity delivered to the Government on 31 July that thoughtfully and thoroughly recommends 94 changes over 10 years. Yet only two of the 94 recommendations seek to improve workplace flexibility and the participation rate of females and the latter of these is not schedule for attention until year 5 of the 10-year plan. How could 92 other recommendations be more important than getting females – half the workforce – contributing to the economy at capacity and participating in leadership?

Can our leaders expect these measures alone will stimulate the passion, innovation, motivation and energies of the people in our labour force? The spotlight on fiscal, tax, legislative and infrastructure changes indicates a left-brain, operational approach to planning and growth. Where is the strategic vision, the picture of the future position and role of Australia in the region and what will we stand for when we arrive at our destination? Where is the leadership to inspire people?

Passion is everything?

If Australia were a company, its CEO would be thinking about engaging the people by tapping into what is important to them. They would be listening to people at all levels and inspiring them with their insights for a better future and their passion.

After Rudd and Abbott’s first election debate several ordinary working Australians were interviewed by ABC news. Each expressed their disappointment that they had heard ‘nothing from the heart’.

True ‘followship’ comes from delivering what people want (equality, opportunity, prosperity), not merely by delivering what they need (education, jobs, housing).

Despite the facts and the constant call for change, we avoid recognising Australia’s economic performance is undermined by the assumptions we hold as a society about the roles and value of females; the rights of immigrants to participate in leadership; the value of repatriated executives who bring back experiences not existing in the local market; and the richness of cultures foreigners bring that could add to our own.

Australia is well-positioned to compete on the global stage, yet it is at a crossroads on its growth curve. Australia has a decision to make, resist change and face the consequences, or evolve its thinking and take the next steps towards prosperity and a better future.

Pamela Young’s book Stepping Up explores a revolutionary new vision for Australia, suggesting that getting “closer to Asia” would bring enormous economic and social benefits, and that the vehicle to achieving this is to allow people of all cultures and both genders who live here to fully participate in the planning and decision-making for our nation’s future. More information at www.steppingupaustralia.com.au

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