Waldren, M. (ed) Future Tense. Australia Beyond Election 1998

Future Tense. Australia Beyond Election 1998. Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1999.

As the 20th century draws to a close, three questions, or rather three sets of questions arise. First, where have we come from? Second, where are we now? Third, where are we going?

A veritable flood of books is appearing to address the first question. Indeed, the venerable discipline of History is devoted to asking it and to answering it in a huge variety of ways. And, let us be clear, history is the one and only starting point for futures work. We need to understand where we are from, the origins of our way of life, the forces that created our ‘now’. Yet at a vast new bookstore in Melbourne (a branch of an American chain of book ‘superstores’) I felt overwhelmed and somewhat depressed by a big section containing literally thousands of history texts.[1] I looked for a comparable section on futures but, typically enough, only found a well-stocked area on SF and fantasy. I take these facts as clues to how we collectively stand in the stream of time and how we continue to privilege the past over the future. Yet this implicit view has always seemed to me to contain a real irony. As Bertrand de Jouvenel pointed out some decades ago, we cannot influence the past, only reinterpret it. It is toward the future that our will and intentionality must necessarily be directed. Yet if rows of books on shelves is any guide, ‘the future’ as a substantive field of enquiry and action, still remains a largely absent category.

Perhaps this is about to change. In Brisbane there is a small, discriminating, bookshop with a shelf marked ‘Futures Studies’. When last I looked, it contained perhaps 15-20 books – a small beginning, an indication of things to come?[2]

The second question: ‘where are we now?’ follows on from the first. Here too one can find a wealth of exemplary material in nearly all media that seeks to ‘take the pulse’ of different areas of human activity or concern: the environment, families, work etc. Such work in Australia is often of high quality and usefully updates our knowledge of particular areas. It is harder to find writing that adopts a more holistic overview. This is not surprising: such works place major demands upon the writer, and often on the reader too. Yet they also provide vital inputs to futures thinking and futures work. We must know where we are before we attempt to plot a course to where we wish to go.

The third question, of course, falls directly into the futures domain. It presumes that we have some grasp of where we have been and where we are now. It asks us to re-focus our attention forward and to negotiate views and visions of futures worth inhabiting. This is a difficult task and one that too few have attempted in any depth. Yet it is here in elaborating, negotiating, exploring forward views that some of the next and, indeed, most exciting developments in human understanding and capacity arguably lie. The world we see at the turn of the century is not one that can be ‘left to take care of itself’. Rather, it is one that requires careful, sustained, attention and recourse to a host of futures-oriented decision-making and enabling processes.

If the shift to the new century and millennium means anything at all, that meaning is bound up with the need to turn our gaze from the past and present and to re-focus it upon the future. In personal terms, everyone needs to know how to ride out the ‘tsunamis of change’, as Jim Dator termed them. Businesses and institutions need to appreciate the dynamic forces at work in their environment and the novel factors that, properly understood, can sustain them or consign them to history. The case for creating ‘industry foresight’ was well put by Hamil and Prahalad in their book Competing for the Future (Harvard Business School, Boston, 1994). Beyond this lies what I call the ‘civilisational challenge’. This is, perhaps, the central task facing us: to understand ‘where we are’ in sufficient depth and with sufficient clarity to know that much that remains deeply embedded within the Western industrial worldview does not, indeed cannot, lead on to a peaceful and prosperous future. Any attempt to plan ahead, design strategies or, in any sense, to ‘create the future’ that does not begin from this kind of in-depth understanding is probably doomed from the outset to irrelevance and ultimate failure.

Two books reviewed in The ABN Report in March 1999 each provide different starting points for our individual and collective journeys ‘into the future’. As such they pick up, summarise and to some extent illuminate questions one and two. The work edited by Waldren is reviewed here. That by Malouf is provided separately.

The 1998 federal election in Australia was, as many have noted, the last one of the 20th century and of the second millennium. Yet instead of focusing on ‘the big picture’ it provided a series of displays of ineptness and incapacity that showed more continuity with the nineteenth century than with the twenty-first. Future Tense provides us with a series of incisive, critical commentaries of the election in relation to various aspects of Australian life. On the whole it succeeds in drawing attention to the cramped dimensions of the election and in exploring some of the wider issues that were overlooked or poorly handled.

The book kicks off with a strong piece by Paul Kelly on ‘the paradox of pessimism’. Kelly deftly analyses the cut and thrust of political debate in the context of a country in which ‘our economy and living standards of living have never been stronger. Yet our mood, by and large, is that of apprehension and uncertainty amid growing wealth and opportunity’ (p 1). On the government’s performance Kelly concludes that it ‘was strong on economics, inept on social policy and deficient in communicating either a vision or coherent program to the people’ (p 11). Among the lessons of One Nation are that ‘there is no hope in a flight to the past’ (p 18). In Kelly’s view, globalisation is ‘here to stay’ but ways are needed to curb the excesses of global finance. Moreover ‘the technological dynamic has gone too far’ (p 22). A number of ‘signposts’ are offered for ‘Australia’s path’ into the future. They include: ‘politicians must recognise that their task is to deliver better government (p 23); ‘government needs to define far better its relationship with markets’ (p 26); ‘globalisation, while creating great wealth, distributes that wealth on an increasingly unequal basis that threatens the social compact’ (p 27) and ‘the societies that succeed in the twenty-first century will be those that can combine diversity with harmony’ (p 31).

Nineteen other chapters pick up and amplify some of these points in relation to different areas of social policy. Indeed, one of the remarkable features of the book is how well these different commentaries agree on the lack of leadership in Australia and the dire consequences of the absence of a viable forward view. For example:

Nicholas Rothwell: ‘governments and political parties have many techniques to bind atomised individuals into a collective destiny – but perhaps the most important of these, the articulation and promotion of a shared set of goals and values, is the one people feel most strikingly absent from the pre-millennial public stage’ (p 38).

Kate Legge: ‘balanced budgets and economic growth are necessary scaffolding for national confidence, but they do not illuminate a shared vision for the future’ (p 78).

Catherine Armitage: ‘we approach the new century not as a learning culture but as a spurning culture’ (p 136), … and so on.

Overall, Future Tense, usefully exposes the bankrupt posturing of those involved in a political process that, from these accounts, would seem to have lost its bearings, both intellectually (in ‘knowing’ what, exactly, it is working for) and practically (in terms of delivering outcomes that match the real needs of Australians). It reveals a frightening lack of leadership or ability to see ‘the future’ in any other terms than those imposed by the next government term. It is therefore not surprising to read that ‘surveys reveal an almost unprecedented level of pessimism and fear’ (p 143).

Future Tense clearly demonstrates the value of having an open and critical media that is capable of questioning the politically powerful and peeling away layers of self-deception in pursuit of the public good. As such it performs an essential task with clarity and skill. However, if the gap it exposes is the lack of leadership, the lack of a forward view, the book itself also exemplifies a different sort of oversight. This relates to the way the book is premised on very conventional, and I would venture to say, questionable, assumptions, particularly about economic growth. Like The Australian newspaper itself, for which the contributors write, many deep-seated assumptions go unquestioned. At a time when it is increasingly necessary to question the axioms of the ‘growth is good’ orthodoxy, this book serves to underscore the continued dominance of this view. Overall, the book performs a valuable agenda-setting task, but it completely misses the many rich opportunities available for reconceptualising the human, and hence the Australian, predicament at the turn of the century.

Published in The ABN Report, 7, 2, 1999, pp 18-20


[1] The Borders book chain was established in several Australian cities in the late 1990s but ceased trading a decade or so later. Evidently mere ‘volume’ was judged inferior when compared to the expertise of independent book shops, many of whom are still in business.

[2] This proved to be a false hope as the shelf vanished not long thereafter.