The new reality: more of the same and yet different

There have been – alas – so very many daily outrages to challenge, dissect, and obsess over during the past year it's been almost impossible to keep up. There's been plenty to write about, but the result has been acres of immediate commentary that has driven out any chance of important, considered insight.

For weeks at a time you've indulged me as I've restated the bleeding obvious, time and time again. Look back, however, and you'll discerns three consistent themes that shine through. This is my last chance to get it right this year; so let's stand back, today, from the thread of individual events and witness how they combine to form a fabric of significance.

The first theme is political. Despite its headline-grabbing status this is perhaps the least important of them all. This has nothing to do whatsoever with the swing of the pendulum as approval has swept from Labor to Liberal in the wake of the leadership change from Tony Abbott to Malcolm Turnbull. And yet perhaps it has everything to do with exactly this event. Because voters, people, have been searching desperately for years for something the body politic hasn't offered us for a decade.

The year our politics went bung was 2006. At the beginning of that year John Howard decided a decade as PM wasn't enough. He wanted more. Convincing himself that Peter Costello wasn't fit to replace him, he decided to go on and on forever. And the opposition?

That was the year Labor decided to dump Kim Beazley for the softly-spoken blandishments of Kevin Rudd. On both sides the lure of power had overcome policy; the rules of the game had suddenly changed and as the small urges and individual lusts for personal gain overcame the common good. Nothing changed when Julia Gillard replaced Rudd; Rudd replaced Gillard; and Tony Abbott replaced Rudd.

Has it changed now? Can we now, finally, simply write off that lost decade, with its focus on personalities, as an aberration? We journalists have forgotten what it's like to write about policy because we've been so consumed for so long with the petty and personal. Let's hope Turnbull can re-write the rule-book: the country is desperate for a change.


The second theme has been the shifting settings of international power. This is about much more than the economic rise of China, or the failure of the Western coalition in the Middle East, although both of these have provided easy headline grabbers. But consider what's happened.

The world's most dominant military and economic power has been unable to transform its massive might into even controlling what happens in Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world. The tools of imposing dominance are changing. A new language is slowly being fashioned to accommodate this new reality, both military and political.

The old structures of nation states haven't been able to adapt. Power is flowing both down (to the individual, ethnic and local) and up (as the world's behemoths, superpowers and international institutions with no directly elected responsibility) have attempted to order people to do what they say. They're finding this is no longer possible. Reality is catching up with the bureaucrats.

The inability of international institutions to solve the problems of the new world has become readily apparent with the failure of these organisations to resolve new challenges, such as the mass-migration of millions to Europe or the continuing military chaos accompanying the rise of Islamic State. Such issues require a new way of working grounded in the reality of military and economic power.

Establishing this will take time, and it's time now for new structures to emerge that reflect this new reality. Until this happens the best thing Australia can do is withdraw. Our input into this process will be irrelevant. What emerges will inevitably be determined without us. And besides, neither of the two issues canvassed so far represent the real challenge the country will face over the next half-decade.

Our most significant challenge is only now becoming apparent. This is the second wave of computerisation. It is finally upon us and about to hit like a tsunami. The changes so far, the automation of repetitive jobs, will be as nothing compared to the coming transformation. In the past productivity (and hence power) was related to the size of a country. That simple equation is about to be redrawn.

The coming sweep of redundancies won't be restricted to those working the tills at supermarket checkouts or bank tellers replaced by ATMs. The coming redundancies will target the middle class; managers and manufacturer alike. Most critically, the link between the size of the workforce and productivity is about to be broken in the same way as it was when automation transformed farm labour.

Back then people couldn't conceive of how machines could, for example, milk cows. How could that happen! Yet today we accept that human intervention in the process of placing milk on our table is already limited to hooking up the milking machine and unloading the crate so the containers are placed on the fridge shelves. Smarter people than I are already imagining ways of eliminating human intervention from these steps, as well.

Forget Rudd's imagined future encompassing 35 million Australians, or Michael Fullilove's naive and vacuous assertion that we need to become a "big" country. It will soon become obvious that greater size means nothing other than increased poverty and a poorer way of life for all.

Look at the respective trajectories of China and India over the past 50 years. More people means more poverty. It's pointless looking to the past as we attempt to envisage where we want to be in the future, because the next year won't be like the last one. Not at all.

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.