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Mediocrity is leaving us without even a sporting chance

Australia can scale Olympic heights but constantly settles for second-best in business, government and education.

'WITH less than 100 days to go to the London Games, Olympics chief Nick Green believes Australia will defy gloomy forecasts and reclaim its 'rightful position' of a top five place on the medal tally.''

So opens a recent article in one of Australia's daily newspapers. You have to be proud to belong to a nation of only 22 million people that considers its "rightful position" to be punching well above its weight in terms of global competitiveness.

Like many others I am eagerly awaiting the start of the Olympics and along with the rest of the nation I will be carefully tracking the performance of our athletes. I wish that the same level of national fervour was being applied to other areas of Australian life. The spheres of business, government and education spring to mind.

I am not saying we are bad; we are actually far worse than that. In all three of these areas it seems that Australians aspire to something that in sport, we never accept: mediocrity.

Our low level of aspiration is where I believe the problem starts. In our sporting endeavours we continually go for gold. At lower levels, everyone who participates in sports is dedicated to improving their performance even if they have no hope of outright victory.

Outside the sporting arena we seem to accept and even to expect an ''also ran'' performance, putting little or no effort into changing and improving.


At this point I fully expect howls of protest from Australian overachievers who are successfully competing globally. My apologies to them, indeed all credit to them. It is almost certain that their success is as a result of the same level of dedication and hard work that we have come to expect from our sports people.

However, there are countless domestic underachievers who cannot claim to have stepped up to the challenge of global competition and it is to them that I direct this call to action.

Take our universities. They have made considerable amounts of money selling education to our Asian neighbours rather than focusing on fostering research and innovation, the sort of innovation that would contribute to the development of the knowledge-based industries of the future.

Consider our retail sector, whose response to the online shopping assault from overseas has been to call for protection in the form of tariffs. Large-scale manufacturing in the form of the car industry relies on huge subsidies from the public purse. Any realistic assessment suggests that this will only delay its inevitable demise. Where is the vision for a self-sustaining manufacturing base?

Our governments are clearly contributing to the mediocrity. For example, rather than embracing the public's mood for change with regard to the environment, the federal government has created the negative punitive measure of the carbon tax. Even its most ardent supporters have difficulty showing how it will increase our global competitiveness. Measures such as the various solar power schemes that incentivise desired behaviours and support local industries have been dropped.

State governments perform no better. In Victoria, the myki project is a woeful combination of hubris and incompetence. Government spending and the revenue collection that funds it seem to be more focused on shoring up the past as opposed to creating new futures.

The resources boom has insidiously insulated much of the Australian economy from the world's ongoing fiscal woes. The alert and the aware, however, recognise that a deep structural change is occurring in our economy.

The future is not what it used to be. "Non-resource" Australia is facing a much harsher one. The complacent, self-satisfied and somewhat isolationist approach of our institutions will work no longer.

It is time to look outwards and aspire to bigger things. Just as in the world of sport, we need to identify: what is the world best, decide where and how we will compete and then put in the necessary hard work as individuals and collectively (in teams) in order to succeed.

Most importantly, we need to cast off the ''she'll be right mate'' attitude, which to my knowledge has never won anybody a gold medal in anything.

It seems to me that unfortunately what ultimately gets us moving is when there is a disaster: such as the 1976 Olympics, where we did not win a single gold medal. What kind of non-sporting disaster do we need to wake up the nation today?

Jonathan O'Donnell-Young is director of Serious Consulting, a management consulting firm, a fellow of the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce and a fellow of the Australian Institute of Management.

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