A land of opportunity by any other name // 20 April 2012

There’s nothing like a long break – nine months working in NYC this time – to put things into perspective. As ever, there are things that have changed about Sydney and others that have stood still. It is only human, after all.

The lifestyle, the yawning harbour, the beaches with their wide grins of white sand are all in tact and, I’m happy to confirm, as invigorating as ever.

But, where Australia once stood on the sidelines of the global stage, hubristically viewed by Britain, for one, as a backwater when it came to culture, education, business and adroit technology, change is in the air. In fact, change has precipitated and is pounding on the theatre stages of London, sloshing in coffee cups in New York and is bucketing onto many a young backpackers’ once-Down Under-led dreams.

Australia is rich. Australia has never had a stronger, more impressive image away from its shores. It is bold, uniquely poised, geographically blessed and riding a wave of prodigious growth. It is the remora to the Chinese shark and it is going to squeeze every last drop from the surge.

Or is it?

The trouble is that while this country of 22 million sits on vast reserves of wealth – lazy money, if you will – it is also crippled, politically speaking, by a fractured government. The Australian Labor Party has lost its teeth, paying disproportionate lip service to opinion-polls and more characterised by in-fighting, backstabbing and hairdresser quips than it is by strong leadership to match its global image.

Where New York, London and LA are filled with young, entrepreneurial Aussie restauranteurs, coffee dons (Toby’s Estate opened recently in Williamsburg and has been frantically successful) and actors and Melbourne-based Gotye is close to notching up his 200 MILLIONTH play on YouTube, Canberra’s echoey halls and sinfully sexless CBD simply don’t step up to the mark.

Where is the direction, the clout, the gravitas that the country deserves? Where are the balls, frankly, that are needed to steer the nation towards real solutions when it comes to renewable energy, sustainable population growth, becoming a Republic, dealing with climate change and planning for the day that China buckles. Who is harnessing and translating its great talent into future growth?

It feels good to be back and Australia is in a spectacular position. So why does it feel so behind and so petty when it comes to policy and forward-planning? And why, as coal mines persist to prove themselves the new gold mines, is this country not using some of the profits towards aligning itself as a global leader in solar energy development, or a hotbed of biomimetic architecture? (Though Queensland’s HEAT Architecture scheme and the Cairns Institute are making headway towards the latter).

The opportunities far outweigh the facts on the ground – and, indeed, in the ground.

I have no doubt that the cream will once again rise to the top. It isn’t, sadly, in Canberra today.


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