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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Butler-Madden

A Purpose For Australia

As the sun sets on another Australia Day, I’d like to share an idea.

A couple of years ago, I caught up with an old family friend, David Redhill.

We were talking about my work in #purpose. There was a moment where he paused, looking very thoughtful. And then he asked me whether I thought Australia should have a purpose.

That question provoked a wonderfully uplifting conversation. We decided to continue the conversation and for several months we met regularly talking about that opportunity and how we might engage others in it.

Life took over for both of us and eventually our regular meetings came to an end. And yet that question continues to live in my head.

It raises itself at times like today, Australia Day, but also at other times when I feel despair at some of the decisions and the direction of our nation. At those times, I wonder to myself – what is it that is driving these decisions? What is the vision for the future that we are aspiring to?

Economic growth is the likely answer we’ll get to that question.

This idea of putting the economy first is no different to the philosophy of shareholder capitalism – the purpose of a business is to maximise profit. And look where 50 years of walking that road has got us: Corporates serving the insatiable appetite of their investors and shareholders.

The cost of shareholder capitalism has become our poison chalice; our ‘gift’ to future generations. There have been devastating consequences: an unsustainable planet. Scientific advice ignored and even pilloried. Entrenched inequality. Nations and societies divided by the haves and the have-nots. Ideological division. Fake news. Alternative facts. Deep mistrust of the very institutions that are supposed to serve us – government, business and media.

Thankfully employees, customers and even investors today are forcing business to re-examine how they operate. The idea of multi-stakeholder capitalism is taking root. Business leaders are starting to recognise that societal leadership and purpose is a core business function.

So if societal leadership and purpose is indeed a core business function, should the same not be true for a nation? Should we not have a bold ambitious vision of the future that defines who we are as a nation and that inspires our mission?

Not just economic growth. Something that we can all aspire to. Something that instils pride, unity, genuine progress. Something that challenges the best in us; that puts our best minds and skills to making things better, rather than just making better things; that drives innovation. Something that captures the hearts and minds of our people. All of our people.

Do you remember JFK’s speech about going to the moon?

It was a time when the USA was mired in crisis: huge civil unrest, the struggle for racial equality, the Cuba missile crisis, the escalation of the Vietnam War. In the midst of this, Kennedy established the challenge to put a man on the moon. In his speech, he said..

"We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too."

And they achieved it.

I’m not suggesting that Australia adopt a higher purpose linked to space travel. Actually I don’t know what Australia’s purpose would be. What I do believe is that we are capable of so much and I don’t believe that capacity is being tapped - individually or collectively.

The context to all of this are the very real challenges that society faces. And yet our governments seem to have adopted a view of business-as-usual. Nothing to see here. Even with the pandemic they seem to be focused on just getting back to things as they were pre-pandemic.

This seems to me to be a failure of leadership.

I believe that the pandemic has given us all - our nation and the wider world - an opportunity to pause, reflect and ask ourselves some questions... is this the best we can do? Or do we believe that we have the vision, ambition and resourcefulness to do better... to re-imagine an Australian society that more fairly represents us all; and that cares for the planet we and future generations depend on to live.

Imagine if we could start a conversation about this.

Imagine debate going on about a purposeful mission that could unify us all and inspire us to challenge ourselves. Just the debates alone would be so energising and could open up meaningful conversations that could then lead to action and societal improvements in a whole range of different areas.

A simple example...

Imagine if the purpose of Australia was to become a beacon for what a truly inclusive society could look like.

Think about how businesses, non-profits, governments, the education sector, communities and individuals could respond to that. How it could inspire collaboration across sectors, with competitors and even across other nations. Think about some of the targets we might set ourselves which would drive true innovation and increase the size of the metaphorical pie, so that more stakeholders can win.

Then think about how that higher purpose, by engaging people, organisations and communities would in all likelihood deliver greater prosperity. Economic prosperity yes, but also prosperity of other measures like knowledge, community, health and wellness, self-belief and fulfilment.

I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of nation that I would feel so proud to be a citizen of.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Do you think Australia should have a purpose?

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