At the summit, true politics and strategy are one.
To ride out the crisis that has engulfed Australia in 2020, we need an encompassing and convincing strategic plan. “Encompassing” because the plan must omit nothing relevant; “convincing” so that Australians can believe it.
This proposal begins by explaining the essentials of strategic planning. This art is not well understood. Clint Eastwood’s film Invictus is a superb exemplar. Several of this film’s scenes are therefore described below to convey the feel of true strategy.
The second part then offers the “first cut” of a strategic plan to guide Australia through its current crisis.
This essay appears in December’s Quadrant.
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At base, strategy planning is a matter of working out how to get from one situation to another—particularly when conditions are complex, or an obstacle is making things difficult. Strategy may appear simple, but it seldom is.
A strategic plan is a written document which normally begins with a “current situation” section—a thorough account of “where we are” in relation to the matter the plan is about. (In Invictus, the “current situation” was that Mandela was the President of South Africa, South Africa was hosting the Rugby World Cup, and rugby was hated by the blacks and loved by the whites.) An account of any “current situation” needs to include and draw out not only the elements of the situation, but also the relationships between these elements, their impact on each other, and their salience for each subsequent step. It is vital to identify everything that is salient, or the ultimate plan will be flawed from the start.
Having determined “where we are”, the next step is to decide “the objective”—a thorough account of “where we want to be”. (In Invictus, Mandela, knowing the South African team was weak, nevertheless set South Africa the objective of winning the Rugby World Cup.) As with “the current situation”, “the objective” in a serious strategy plan often needs to draw out and explain the elements of where we want to be, the relationships between them, their salience as part of the new (and desired) situation, and how they can be expected to turn out.
Then follows identification of “the issue”—that is, the question that needs to be decided in order to work out how to get from where we are to where we want to be. (In Invictus, Mandela formulated the issue as, “How can the South African team be better than it is?”) Issue analysis is crucial in strategic planning because it is virtually impossible to get the right decision unless we are asking the right question. Sir Robert Menzies put the value of issue analysis in a nutshell: “It has been my experience that the most complex problems turn upon one or two pivotal matters, and that once these are understood, question moves rapidly towards answer.” Issue analysis involves systematic, comprehending and incisive thinking.
Next comes determination of “the strategy”—which is an encompassing statement that crystallises how to get from where we are to where we want to be. (In Invictus, Mandela’s strategy was to inspire the South African team.) The terms in which a strategy is expressed ideally bring to attention or intimate all or most of the elements of how to get there. Determination of issues calls for an awareness of practicalities, and a good sense of how things work in the human world. It demands both practical wisdom—awareness of how the world works—and practical reason—a capacity to relate and apply practical wisdom to real issues.
The final step is development of “the action plan”—that is, a list of one or more practical action points that will achieve the objective. (In Invictus, Mandela’s action plan included getting the captain on side by inviting him to a private audience; engaging the players by learning their names and dropping in on a training session; raising the stakes by ferrying the players to Robben Island to see the jail where he was imprisoned for twenty-seven years; and undercutting the impact of the New Zealand haka by wearing a Springbok cap onto the pitch before the final.) The “action” part of a genuine strategy plan needs to be such that its components can be acted on.
Drawing on this account of the essentials of strategic planning, here is a five-part strategic plan to help guide Australia through its current crisis. More detail would be required before this plan could be acted upon. But it warrants attention as it stands because it demonstrates the scope and elements of the crisis, and proposes a direction, a destination and a systematic course of action. It offers a serious starting place for anyone who wants to tackle the crisis as a whole, and move beyond a piecemeal approach.
The elements and dimensions of Australia’s crisis—which began simply as COVID-19—evolved as the year progressed. The current situation of Australia’s crisis encompasses seven large realities. These realities need to be identified and understood, so they can be taken into account as a whole as well as individually in determining the objectives, the issue, the strategy and the action plan that follow.
First, there is much we do not know about COVID-19. We know it spreads easily, and that it can be deadly. It appears to be a “moveable feast”. We do not know whether there is any practical way to eliminate it once it has gained a foothold. There is currently no known effective vaccine—although there are vaccines in production, some of them heading to Australia. We do not know whether—or when—a fail-safe vaccine will be forthcoming. The effects of contracting COVID-19 vary enormously, including a variety of unknown long- and short-term effects and side-effects.
Second, Australia’s productive economy is stifled. This stifling comes through a variety of lockdowns and other cumulative costs, constraints, regulations, uncertainties and restrictions on freedom. Businesses are forced out or crippled. People cannot work. Confidence is sapped, and the future is unclear.
Third, Australians are facing unbearable hardships. Many people have no money, no homes, no prospects, and too little freedom! Education is getting a belting, children and young people are losing out.
Fourth, government spending is out of control. Money is pouring out of government coffers, and values are being re-defined.
Fifth, government interference is mushrooming. Regulations, bans and restrictions flow relentlessly from government: enforcement is burgeoning, fear is being created. The people of Australia are being deprived of elements of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of movement, freedom of association and freedom of religion. A so-called “national cabinet” has sprung up, which is unknown to the Constitution and responsible to nobody and nothing. Australia’s parliaments are either not sitting, or barely sitting. The courts seem impotent to protect the people.
Sixth, the social fabric and people’s lives are faltering. States boast their purity and crack whips as they close their borders on fellow Australians. People are cut off from each other, they lose trust, they battle against depression, they sometimes break out. Human contact, the lifeblood of the nation, is being squeezed.
Seventh, Australia is cut off from the world. Travel-loving Australians cannot leave Australia, travel-loving visitors cannot enter, international trade and services are largely gutted.
It is important to be aware that all seven parts of the crisis interact. Each part is to some degree out of control. Most connections between the parts are weakly quantified and not well controlled. The underlying character and extent of the crisis are little known or understood. The impact of the crisis varies tremendously between individuals, groups and locations. Good humour is in shrinking supply.
In overview, Australia is becoming a shadow of itself. There exists no known national or other serious plan for a way out of this crisis. It is undermining opportunity, hope, security and confidence. It is generating disunity and distrust. It is bringing government control and coercion into areas of life where they have no place. It overshadows and darkens life itself. Education and work, freedom and social interaction, religion and political activity are all curtailed and threatened.
A significant perception is that in order to keep our heads up and win the fight that we feel we are in, Australians need to recognise that it is one crisis we are battling. We know it is complex, and that we have to fight it on many fronts. But to see it clearly and fight it effectively, we must as a nation keep in mind that it is one crisis, and it is not just COVID-19.
In the language of strategic planning, all the above is “The Current Situation”. It is a daunting reality. It—or much of it—is clearly a situation that Australia wants to leave behind.
Before moving, however, a word of caution is in order. It is important never to forget that in politics, things can always be worse. We must therefore plan and act prudently. It would be a betrayal of our children, the future, and Australia’s responsibilities to the world, to indulge utopian dreams about where we should try to get to.
The second step in strategic planning is to decide the objective. Where does Australia want to be—and by when?
The timing part of this question is important—and at the moment it is an easy question to answer. Australia should in the first instance aim to make substantial progress on its objectives by the end of 2021. For by that time, the 2022 federal election will be looming, and Australia will be wanting a fresh strategy for the next era. (Then, not now, would be the time for different agendas.)
So where should Australia aim to be by the end of 2021? Bringing COVID-19 within bounds and held there is an obvious priority. Beyond that, the big objective must be to get Australia back on track, so that our nation and our people can regain lost ground and be in a position to start securing new ground.
We want Australia’s productive economy to be ticking along with restored confidence. We want Australia’s communities, citizens, businesses and organisations to be regaining their ways of life, their prospects, their jobs, and their general well-being. We want proven Australian strengths and values to be ascendant.
Thus the objectives proposed for the end of 2021 are that Australians should feel safe, secure and confident, with COVID-19 safely within bounds; that Australia be open and united; that Australians of all ages be reaching out for opportunities, with education blossoming and enterprise reviving; that the economy be ticking along, with hardship diminishing, and prosperity increasing; that government be lifting its game and pursuing the public interest with sharpened focus; that regulation and restrictions be in retreat; that our people be free, and our country open to the world.
The next step in the strategic planning process is to identify the issue, the question whose answer will lead the planner to a strategy that is calculated to achieve these objectives. The question in this case is simply: How can people be brought together so they will focus on the task of achieving the above objectives?
This is a challenging, if apparently simple, question. Whether it is the right question is a matter of judgment.
But if it is the right question—that is, if it leads to a strategy that proves to be effective in achieving Australia’s objectives—then it will have done its job. For it will have put us on the right track.
The answer to the foregoing question—which will become the strategy to enable Australia to reach the objectives proposed for the end of 2021—has four connected prongs.
The first prong of the strategy is to build commitment. Australia and Australians—particularly those who are driving and implementing the strategy—will absolutely need to focus on their task for the duration. Strategies like this are for serious situations. And whatever else may be said about it, this crisis is serious.
With its 25 million people, its strong political system, its governments and instrumentalities, its voluntary organisations and businesses, its educational and research capacities, and all its other strengths and advantages, there is no doubt that Australia could make massive progress in advancing these objectives by the end of 2021. But the nation will need to commit to it, and sustain the focus. So there is a question about how to secure this commitment, or at least a significant part of it.
The second prong is effective leadership. Convincing and farsighted leadership needs to be summoned, strengthened and supported. We are a democracy with a Prime Minister who is able, not beholden to sectional groups, and who would undoubtedly lead this charge. He is backed by a cabinet and a political party and a well-educated and well-paid public service. We have Oppositions. We have other able leaders spread across all sectors of Australia’s communities.
This may sound idealistic, and it is. But is it beyond our nation’s capacity to give the right lead, and for Australians to be inspired to provide the necessary support?
The third prong is to secure brave and effective government, dedicated to escaping from the crisis as a whole by doing all that government can do to achieve the objectives. This will challenge our parliaments, our political parties, and our public servants. Achievement of such government will demand the abandonment of many sectional schemes. But Australia surely has the structures and the people to elicit a commitment to the common good for a relatively short time from most of those.
The fourth prong is to strengthen community responsibility—to a point where Australians put in, pull together, and pull hard. This is a time, and an opportunity, for the whole community—as institutions, organisations, businesses and individuals—to believe in our own capacities, to build our self-reliance, to take pride in our flexibility, to set store by our diversity, to give rein to our belief in a fair go.
This crisis will hopefully not turn out to be like a war that threatens our nation or our fundamental freedoms or—in the end—our way of life. But it might as well be if we do not stand up to it. If we do stand up, follow this strategy, and adopt the action plan that comes out of it, then perhaps we can hope that today’s crisis will become tomorrow’s opportunity for Australians.
The following action plan offers a comprehensive, structured and practical set of steps for achieving the 2021 objectives. It is important that Australia tackle the crisis urgently and proactively, and on as many fronts as possible. We are in a real fight, and new fronts may yet be opened, particularly if responses to present problems are weak.
This plan comprises five distinct steps. Each is a major initiative. With co-operation and good will, they should merge into an integrated response to the whole crisis. The work that will be put in over the twelve months of this plan must be accepted as the start of a long haul. But it will plant the seeds of success, and should bear fruit rapidly. The steps are not listed in any priority order.
A key step is to engage the people of Australia to back the plan. The task here is to get the people of Australia to feel they are players, not spectators—and that they simply have to achieve this future. Positive, supportive and co-operative attitudes will foster and breed success. It will help if those who have to insist and enforce as well as those who have to comply and obey can trust and support each other. A shared willingness to do what we can, and pull together, will make a big difference. This plan is a serious moral imperative of our era.
The Prime Minister must be out in front in enabling the whole of Australia to take the key step of backing this plan. His speeches and manner, the way he consults, the initiatives he backs, are all critical. A great narrative, superbly staged, is essential. A signature event—perhaps a national forum—could be pivotal.
The PM must keep the people in the picture. A national scorecard—explained below—could ensure that nothing essential is neglected.
The PM must be seen to be leading a team. The parliament should be conspicuous. The Deputy Prime Minister should become a force to bring regional Australia along. Private members as well as ministers should be inspired and given roles. The PM needs to keep the states on the field, though not in the centre. The PM needs to bring the public service along. Other figures—not all notables—from the arts, communications, government, industry, politics, professions, sport, and more—should be brought onto the stage. The names of this game are energy and positivity. The PM should make the whole of Australia feel part of the team.
A fundamental step is to restore confidence. The task here is to get Australians to believe that the future is bright for this nation. This step is primarily to do with the economy. But the reality of this crisis brings home the fact that this step is not just about “the economy” in some abstract sense. It is about people—young, old, and in between. It is about people’s jobs, people’s homes, people’s education, people’s security. It is about our cities, our businesses, our markets, our standard of living. It is about our way of life—our many ways of life. Over and above economics, confidence is also about how people feel about themselves, and how they cope with life.
The Treasurer is clearly the person to take the lead in restoring confidence. He will surely see the need to bring a wide and deep perspective to the task.
The idea of an economic roadmap for Australia is already on the table. This roadmap needs to inspire an economic surge! The Treasurer must already be on the front foot with his roadmap to recovery—it needs to be the right one. For it will be the keystone in the bridge back to confidence.
A further initiative to help restore confidence is for the Treasurer to establish two expert task forces. One should run a competition for recommendations to reduce impediments on small and new businesses. The other should run a competition for recommendations to focus spending on genuine hardship. High-achieving individuals from the private sector should be attracted on a pro bono basis to investigate and report within nine-week timeframes. These taskforces would also show doubters that the government is really trying.
A defining step is to re-open Australia. The task here is to shift Australia back to normal, with minimal restrictions that are consistent with keeping COVID-19 at bay. With goodwill and proper consultation—and accepting differences on whether “suppression” or “elimination” should be the goal—it is fair to say that the line between legitimate and illegitimate restrictions is “impossible to define, but not impossible to be discerned”.
A full list of current restrictions and bans on freedom in various parts of Australia would make today’s Australia seem utterly un-Australian—including as it does the eager willingness to impose curfews, lockdowns, work bans, travel restrictions, border closures and more. It would be useful if some scholar would make a comprehensive list, lest we forget these bad times. The present proliferation makes a strong case against further restrictions, and for an immediate start to winding back.
This calls for big-picture thinking. The Prime Minister, with cabinet support, with parliamentary support from colleagues particularly in the Senate—and responsible to the Commonwealth Parliament—is clearly the person to start and lead the process of re-opening.
A wag might ask whether he needs a lawyer, a speechwriter, a negotiator, or a big stick. The PM will be the judge of what he needs, and it is to be hoped he will not revert to the non-constitutional notion of the “national cabinet”.
Once the ball is rolling and wider pressures can build momentum, we can be confident the restrictions will vanish quickly and be remembered only as bad dreams.
An indispensable step is to manage COVID-19. The initial task here is to distinguish four different challenges: how to stop people contracting COVID-19, how to use existing methods to treat people who have contracted COVID-19, how to stop people spreading COVID-19, and how to improve our understanding and ways of treating COVID-19. With these distinctions—and accepting there will be overlap—it becomes possible to make well-considered decisions about the objectives to pursue, the work to be done, and the management that is required.
The Minister for Health is clearly the person to take the lead in managing COVID-19 for Australia—including keeping the community informed. The interfaces between Commonwealth and state responsibilities in the health area mean that an important part of this management role will be Commonwealth–state relations. Bearing in mind the constitutional position, Commonwealth vigilance and action are important in ensuring that particular state preoccupations do not detract from the national interest or effort.
A significant part of the Health Minister’s role is to be alert and attuned to potential benefits for Australia in COVID-19 developments around the world, including the probing of implications, getting practical possibilities followed up, and making sure that questions are not brushed aside. Vaccination is the holy grail, and the minister’s antennae must be fully extended on this front. It would be surprising if simple yet better ways of stopping both the catching and the spreading of COVID-19 are not already out there awaiting discovery.
A useful step is to incorporate a miscellany of add-ons. This heading is shorthand for additional initiatives that could add punch and flexibility to the strategy as a whole. The following examples are suggestions.
The weekly scorecard proposed earlier would keep the community informed and engaged. At the same time it would spur government and others with relevant responsibilities to perform well. It would score performance on matters such as increases in confidence, reductions in restrictions, incidences of COVID-19, advances in remedies.
Nine-week pro bono taskforces could mitigate the crisis with reports on matters such as “Helping a neighbouring nation that is struggling with COVID-19”, “Tips on survival for struggling businesses”, “Reducing regulation in tough times”. A narrative to help keep the crisis in proportion could be spun around stories of inspiring and public-spirited actions that rise above the crisis. A competition for a rousing “2020 Crisis” national song could lift spirits and boost confidence. A serious television series on “Bettering Politics” would likely be well received.
In rounding out and implementing this strategy, special effort should go into taking everyone seriously—spotlighting education and hope for all, but especially for the young: schools, universities, apprenticeships, jobs, innovative arrangements, opportunities, how to get the community to take responsibility; how to build confidence and pride, how to assert Australian strengths and values.
The right model for the strategic plan that Australia needs for the current crisis is perhaps the battle plans that Sir John Monash drew up to win the First World War—knowing that weaknesses in his plan would cost Australian lives. My hope is that this proposal will help ensure that Australia works with the right plan. A final word to planners is to make sure you get the issue right!