Former 7.30 host Kerry O’Brien has warned that Australia could be going down a path similar to the United States if failures in leadership are not addressed and if there is not a correction of the number of Australians living in poverty.

Key points:

  • Former WA premier Colin Barnett said Boomers haven’t had to sacrifice much at all
  • Former host of 7.30 Kerry O’Brien said the number of Australians in poverty was rising. He compared our current social situation to that in the US
  • The Federal Government’s China-focused Foreign Relations bill came under scrutiny

Returning to the ABC as a panellist on Q+A’s ‘Panel of Wisdom’ alongside University of Wollongong Chancellor Jillian Broadbent, former WA Premier Colin Barnett, Indigenous Pastor Ray Minniecon and OzHarvest CEO Ronnie Kahn, Mr O’Brien drew the comparison between Australia and a United States that is currently dealing with major social upheaval.

In Australia, there has been an ongoing social discussion on the wealth of Boomers versus that of struggling younger generations.

And while Mr O’Brien said he was happy to be a part of the older generation, he also shared his concerns about the future.

“I’m a parent and like every Boomer parent, I would want at least as much, if not more, opportunity for my children and my grandchildren than I had and certainly that my parents had and I don’t believe that’s going to be the case,” he said.


Former WA Premier Colin Barnett agreed that the Boomer generation had for the longest time had it good compared to younger generations.

“For younger people, it is going to be more difficult to own a home and maybe to some extent the aspiration is above what is reality.

“Young people today are going to have multiple changes of career, occupation and the like and that’s going to be challenging.”

He then made a comment about Australia being an egalitarian society but Mr O’Brien said egalitarianism in Australia was not really the reality.


“I don’t think Australia is as egalitarian as we’d like to think at all,” Mr O’Brien said.

“I’ve read credible studies which tell me Australia was a more equal society when I was a kid than it is today.

“And I know that Indigenous Australians would have cause to disagree with that because in many ways they didn’t exist in those times officially and Mabo hadn’t happened.

“But nonetheless, today you have a situation where poverty is increasing year by year in Australia — one of the most prosperous societies on the face of Earth — where 3.2 million Australians are living in poverty.

“775,000 children are living in property, those figures are increasing both in terms of percentage, as well as real numbers.

“According to the latest Productivity Commission report … under 35-year-olds’ wages have been going backwards for the last 10 years.

“The United States that has given us Donald Trump and Donald Trump wouldn’t be existing and wouldn’t be in the White House if it wasn’t for those millions of disaffected people in America.”

Asked by Q+A host Hamish Macdonald if he thought Australia was on the same trajectory as the US, Mr O’Brien was emphatic in his answer.

“I think we are,” he said.

“We’re now a polarising society, our politics are polarised.

“I feel very strongly about it. Our two-party system is letting us down. Both sides have to step up and face the responsibility for that.”

‘Bickering with China’ is damaging Australia

Political leaders were also attacked over issues relating to China and the Federal Government’s proposed Foreign Relations bill which would give the Federal Government the right to cancel agreements that states, territories and local governments enter into with overseas governments.

The bill which panellists claimed was in direct reference to China and its Belt and Road Initiative deal with Victoria was lambasted by Mr Barnett.


“It is about China,” Mr Barnett said of the proposed legislation, which is in place against the backdrop of souring trade relations with China and the detention of an Australian journalist in Beijing.

“I would not have signed the Belt and Road Initiative that Victoria signed and [current WA Premier] Mark McGowan said he would not sign it.

“The Belt and Road Initiative is China’s prime international foreign policy and political influence is there.”

However, while Mr Barnett disagreed with Victoria entering into the agreement, he hit out at the Federal Government for getting involved in what he said were state issues and called for Australia to soften its stance against China.

“I think it is unnecessary to have this legislation,” he said.

“Deal with the issue [at hand] if it is the belt and road initiative.

“What an incredible layer of bureaucracy and what a patronising attitude it would be that if a state leader wants to go overseas he has got to get permission as to who he or she talks to.

“Western Australia and other states will continue to develop their economic policy they will continue to have arrangements with other countries.

Asked for his view, and more specifically if by current trade restrictions China was trying to “teach Australia a lesson”, Mr O’Brien said that while Australia needed to stand up for itself, the nation should be wary of doing too much damage to its relationship with China

“Australia has to have a very clear sense of its own value system but also a clear sense of how to underwrite its own future … and I think our future is at stake here.

“Regardless of the Prime Minister’s insistence of talking about other countries rather than China, we all absolutely know he is talking about China.

“I don’t like aspects of China’s authoritarian status and so on, like their treatment of minorities, and I don’t like any attempt to bully us as a nation.

Australia has a long history of close ties with the United States.(AP: Martinez Monsivais)

If Australia is indeed in lockstep with the United States, then Mr O’Brien said that should be of some concern, as despite assertions by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, there is no real evidence that the US is necessarily the best partner well into the future.

“We are in the age of Trump and we are watching Trump try and rebuild some popularity as he faces defeat at the next election, [he is] increasingly seeking to paint China as the enemy in the US and there is a sense we are following, not quite in lockstep but there are similar optics about it,” he said.

“At the same time, the PM has said the US is our past, present and future.

“I would seriously doubt we can say that 30 years from now … what if the US decides that it won’t be so aggressive against China, how will Australia feel then?”

Watch the full episode on iview or via the Q+A Facebook page.


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