Halfway through his first term in office, and things are looking tough for Anthony Albanese. His poll ratings are heading south, there’s a failed referendum in the rear-view mirror, and up ahead the policy challenges are mounting.
The prime minister, like most of us, is surely ready for a summer holiday. So to help him – and anyone else interested in public policy – make the most of it, we at Grattan Institute have selected our top six must-reads of the year.
Our 2023 prime minister’s summer reading list tackles a broad range of issues, from social services and health to climate and identity. But the books have two things in common: they have something important to say about one of the biggest issues of the day, and they are all good reads. We think they deserve a spot in the prime minister’s beach bag – and in yours.
Lifeboat: Disability, Humanity and the NDIS, by Micheline Lee
In Lifeboat, Micheline Lee gives moving glimpses into her life as an Australian with disability. The theory of disability policy, cerebral discussions of insurance schemes, and debates about discrimination turn into real-life, embodied experiences, set alongside Lee’s compelling analysis of the NDIS and its challenges.
Lee describes how the NDIS’s disempowering, confusing and bureaucratic processes have worn out the trust of people with disability and their families.
But reining in the costs, making the services market fairer and more efficient, and looking beyond the NDIS to create an inclusive society seem a near-impossible set of tasks. The reader gradually realises that the NDIS has become the only lifeboat, and it can’t sink.
The Careless State, by Mark Considine
A seemingly endless stream of inquiries has made clear that Australia’s social services are not doing a good enough job at looking after people, while forcing taxpayers to fund burgeoning – and in some cases fraudulent – costs.
Mark Considine, a professor of political science at the University of Melbourne, points to a shift beginning in the 1980s, when successive governments began retreating from providing services directly, instead allowing private providers to compete to deliver services.
Many believed this market-based delivery system would lead to miraculous results, but Considine’s analysis shows that this experiment has failed. Limited information or alternatives has made the promised choice illusory, governments have lost the ability to effectively regulate or contain costs, and not-for-profit providers with a longstanding focus on providing quality services have shrunk.
Three case studies – the NDIS, maternal health, and worker health and safety – suggest a better way. Rather than the illusion of choice, vulnerable people need specialists to advocate for them. Transparency should replace secret recipes, so that providers can learn from each other, and governments can genuinely regulate quality and manage costs. And governments need to take responsibility and run these programs as the public services that they are.
Are you listening, Mr Prime Minister?
Ravenous, by Henry Dimbleby and Jemima Lewis
Australia has an obesity problem. We are getting heavier, the foods we eat are making us sicker, and the ways we produce them are taking a toll on our environment.
Ravenous invites readers on the journey that led us here. It explores the complex machinations of modern food systems. And it details how our food choices are influenced by the industries that make our food, and the environment that surrounds us. The consequences are rarely good for us, our health, or our planet.
The book is written from a UK perspective, but the lesson applies equally to Australia: governments have failed to protect consumers from the harms of modern-day food systems.
Ravenous is a fast-paced, well-evidenced call for a healthier, more sustainable food system. The PM should devour it.
Personal Score, by Ellen van Neerven
In 2023, the Women’s World Cup brought football to Australia like never before. For Ellen van Neerven, the “beautiful game” is a focal point. In Personal Score, they blend memoir, history, and poetry to explore what it means to play sport on First Nations Land.
As van Neerven sees it, the oldest living sporting culture is about working with community and country – in stark contrast to the competition and conquest inherent in non-Indigenous sport. Van Neerven describes the long tradition of sport in Australia before colonisation: games such as Woggabaliri, played by Wiradjuri people in NSW, where players do not take sides, instead working together to keep a possum-fur ball aloft.
Personal Score is remarkable in its breadth. While sport is their touchstone, van Neerven highlights the disproportionate impact of a changing climate on Indigenous people, the importance to Aboriginal health of story and being heard, and the complexity of gender and belonging, on and off the field.
Wifedom: Mrs Orwell’s Invisible Life, by Anna Funder
People don’t become invisible by accident. In Wifedom, acclaimed Australian author Anna Funder shows the process of erasure of Eileen O’Shaughnessy – George Orwell’s first wife – who was “buried first by domesticity, and then by history”.
The book is a powerful case study of the hidden lives of wives whose contributions are downplayed or entirely disregarded, weaving in the author’s own personal experiences of “wifedom”.
Funder collects pieces of a puzzle that make up a complex – yet incomplete – portrait of Eileen, drawing on letters, notebooks, and writings by others. She fills in the gaps with her own pen, oscillating between fact and fiction, narrating a story of a fascinating and intelligent woman.
Through Funder’s careful research, we also see a darker side of Orwell – one that has largely been dismissed, even rationalised, by biographers.
Alongside Funder, we as readers grapple to make sense of Eileen, whose self-worth becomes so diminished that she decides to opt for a cheaper – and ultimately dangerous – hysterectomy surgery, noting in a letter to Orwell that “I don’t think I am worth the money”.
With her sharp insight and poetic pen, Funder exposes the “wicked tricking power” of wifedom. In doing so, she makes visible what was once invisible.
Recoding America: Why Government Is Failing in the Digital Age and How We Can Do Better, by Jennifer Pahlka
Technology is the front door to many government services. Whether it’s applying for a Centrelink payment, paying the rates bill, or claiming a Medicare rebate, we routinely engage with governments online. But too often, the design of online services is an afterthought.
In Recoding America, Jennifer Pahlka argues that the problem goes much deeper than the passing annoyance of a clunky form. Time and compliance costs add up across the population, chewing up resources that could be put to more productive purposes (or fun!).
Worse still, bad design can entrench inequalities. When you need a fixed address, the latest web browser, or a lawyer to get services you’re legally entitled to, people already on the margins are at risk of being left further behind.
The book draws heavily on Pahlka’s experience founding an American not-for-profit organisation, but the policy principles are universal.
Recoding America is a compelling call to arms for better design and delivery of government services. After reading it, you – and maybe even Anthony Albanese – will never look at a web form in quite the same way again.
While you’re here…
Grattan Institute is an independent not-for-profit think tank. We don’t take money from political parties or vested interests. Yet we believe in free access to information. All our research is available online, so that more people can benefit from our work.
Which is why we rely on donations from readers like you, so that we can continue our nation-changing research without fear or favour. Your support enables Grattan to improve the lives of all Australians.
Danielle Wood – CEO