The Lucky Country? When I read Donald Horne’s famous treatise in the mid 1960s, I was an avid devotee thinking Australia was a just, fair, compassionate and upwardly mobile society, at least relatively speaking. Apart from the White Australia Policy which I condemned, the unwarranted fear of the Yellow Peril, the second-class status of millions of females and the disenfranchised Aborigines who still lived in abject poverty, I staunchly adhered to the belief that if you worked hard enough and were good at your job, the rewards and riches would ensue, both economically and socially. Certainly, there were pockets of poverty that needed to be politically addressed, but the young didn’t dot the banks of the Yarra sleeping rough in cardboard beds, the gap between the rich and the poor was small and crime on the streets didn’t make you cringe in your own home. Indeed, on hot summer nights we would take our mattresses onto the front lawn and sleep under the stars, without fear of marauding thugs robbing us of our belongings. They were for most Australians, halcyon days, unemployment was low, working people could buy their own homes and food was healthy and plentiful for us to enjoy. We seemed to have it all; albeit with a conservative and conventional society where a fair go seemed sacrosanct for most of us.
My family entertained middle-class values with a working class wallet, sometimes it was hard to pay the bills but we were warm in the cold freeze of winter, never went hungry or shoeless and borrowed books for free from the local library to nurture our intelligence. I attended a government high school blissfully unaware of rampant bullying, there was no obvious violence against the teachers or schoolkids in the playground and we aspired to university if we won a Commonwealth scholarship (the fact there WERE scholarships to cover tuition fees seemed just and fair for those who could not afford the thousands of dollars needed to attend) and transcending my family’s impecunious reality beckoned for the future.
Last night, I heard the former Governor of the RBA, Bernie Fraser, express a perspective on Australia in 2012 that I too have reflected on so many times over the past few years. He said, among other things, that, as a younger man, he hoped for an Australia that was confident, fair and compassionate but disappointingly, this was not so! He derided both sides of the political spectrum for lacking vision to make this country be what it should and on the same day on the news later, I heard Government Treasurer Wayne Swan wax lyrical about making Australia a socially mobile country where we could all enjoy the fruits of our labour. But wasn’t this the way it once was? Or was I a blind fool as an adolescent who deluded myself with naive and idealistic nonsense as I contemplated my destiny?
It’s a complex conundrum to unravel – on the one hand, Australia’s economy is in better shape than other developed countries (apart from Germany, perhaps where unemployment is under 3%), most people are gainfully employed (unemployment hovers just over 5%) and the majority of young people attend school to Year 12. There is no pervasive malnutrition, high infant mortality or widespread fatal diseases such as smallpox or cholera that can wipe out millions. We don’t have a totalitarian government that tortures those who disagree, (we just marginalise them on the fringe of society), we have a judiciary where people can take their grievances to court (one law for the rich and NO law for the poor) and the freedom of speech and written word to say what we like without being censored (publish or be damned)! We enjoy the vote (compulsory as it is) to say who should govern us (and that at least now includes the Indigenous), we pay taxes to ensure a welfare system can look after those who cannot look after themselves (often through no fault of their own) and many, many women now enjoy working in elite jobs (though the glass ceiling still exists in a lot of enterprises). And millions of people have a roof over their heads, enough food on the table at dinner time and keep warm or cool during our four seasons. The positives about this country are plentiful; many people sing the praises of our boundless opportunities for all, our democratic principles and values, our absence of war and the millions of immigrants we’ve welcomed to enrich our great country!
So what is Bernie Fraser really talking about? And what have I pondered over the last couple of decades? What is the REAL Australia? Are we at base, a racist, sexist and ageist society (dare I say fascist?) that punishes those who don’t conform or adhere to the psychology of a 9-5 middle-class ethos in suburbia? An Oliver Stone Wall Street where greed IS good and affluence is perceived as the pinnacle of success (as mining magnates Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest or Clive Palmer would have us believe?) Does our fair go only apply to those who play the right games, live in the right suburbs, wear the right clothes, drive the right cars and more significantly, have the right balance in their bank accounts? Do most of us care about those less fortunate, less privileged and less talented? Do we give a damn about the homeless, the unemployed, the mentally ill, the victims of crime and domestic violence, the physically disabled, the poor and those who find life a real hardship and struggle despite our so-called opportunities? (While Hitler imprisoned and murdered the mentally and physically impaired in concentration camps – it wasn’t just the Jews- we certainly don’t do that, but we certainly DO discriminate against these people, too often denigrating them as weak, weird and worthless and denying them a decent quality of life by keeping them unemployed or in low-paid, menial jobs).We denounce refugees as potential terrorists (or on a par with drug smugglers as Abbott would have us believe and Julia still believes in mandatory detention!), we decry welfare recipients as bludgers (and Abbott wants to lower the pension) and we take smart spin as the gospel truth. There are thousands of both young and old sleeping without a roof over their heads (and homeless numbers are increasing), there are growing numbers of families who cannot put a healthy dinner on the table at night, there are thousands of women and children seeking refuge from family violence (and some men, too) and even more injustice in our midst because too many people simply cannot afford to go to court to plead their case. Schoolkids now face disturbing bullying, suicides have multiplied, homicides have increased and people are scared within their own four walls of thugs who roam our neighbourhoods preying on unsuspecting victims. (We certainly don’t sleep on our front gardens anymore on steamy, hot nights). We hurry blindly past beggars in the street (we didn’t even have any in the 60s), we don’t even know our neighbours who live just five metres away in our swanky new apartments, and reading Facebook or Twitter can unleash our worst nightmares. (What DID he/she say about me?) And we are isolated and ostracised if we don’t subscribe to the God of materialism others define as success! The list of negatives is endless too – too many people now live in their own cocoon of comfort with scant regard for those outside their immediate sphere of influence. (And young kids now lament their fate if they haven’t got the latest computer fad when others around the world are scavenging on dumps for scraps of food). There is little belief in the good of our fellow man(or woman), little confidence in the talents and abilities of our people, little fairness for those who fall foul of financial success and even more sadly, less or no compassion for each other. We admire strength (whatever that really is) to succeed at any cost, we celebrate a win on the football field as if nothing else matters and we deplore those who don’t dwell in the shrine of our dollar. Is it really Advance Australia Fair?
I don’t think so and I agree with Bernie Fraser – but for me, it’s not just disappointing, as he said, but very depressing. Maybe I was looking through rose-coloured glasses when I was a mere teenager or maybe the media is doing a much better job at uncovering the real malaise in our midst but when I think of Australia a few decades ago it promised so much and has delivered so little. I don’t know why we have lost our way; this country is about all of us not just our politicians for whom there is just cynicism and distrust, we must look at ourselves and ask what really matters? Sure, we all need money to enjoy a good quality of life, but as the gap between rich and poor widens every day I can only surmise we don’t care very much for others. That’s what’s depressing; and it’s what we must confront if we want to once more, be the lucky country!