Countries are never entirely at peace with themselves. There are always social, economic and political fault lines that are shifting and redesigning nations as they do. The great gift of democratic nations has been their ability to manage such changes peaceably, whilst at the same time preserving a sense of social and economic unity. Revolutions occur in nations where the structural barriers to change are so great, that the structures themselves are overthrown.
Australia has always been seen as a country that manages social change better than most, even though radical changes have taken place. Many of our founding Federal principles have been obliterated in the last fifty years as Paul Kelly observed so tellingly in his political history, The End of Certainty. The White Australia policy has been abandoned. Multiculturalism has taken its place with dramatic effect. Centralised wage fixing, a fixed currency and tariff protection have been jettisoned as our nation has become part of the globalised economy over the last thirty-five years.
Not to forget radical social change. In recent years, Australia has legalised gay marriage three States have legalised assisted dying. Medical and personal use of cannabis is allowed in certain jurisdictions. Recognition of the rights of the disabled is light years ahead of the ‘shun and seclude’ outlook of my childhood. We are currently witnessing the latest iteration of the battle of the sexes. Concrete achievements such as the granting of female suffrage and equal wage rights have now been overtaken by the fight for cultural changes in workplaces and schools, so that masculine glass ceilings can be shattered, and more respectful relationships created. Our indigenous people continue to advocate for further changes to our constitutional and cultural structures to engender reconciliation. The advent of environmentalism may well lead to the greatest social and economic changes we have experienced.
For all these fractures, most would consider that Australia has maintained its distinct social character. Centralised wage fixing may have come and gone, but the Harvester judgement ethos of a “fair and working wage” which was outlined in the first decade of Federation, mirrors the egalitarian ethos of our people. Not for us the seemingly impermeable social divides of England. We are not a land of “two nations” as Dickens and others since have observed of our colonial master. Australians remain a gregarious people who have largely kept faith with each other and our institutions. Not for us the rancid cynicism we witness in the United States about the justice of their policing and justice system. There is a great middle ground in Australia. If floods strike New South Wales and then weeks later a cyclone tears apart towns in coastal Western Australia, our response is similar. We chip in, we look out for others. Sparsely populated in the world’s sixth biggest continent we are shaped as much by our landscape and environment as our values.
Australians will be reminded of these values at forthcoming ANZAC Day services. Yet it is in unexpected moments that we are reminded of the essence of the Australian outlook. Last week, I was the guest at a lunch at an established Melbourne gentleman’s Club. Its architecture and furnishings are archetypal of British ‘Victoriana’ days, far removed from most Australian social environments.
However, for all its apparent formality, it was no Downton Abbey in miniature. Whereas Mr. Carson would only speak if spoken to by Lord Grantham, there was a warm interaction between guests and staff at the Club that was distinctly Australian. Cheeky asides were made about personal foibles and preferences. Other guests happily attended other tables to make introductions. Once again, I was reminded that Australians have never overly stood on ceremony.
If there has been a permanent observation about modern Australian and its people, it would be that our openness tinged with irreverence, our willingness to accept those who “give it a go”, a deliberate lack of seriousness, a desire to eliminate pomposity, and an ironic gallows sense of humour have created a distinct national character. Everyone sees themselves as everyone’s mate and certainly no-one is to be seen as anyone’s master. The language of the ‘back of Bourke’ and Broome is understood just as easily in Battery Point. So, you might be the surgeon who will operate to save my life tomorrow, but more importantly “who do you barrack for mate?”
It is arguable that the ability of Australians to look favourably on their lot has been underwritten to a large degree by a modern history of, by and large, great economic prosperity. Not a permanent run, but compared to most countries, most Australians have enjoyed rising standards of living. Some might argue that our abundance of natural resources that have reliably earned us export income for decades has allowed us to overly reward ourselves with generous working conditions which are the envy of many nations. Canadians roll their eyes in disbelief at the provision of long-service leave to Australian employees, whilst the French can only look on in envy at our employer funded national superannuation scheme. One can only imagine what the reaction of other nations was to the suggestion that to assist post-Covid economic recovery Australian workers should be given hotel vouchers to enable to them to finish work earlier on a Friday and enjoy a cleansing ale! We certainly work to live, not live to work.
The good economic news continues post-Covid. The stock market index is up, demand for flights is increasingly rapidly, along with interstate holiday bookings, job advertisements are at record highs and interest rates are at record lows. Tradespeople are in short supply. If not for the pandemic, Harold MacMillan might be reminding Australians that “they have never had it so good.”
Yet for all these optimistic trends, there are signs that Australia’s post-Covid epoch may be unravelling some of the permanent assumptions we have been able to make about the nature of our people and society. The pandemic has exacerbated social and economic fault lines and by doing so has affected the mood and character of our psyche.
Record low interest rates have reinforced the sense that there is no longer a fair go for those seeking to enter the housing market, especially in Sydney and Melbourne. Runaway home prices, mostly fuelled by those seeking investment properties, have isolated a generation from the economic and democratic security that home ownership always offered Australians.
The great Australian middle class has lived and bought homes in middle class suburbs. Now we seem to have suburbs where house prices are only slightly less bizarre than those in neighbouring areas.
The optimistic assumption that the next generation of Australians will enjoy higher living standards is gone. Many Baby Boomers looking to enjoy the fruits of their retirement in the lucky country are shackled by having their twenty- to thirty-year-old children living at home, being unable to muster a deposit for their own homes. The next generation is resentful that what they had expected to be their lot in their life is slipping away from them.
The Baby Boomers, confronted by having many more than “three score and ten” years to live are also anxious about how they will support themselves, for they have become the ‘geriatric generation’. In one of the paradoxes for which economics is famous, low interest rates have seen the deposit required for a house purchase by the children of boomers expand, and have made boomers are anxious about earning retirement income!
Completion of a tertiary education has long been seen as a guarantee of economic security. This is no longer the case. The collapse of overseas student enrolments has decimated the finances and confidence of our university sector. Current university students have endured an etiolated form of education during the pandemic.
Even before the pandemic university campuses were becoming strangely bereft of students. On-line lectures and podcasts meant that students could design their universities studies by maximising time away from their lecturers and tutors. The richness of a university experience has become very much poorer. The economic aftershocks of the pandemic will see a generation of graduates anxious whether traditional full-time positions in a range of industries will be available.
Australians, whether a graduate or not, are doubting whether predictable and permanent employment will be theirs. How and where we work in future years has become a central issue. The ‘casualisation’ of the workforce is eroding the numbers of the middle class. How ironic that trade unions were most powerful in the 1950s and 1960s when their members had full-time permanent jobs buttressed by tariffs.
More ironic is that a time of unemployment and underemployment our rural communities have not been able to rely on local labour to harvest summer and winter crops of fruit and vegetables. It speaks of a growing divide between our rural and urban areas. How sad it is to hear important rural towns including Shepparton, Mount Gambier, Toowoomba, Bathurst, Griffith, Armidale, and others being discussed solely in terms of their high levels of ice addiction.
The great Australian narrative that those who are prepared to “give it a go” will get ahead is being challenged. The powerful vein of common sense that has also made Australians buoyant and resilient is also being diluted.
We seem unable to recognise our continuing good fortune. Today the world has recorded its 3,000,000th death from the pandemic. Australia has had fewer than 1000 deaths, a number that would be much less if not for the disproportionate number of deaths in Victoria. Whilst we are not fully reconnected with the international world- which country is? -we are free to move around our vast nation.
By international standards Australia has waged and won a stunning victory against the worst effects of the pandemic.
Yet having secured this victory, the nation seems to have become engaged in a series of petty and debilitating skirmishes that are corroding our social unity.
The reaction to the distribution of vaccines to immunise people against Covid-19 has also been disappointing and, dare I say it, ‘un-Australian’. Rather than celebrating that the vaccines have arrived with remarkable speed, Australians have become whiny about every imperfection in the vaccination programme.
It is estimated that 15,000 Australians a year die of blood clots, yet the death of one person from clotting-a woman who had a range of medical conditions including diabetes-associated with a vaccine has seen the media create a cloud of doubt over vaccination per se. There is a 1:260,000 chance of a fatal clotting reaction. In generations past, Australians would have said “Good God be grateful we have the chance to be immunised, there is always risk with everything but roll the dice and let’s kill off this bugger.” Now, we want the government to assure infallibility and are increasingly ungrateful when they cannot.
Technology and social media are also contributing to the fracturing of our harmony. Is it just me, or are a growing number of people who should know better saying, or should that be ‘posting’, things that are idiotic and damaging? Latest evidence suggests that people alive today may well spend a total of 17 years looking at their phones. Perspective must be lost in such a solitary pursuit. The self-obsession of so many with what they consider to be ‘problems’ and their wish to tell the world about themselves is unique to our times.
The Harry and Megan ‘tell-all’ interview told us all we need to know about the narcissistic preening that social media has created. What Harry’s Grandfather, Prince Philip, would have made of their indulgent ramblings is hard to fathom.
Magda Szubanski, long regarded as a brilliant comedian, damaged her reputation recently with an inept ‘tweet’ assailing the appearance of the Prime Minister’s wife whilst watching her husband sign a condolence book for Prince Philip. Even worse were recent comments made by a Microsoft Executive. She expressed doubts whether her company could accept government grants given that the Minister for Industry and Science is Christian Porter. Can’t you see the connection? - man alleged to be a rapist, must be so, therefore I will uphold the right to ensure that our company is not contaminated by his actions. Brownie points for Microsoft to contributing to the collective and fashionable outrage.
How does one start to respond to this madness? No doubt the same executive would be outraged that Christine Holgate was not provided with a fair process and hearing when dismissed from Australia Post. Yet, she is prepared to encourage the abandonment of any sense of fairness in judging Christian Porter. The ability of many of those who advocate inclusivity to excoriate those whose attitudes or backgrounds they do not accept is breathtaking. Many a proponent of respectful relationships seem unable to be respectful towards those that they disagree with.
We risk deriding those institutions that underpin much of our good fortune. Suddenly, politicians, especially the male ones, risk being permanently derided as an amoral, if not feral, collective. Yet only a year ago these were the people applauded for their introduction of the Job Keeper programme and increased Job Seeker payments. How quickly perceptions change. We cannot afford to have the represented think so poorly of their elected representatives.
A tsunami of disenchantment has swept through Canberra and into our national psyche. Political debates have become increasingly personal and shrill and are rarely based on principles and policy. And let us not forget the great risk that the ‘new civility’ presents to political debate: if what we debate, say, and argue becomes so circumscribed by a desire not to offend, then we risk not addressing any issues of substance. What we say and how we say it will become more important than what we are talking about. Matters of substance become permanently filed in the ‘too hard’ basket, for to debate them may risk disagreement.
Recent weeks suggest that some things in the world are as permanent as ever. Political unrest has returned to Northern Ireland. How ironic it would be if the economic consequences of Brexit proved to be the ultimate catalyst for the unification of Ireland. Taiwan’s sovereignty is again under siege. Afghanistan, through no fault of its own, is likely to enter another chapter of civil strife when American troops are withdrawn later this year. Nations in the Middle East continue to struggle to find a middle ground to create a lasting peace. Democracy continues to elude Russia as President Putin amends the Constitution to remain President until 2036. Malcolm Turnbull continues to rant about being “overthrown” from office. He and another former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, continue to wage a vendetta against Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation that has become obsessive and seems only to obliterate their standing and no-one else’s. Papua New Guinea’s ability to achieve economic and political progress continues to be stymied by tribal conflict, corruption and now the effects of Covid-19. The fickleness of life remains a permanent check on us all. A ship blocks the Suez Canal and in a matter of days is as economically ruinous to world trade as a stock market collapse.
Following his passing Prince Philip has been lauded as one of the last great Royals. He recognised, maybe more than most, that it is dangerous to make permanent assumptions about what is everlasting and great. Over his life, he witnessed at first-hand the eradication of royal power and privilege across Europe and the rise of the democratic will of the people aided by the progress delivered by science and technology. The emergence of secularism has mirrored this change: returning from an Easter Sunday service at Melbourne’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, I noted that the queue for croissants at La Lune in Russell Street, Melbourne was longer than that for communion inside the Cathedral!
In the tennis world, the fault lines are noticeably shifting. Federer, still nursing his injury-prone body, is unlikely to be ever as dominant again and who would have thought that neither Djokovic nor Nadal would make the semi-finals at this week’s Monte Carlo Open.
Prince Philip died on 9th April, aged 99, eight years and a day after Margaret Thatcher died on 8th April, 2013. Close to Baroness Thatcher’s death, her loyal Press Secretary, Bernard Ingham would visit her. He commented that even though she was affected by dementia she would always ask, “What problems have we got at the moment and what are we going to do about them?” For Prince Philip and Thatcher, stoicism, recognising a problem and “getting on with solving it” were essential human qualities.
Whilst nothing stays entirely the same for ever, great societies have endured because they have been able to articulate, demonstrate and reinforce their unifying strengths. Australia has had an abundance of these, including pluck and resolve, encapsulated in the great Australian observation that “things could always be worse.”
There is a risk that the greatest unintended casualty of the pandemic could be an unravelling of many of our important cultural sinews. An increasingly ungrateful, shrill, and economically fractured populace cannot be immunised against its own worst tendencies.