Young Australian families are living in brand new suburbs on the outskirts of our cities. They now constitute a significant proportion of the nation’s population. A few years ago, these suburbs were sandhills and bush. They have no post-settlement history. Do they have a culture? What interests these young couples? In political terms, what is the issue?
The beach-side suburb of Madora Bay on the northern outskirts of Mandurah has emerged from the sandhills overnight. With the spread of Perth up and down the coast and extensions of railway and freeway, this is virtually a suburb of the capital. Indeed, the same could be said of Mandurah itself, remembered by West Australians of my vintage as a sleepy village favoured by lovers of seafood, especially crabs.
On Father’s Day, 2 September, Anne and I found ourselves among the in-laws at Madora Bay. The kids are now in their 20s and are in turn parents of young children. The inhabitants of this brave new outer-suburban world live in brand new houses with brand new washing machines and fridges, cars, boats and new shopping centres.
It was an opportunity for what the marketing people call qualitative research. What interests these young people? It was easier to see what doesn’t interest them. They have no interest in politics. Zero. That did not surprise me. Australians are not interested in politics. Even people of my trade in the media who talk about politics incessantly have only a superficial view based on Canberra gossip. Father’s Day came at the end of a tumultuous coup in Canberra but there was not one mention of Turnbull, Morrison, Dutton or Shorten. Not a word.
Nor was there any mention of sport. That too did not surprise me. It has been estimated that half the Australian population is interested in sport. Fortunately, we landed in the other half. If you judge the State by the mass media, you would assume that every man, woman, child and dog has only one interest in life – will the West Coast Eagles win the flag? Father’s Day came in the week before the final round of both major football codes. Not a word about it all day from these young families.
No mention of religion either on the Lord’s day of rest. Despite the protestations of our God-bothering politicians about Judeo-Christian values, Christianity in Australia is on life support. A couple of years ago Anne and I attended the 40th birthday service of her Anglican church in suburban Perth. We were the youngest couple there so I made the obvious comment as we departed. The Church will not survive another 40 years. A wet winter in Perth has revealed more leaks in the roof and right now parishioners are wondering how they are going to find the money to pay for a new roof.
The dominant activity in Australia on Sunday mornings is junior sport. The only parliamentary debates about the Sabbath concern the extension of trading hours for shopping and boozing so we can further worship the modern god of gross domestic product.
Last time I looked at the data the only denominations showing increased congregations were the Baptists and the Pentecostals who have gained the irreverent nickname of Happy Clappers. We can see their services on our TV screens in their football stadium-like churches in America. Having read Rod Quantock’s description of Hillsong, I can’t take the Happy Clappers seriously. They by-pass one of the most important lessons in the Bible – the story about the camel, the rich man and the eye of a needle. I like camels. The Jesuit intellectual Antonio Spadaro has valuable insights on this brand of Christianity. (Pearls and Irritations, 29 August)
So, what does interest our young outer-suburbanites? They know a bit about cooking. Lunch was tasty. Cars and motor bikes interest some of them. There is not a lot of talk about work. In the Mandurah area there are quite a few fly-in, fly-out workers. Their jobs are well paid but insecure. It is a regimented life and not something people want to talk about on their time off. The modern workplace is an uneasy environment. If you have not been replaced by a computer, you soon will be. In the meantime, you are being watched and assessed constantly. If you are a truck driver and stop for a pee, the boss has your position from a satellite and will call you on the mobile phone and ask you for an explanation.
The modern mortgage that hangs over these youngsters might be compared to the feudal overlords or high priests and witch doctors of earlier times. It is a fact of life. They are all in the same boat so there is no point in complaining about it. Financial pressures are relentless on this generation. Conformity is embedded in the human condition. The houses look the same and kids put pressure on their parents to keep up with the Joneses. They want the same toys as the kids next door. Anne and I often express sympathy for today’s parents. When we were kids the electronic gadgets and designer label clothes did not exist. No wonder today’s young couples have no time for politics and religion. They are preoccupied with the massive debts on their credit cards.
Is there a major issue transcending all these concerns? Yes, there is, just one. The issue is health. Mothers throughout the ages worry about the health of their children and discuss their concerns with other mothers. Despite the rage of the MeToo movement, there are still women who care about the health of their husbands and of their ageing parents.
Education comes under the umbrella of health. Pushy parents like the Dads of Tiger Woods and Lang Lang are the exception. Parents generally want their kids to be happy and healthy. They want them to be in a safe and happy place in the class room and the school yard with teachers who care about their students.
The subject matter of the curriculum is not a major worry. Besides, it is subject to change according to the latest fashions in the university education departments and bureaucracies and the silly ideas of armchair experts in the parliaments and boofheads in organisations like the Business Council of Australia.
So, if there are any Australian politicians interested in policy, the relevant reading is Neal Blewett’s recent speech on Medicare made available to us on John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations of 30 August.
Jerry Roberts is a former parliamentary reporter, interested in policy. He is a member of the Australian Labor Party.