HUGH MACKAY. What kind of society do we want to become?

Australia Day is widely regarded as a chance to celebrate what it means to be Australian. Perhaps, this year, we might turn the national day into a time of sombre reflection, and ask: are we the kind of society we want to be?

Like patriots everywhere, Australians like to brag about our achievements – and with some justification. It’s true that we’ve created such a harmonious society out of our mongrel diversity that when outbreaks of racial prejudice or ethnic tension occur, they tend to make the news. We are rightly proud of our inventiveness – everything from the stump-jump plough to wi-fi. We like to say we punch above our weight when it comes to Nobel prizes, Olympic medals, Oscars and cricket.

We’re not quite so keen to acknowledge that we also punch above our weight when it comes to carbon emissions, though we are, in fact, among the world’s heaviest per-capita carbon polluters. Nor are we so keen to claim the title of ‘world’s most overweight nation’, though we’re heading there, too.

On reflection, many aspects of Australian society raise searching questions about the kind of society we are becoming. For example: how did we end up slithering so far down the OECD league table of school education outcomes? Could that have something to do with the fact that, every year, we pour $12 billion of public money into non-public schools, which means our once-proud public education system is struggling to maintain standards across all its schools? (Finland, the country we tend to look to for inspiration on the subject of schooling, simply doesn’t have private schools.)

How does a society like ours tolerate such a persistent problem of homelessness, with more than 100,000 Australians having nowhere to call home tonight? (Again, Finland’s example is instructive: they solved the problem by giving homeless people homes. D’uh.)

Have we given up on the egalitarian dream? In spite of our fabled 26 years of continuous economic growth, two million Australians are still either unemployed or underemployed. How did we become such an increasingly unequal society, with three million of us living in poverty and 16 percent of our dependent children lacking regular and reliable access to safe and nutritious food?

How, in a society that once prided itself on its ‘mateship’, have loneliness and social isolation joined the list of our most pressing social issues? In a recent study conducted by the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University, almost half the respondents felt they couldn’t call on their neighbours for help, and 25 percent reported feeling lonely most of every week.

The factors driving social fragmentation are well known: shrinking households, high rate of relationship breakdown, excessive busyness, population mobility, increasing dependence on IT at the expense of face-to-face interaction (‘connected but lonely’ has become an accurate description of many members of the smartphone generation). But their impact is not inevitable. We have unwittingly promoted social fragmentation, isolation and loneliness by embracing a culture of individualism and materialism. In the Age of Me, deteriorating mental health is just one of the symptoms of the trouble we’re in.

There are pinpoints of light, though: all over Australia, enlightened individuals are starting to galvanise local neighbourhoods and communities into rediscovering the joy of neighbourliness. Book clubs, community choirs, ukulele bands, street parties, Friday night drinks, sporting clubs, library-based community events, sausage sizzles, trivia nights … all good signs of pushback against influences that would otherwise divide and fragment us.

Another pinpoint of light – our generosity in a crisis – can be glimpsed through the pall of smoke from a bushfire season that, as predicted by climate scientists, is longer and more intense than ever. (We may say the 2019-2020 season is shocking in its ferocity; we can’t say it was unexpected.)

Yes, we can be generous, kind and compassionate in response to a catastrophe, but what a tragedy it would be if we needed a catastrophe to make us generous, kind and compassionate. What a tragedy it would be if we lost sight of the fact that we belong to a species that depends for its survival on our willingness to co-operate rather than compete; that we are people for whom generosity, kindness and compassion come naturallywhen we are not being distracted by baubles, corrupted by wealth or power, or seduced by selfish dreams of personal gain.

The response to appeals for bushfire relief is a welcome sign that the nation’s heart still beats, (though it’s legitimate to ask why more money had not previously been spent on precautionary measures). But where is the sense of urgency about all the other challenges, including those related to climate change, that don’t force themselves on us as obviously as smoke in our eyes and lungs?

Where, for instance, is the comparably generous response – whether from socially sensitive governments, a more enlightened tax system, public appeals or philanthropy – to the socially corrosive problems of homelessness, poverty, and the malnourishment of all those kids?

When institutions – political and otherwise – fail us, we tend to take matters into our own hands. As successive governments harden their hearts against people seeking asylum, great generosity is being shown by local communities towards organisations who offer them practical support. In the absence of a coherent energy policy, millions of us are seeking our own ways of transitioning to the clean energy future the government seems unable to imagine. We’re starting to look for smaller, more accountable alternatives to the discredited big banks. Some disenchanted ex-churchgoers are joining the growing ‘house church’ movement. New online media platforms (like this one) are usurping the role of traditional mass media.

In response to too much disappointment, too much anger, too much frustration, perhaps we’re gradually learning how to reshape our society, piece by piece, street by street. That might be grounds for some muted celebration, after all.

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6 Responses to HUGH MACKAY. What kind of society do we want to become?

  1. Andrew McRae says:

    Thanks for a very good piece, Hugh; I agree with the comments too.

    As a nation we do seem to worship our soldiers and sports-people as the best in the world; today, we might add to that the belief that our fashion designers, cafes, baristas and blah blah are world-beating. I long ago concluded that there is one thing we’re definitely the best at: self-congratulation. Morrison’s repeated assertion that Australia is the ‘best country in the world’ is a manifestation of that reverse cringe.

    I have a (possibly semantic) correction to the notion that Finland ‘simply doesn’t have private schools’. Finland does have private, or independently run, schools, enough of them to cater for about 3% of its students. Private/independent schools are funded by the government in the same way that state schools are; however, they may not charge fees and are obliged to accept any students who wish to enrol. With the removal of the self-selection mechanisms and the competition paradigm, and therefore the ‘social advantages’, private/independent schooling has shrunken to a tiny rump.

  2. Patrick Davis says:

    I just want a more caring, respectful society and a Government that opens its eyes and ears to our needs. Michele’s Dad.

  3. John Doyle says:

    Very cogent arguments here. I particularly signal out the failure of governments to do their duty. The duty of a government is to attend the wellbeing of all its citizens etc who make up the nation. No ifs or buts.
    We area very wealthy nation. We can afford easily to house the homeless, with no stigma attached. We can afford to provide welfare for all who need it, free healthcare and education K_16. We used to do better than we do today. I had free education in the 1050’s with just a modest fee. I’ve always had free healthcare, the pay for system was just a political spin game based on rotten politics. I could afford a house in the 1970’s before the Government [both sides]made asset growth into the mad scheme it is now. My 50+ year old son will never be able to afford a house in Sydney and he has abandoned the thought, and he has a partner with a full time job as well.
    The solution is to abandon the mad economics mess we have worked with. The mainstream is mired in failed models based on lousy ideas of perfect men and women. Instead base it on laws and the constitution and duty. It is utterly insensible to think the budget should be in surplus. A budget surplus is a surplus of Tax. Tax is not spending money. Federally it is just a cost. The spending is the other side, the deficit spend. Deficit spending by governments is the asset creation for the non government sector. An accounting identity, government deficits equals non government assets, to the dollar.
    So a budget surplus is not a saving. It is a debt. The surplus of tax requires the private sector to use its assets to make up the difference for a zero balance.
    This is one serious flaw in the understanding of economics which puts good governance at risk. There are many more. MMT describes them. Learn it and prosper. The governments [of all persuasions] need to brutally drown all ideas of a surplus and det the economy moving again. It is totally incompetent to continue down that stupid path,

    • Colin Cook says:

      A great comment to a great article; it touches upon the other great ‘world leading’ feature of Australian society not listed in Hugh’s article. Namely, that we are very near the top of the table for personal debt.

  4. Diana Barry says:

    We should all be questioning the Liberal National coalition a lot more deeply as the National Party is the source of a lot of the excessive right wing currents in this country. We need to know just what kind of agreements the Liberals have to make to keep this coalition and therefore gain government. We have no idea but I think a few of us are beginning to guess.

  5. Evan Hadkins says:

    I hope we can do it fast enough.

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