Our quality of life under threat from the meanness of politicians

May 28, 2024
2022:Australian families with babies.

Why do politicians and businesspeople of this nation continually pretend that the nation is on the ropes? The average income of most citizens and the average wealth has, in real terms, never been higher. Yet this is a nation which has heavily cut back on foreign aid and has been disinvesting in real terms in the quality of healthcare, education, and culture, all in the name of an austerity said to be demanded by our excesses. Meanwhile, enormous sums have been diverted to defence schemes, and to antagonising our closest trading partner, China.

This weekend we will celebrate the 50th birthday of my eldest daughter, Melisande Sarah. Sometime over the next month, her daughter and the wife of one of her sons, will each be having a baby, her first two grandchildren, my first two great-grandchildren. Her mother-in law is still alive: she will become a great great grandmother..

People who know me understand that I have always loved babies, and can hardly be restrained from picking them up, chatting to them, and, sometimes, carrying them about with a special (but safe) one-arm hold under the neck and belly. This has occasionally given heart attacks to young mothers, who fear I will drop them, and sometimes outright hostility from some men who suspect that my impulse to chat to them involves galloping paedophilia.

Actually, it owes more to growing up in rural NSW, where the O’Briens, my mother and her sisters, and one brother, collectively had 76 children, including my mother’s eight. Had one directly added the contributions of the Waterford men and women, there would have been an extra 32 or so, but one of my father’s brothers married one of my mother’s sisters, so the score of first cousins is about 101. For Waterfords of my generation, great-grandchildren are these days not uncommon, but the two soon coming will be the first O’Briens of the next generation, just as their grandmother was the first of hers.

When I was young, most of these cousins lived in the vicinity, mostly on sheep and cattle stations within 100 kilometres of so. I was among the older of our generation. We attended church and family functions together, cousins regularly played with each other, hand-me-downs passed from family to family, and crying babies, or toddlers were automatically picked up and comforted by anyone nearby. They had nappies changed without any necessary reference to parents, given items to chew on or suck, and often given milk. Women might be apprehensive about giving birth, but they were not usually terrified of babies, or ignorant of their needs and moods.

Most modern mothers in Australia these days come from small families, and do not get married until their late 20s or early 30s. That may mean that many have very little experience of young babies and their needs and demands and are terrified that they will do something wrong. Sometimes, I fear, their anxiety transfers to the child and makes their task more difficult.

Great-grandparents were far from uncommon in my baby boomer generation but are becoming a smaller proportion of the population even as people are living longer, and as most people have more ancestors alive than ever before. That’s because of the bigger average age gap between the generations. A good many people are becoming grandparents for the first time in their 60s and 70s. From being a child bride, I was a grandfather at 42, and if I have had to wait 30 years for the next generation, it is still theoretically possible that I could survive until there are great-great grandchildren around.

There are any number of family photos showing five generations of relations. The last involving me that I remember was of my great uncle Kevin, aged about 95, standing with my mother and myself. Alongside was Melisande Sarah and my third daughter Madeleine, holding Sarah’s new baby. Madelleine’s oldest son, Max, who was not quite around then has just celebrated his 10th birthday. All his (Max’s) great grandparents are dead, but all his grandparents are alive.

Smaller families, later marriages

I do not think that the general population will ever go back to large families, on the scale we saw after World War II, or in the first decade of the 20th century. For some decades, the national reproduction rate (the number of children the average woman will have) has been well below two, indeed it is now closer to one than two. That is to say that the population is not replacing itself, and without immigration, or the contribution of some special groups, the population would be falling steadily, as it already is in Italy and France, China and Japan. China has long abandoned its one child-policy, when it was trying to contain population growth, and is now contemplating, with great fear, the prospect of having only about half its present population 80 years from now. Although increasing wealth tends to reduce average family size in poorer nations, the fear of many of these countries is that they will not be able to sustain the workforce necessary for their wealth and power.

Here in Australia, Muslim immigrants and Indigenous Australians are of younger average age and are reproducing at rates higher than the wider population. The Muslim population is also increasing at a significantly faster rate than the Jewish population, which it already outnumbers three to one.

I used to think the one-child family as an especial horror among the Chinese population, traditionally very family oriented. If there were only one child to a family, children grew up without aunts and uncles, and without cousins. There was no network of relationships. A family fixed all its hopes and ambitions on a single child, sometimes jokingly called “the little Emperor” because it was so spoiled, and soon, so selfish. Parents would get over-involved in their child’s education, contesting marks or treatment in class because so much depended upon the child’s success. In larger families, children can still be precious and very much in focus, but without being the single object of hopes, ambitions and attention.

I am drawn to these musings in part by the publication this week of rankings produced by the Oxford Economics global cities index which rated Canberra the second city in the world for quality of life. Quality of life, the raters say encapsulates the wellbeing and satisfaction of a city’s residents, reflecting the intersection of various socio-economic factors. This category provides insight into the liveability and attractiveness of a city which can play a role in migration patterns, talent retention and the overall happiness of residents. Evaluating quality of life metrics in the index underscores the importance of urban policies that not only prioritise economic prosperity but also health equality and cultural vibrancy.

“At the top of the quality-of-life category are cities with lower inequality and residents that live long lives. Most of them also provide residents with access to a range of recreation and cultural amenities. These cities tend to be smaller than the leading cities in the economics and human capital categories, and every city in the top ten is located in western Europe bar one in Australia…. Canberra benefits from among the highest life expectancy rates in the world and high levels of income per person.”

Our quality of life under threat from cost-cutting, public meanness and the pretence that we are going broke

The 1000 cities are also rated for the economic status, human capital, their environment and governance, and Canberra does not perform so well on these indices. It is 179th for economics, 90th for its human capital, two for quality of life, 194th for environment and an amazing 18th for governance.

It certainly is a great place to bring up children, and has superior educational, cultural and recreational facilities. It has high (but alas declining) wealth and income equality. I have commented before that on a number of scales, Canberra can be rated as having among the highest standards of living in the world. Depending on what stress is put on matters such as climate, health, wealth, education, and political stability, Canberra vies with the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland. By most scoring, the Canberra standard of living is about 10 to 20 per cent per cent higher than in most of the rest of Australia, which itself enjoys a very high standard of living. There are suburban clumps, such as Vaucluse, Toorak or Peppermint Grove that may have better averages, but they are not whole cities.

What this means, of course, is that we have what everyone else around the world wants. We are, in effect, the heaven to which citizens in many other countries aspire. They may put higher premiums on some local factors, but so far as good and human satisfaction can be derived from wealth, income, security, stability, good health and climate this is one of the places where it all is.

This is not to suggest that everything is perfect here. Or that nothing could be improved. But one must ask why politicians and businesspeople of this nation continually pretend that the nation is on the ropes. The average income of most citizens and the average wealth has, in real terms, never been higher. Yet this is a nation which has heavily cut back on foreign aid and has been disinvesting in real terms in the quality of health care, education, and culture, all in the name of an austerity said to be demanded by our excesses.

Without much in the way of evidence that politicians can explain to the population at large, enormous sums have been diverted to defence schemes, and to antagonising our closest trading partner, China. That’s on top of attempting to panic the population about the risk of terrorism incidents, and the threat from people looking for safe haven and refuge from foreign wars and outrages. Helping others is now a luxury we cannot afford. Building social capital and strengthening our institutions must take second place to ideas of possible economic glory from allocating massive subsidies to very rich entrepreneurs, foreign and domestic. Shutting our borders to international students, to skilled workers who could build houses and fresh industries underscores limited imaginations. With or without climate change, one of the richest countries on earth is offering our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren a lesser and more narrow quality of life at the emotional and spiritual level.

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