SUSANNE ROBERTS. Hugh Mackay reimagines a more compassionate Australia (Book Review)

May 5, 2018

Esteemed social researcher Hugh Mackay’s latest book Australia Reimagined: Towards a more compassionate, less anxious society is exquisitely timed. As the daily headlines tell of bank and church scandals and failures in the health, education and housing systems, many of us are asking what went wrong and are increasingly preoccupied with searching for solutions. We have little faith that governments of either colour will cease their pointless political manoeuvrings, sever their murky allegiances and muster the bottle to come up with solutions.

In Australia Reimagined, Mackay writes with wit, insight and warmth about the way we are, the fault lines and the way we could be. He stresses that not everything is off the rails. Australia is still a wonderful country in many ways, peaceful and harmonious. And we can justly be proud of our superb natural environment (though some of that, for example the Great Barrier Reef, is under threat).

However, despite unprecedented economic growth we are more socially fragmented, more anxious, more depressed, more overweight, more medicated, deeper in debt and increasingly addicted – whether to our digital devices, drugs, pornography or ‘stuff’ – than ever before.

So how did we arrive at this sad state of affairs? Mackay argues that part of the answer is rampant individualism and materialism, with the result that we no longer engage with issues as we once did. He says that the increased fragmentation of Australian society, together with our anxiety epidemic and the closely related epidemics of depression and obesity, need urgent redress. That will take courage. The major barrier to tackling these challenges is our culture of excessive individualism, where people place their own interests ahead of the community’s.

Here is the heart of the matter, an explanation for governments’ unwillingness to act on these and other related major public health issues such as physical inactivity, rising binge drinking and drug abuse. Doing so would not be popular, and would necessitate turning a deaf ear to the powerful alcohol and sugar lobbies, among others.

Mackay’s underlying theme is that we are suffering from a deficit of compassion. But he remains optimistic that we can reverse the trends and avoid descending into chaos.

He makes a plea that we stop wringing our hands and put most of our mental and emotional energy where we can personally make a difference – into the local community, and at work. He believes we can influence the state of the nation by being responsive to the needs of those around us, by engaging with our neighbours and contributing to the life and health of our community – “the state of the nation is a reflection of the state of our society, and that ultimately depends on the quality of our interactions with each other.”

In the last chapter of the book, Mackay lists 20 things he would like to say (or would like others to say) about an ideal Australia. He urges readers to tick the ones they agree with, cross off the ones they don’t, and scribble their own in the margin.

The chapter heading is Big hearts, open minds, which pretty well sums up his vision for the citizens of Australia in future. There is much food for thought in his wish list, which includes a society where people respect each other; where kindness and compassion are regarded as normal; where equality means what it says; and where we treat refugees generously. Where we value schoolteachers as highly as other professionals; see excessive busyness as a sign of foolishness or inefficiency rather than as a badge to be worn with pride; and regard violence as a sign of weakness.

The list also includes a wish for a society powered only by clean and renewable energy sources, with our own head of state.

I immediately added two of my own to Mackay’s list: a society where governments govern rather than rule (thank you Barrie Cassidy), making decisions for the common good and not just to win the next election; and a society that places a high value on the contribution of arts and culture to our lives and ensures arts bodies and cultural institutions are funded accordingly.

I’m sure other readers will disagree with some of Mackay’s wish list as well as my additions, and add more items of their own. His suggestions for a better Australia, particularly on schools funding and alternatives to our political system, will also cause dissent.

Mackay is a national treasure. He is among our greatest public thinkers, a man who teems with ideas and astutely reads the public mood, drawing on his 60-year research career. So it was odd to read freelance writer Richard King’s review of Australia Reimagined (The Weekend Australian of April 28-29) in which he commented that as Mackay was born in 1938, it was to his credit that he declined to stay silent on issues that would soon cease to concern him. Is King, born in 1971, saying that there is an accepted age limit for people to speak out on societal issues – say five or ten years before they can reasonably expect to die? Or is he taking literally the label the Silent Generation, that is those born between1926 and1945? Either way it seemed a gratuitous, condescending and ageist comment.

If more of our elders, with their long career and life experiences, had taken the time and effort to express their concerns about where Australia was headed, and proposed thoughtful suggestions – and if we had listened to them and taken action –perhaps our country would in be less of a mess.

Australia Reimagined: Towards a more compassionate, less anxious society, Hugh Mackay, Macmillan, 336pp, $32.99

Hugh Mackay will speak about Australia Reimagined at various venues in May and June, including  the Brisbane Powerhouse (12 May) and the School of Life (Sydney, 12 June).

Susanne Roberts has more than 40 years’ experience as a journalist, government media adviser, travel writer and corporate communications specialist. She is a Fellow of the Public Relations Institute of Australia and recently retired from a senior ACT Government role in Canberra.

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