NOEL TURNBULL. Australians aren’t like that are they?

As consumers fight over toilet rolls and marauding bus-loads of city dwellers pillage local country stores of products,  the PM says we will get through it all because we are Australians. This is probably a good time to ask the question – what are Australians really like?

Our national myths encompass a large amount of rot – brave, iconoclastic, independent, inheritors of the Anzac tradition and proud singers of that awful song We Are Australians. Sadly the Word program can’t quite capture the little tremor that comes with the singing of the word Australians.

In fact our self-image is the product of two things: white or rose tinted views of our history and the impacts of years of deregulation and neo-liberalism. Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no such thing as society” is apposite for Australia because, despite how often conservative governments talk about values, mateship and having a go, we have always had geographic, class-defined and religious tribes who each didn’t think the others were really part of the ‘society’.

Many Australians probably only agreed on the hatred of the ‘other’ – usually coloured immigration – and the allegedly inevitable doomed fate of those they dubbed ‘Abos’.

Today we boast about our multicultural society but under the Aussie flag waving on Australia Day there are still deep-seated divisions which are being exacerbated by people like Peter Dutton while his Home Affairs Department displays its incompetence and he makes threats to the public which sound like something from Queensland coppers back in Jo’s day. He might have been better placed ensuring his Border Force was protecting the borders as 2700 passengers disembarked from the Ruby Princess on March 19 and the same week there were tightly packed queues at Sydney Airport.

Nevertheless, other than the Cronulla riots in which Alan Jones played such a deplorable role and some neighbourhood bashings, our divisions are not quite as violent as in the past. After all a fight over toilet paper rolls is small beer compared with: the estimated 350 to 400 massacres of Indigenous Australians between 1788 and 1930; the 1861-62 Lambing Flat anti-Chinese riots; Australian ‘blackbirding’ expeditions to secure labour for the cane fields; and, the 1942 Battle of Brisbane between rioting US and Australian soldiers.

At a lower level day-to-day violence during the 20th century was fairly common with fights regularly breaking out after closing time in pubs around the country. In the 21st century the violence continues with at least one woman killed each week as a result of domestic violence.

But there is also the wide streak of nastiness and ugliness which has started to seep into Australian society. The toilet paper fights were bad enough but the fair go egalitarian society rhetoric looks pretty thin when marauding bands of profiteers take buses to denude regional and rural stores of goods. It is also the height of hypocrisy when Peter Dutton, the ultimate scare-monger and promoter of creeping authoritarianism and calls them out for bad behaviour when they are merely acting out the sort of behaviour his rhetoric encourages.

And at even very basic levels the rise of incivility is remarkable. At the pool recently two large women effectively blocked up one lap lane by standing at one end for ages talking, swimming a lap and then doing the same at the other end. When chided one of them loudly stated: “We paid to get in so we can do whatever we want” – as good an example of the relevance of Marx’s cash nexus thesis as possible, let alone the neoliberal emphasis on price and choice as the basis of society.

At least Australia has not reached the Chilean situation. After the Kissinger-Nixon-ITT sponsored coup which brought Pinochet into power, and unleashed widespread murder and torture of dissidents, the Chicago boys moved in to implement what they believed would be the model for national economies around the world.

Today much of Santiago is desolated with burnt out and closed up buildings. After a war between angry protestors and the Carabineros national police the army came out to occupy the streets for only the second time such 1973.

While the Chilean economy (still the best performing in Latin America in many respects, thanks to post Chicago-Boys governments) was supposedly a great success for the Chicago school approach, the 200,000 young people in Santiago who neither work nor study and who rioted throughout the capital, like many other Chileans, are not so sure.

The unrest subsidised when the billionaire President agreed a process to establish a new Constitution which would redress many of the problems successive governments have not been able to overcome.

Chief amongst the ordinary Chileans’ concerns were the privatised health insurance scheme and the privatised retirement funding system. Both were devised by the Chicago boys and both have been an enormously successful in delivering massive benefits to the managers of the funds but derisory ones to citizens. Four fifths of pensions are less than the minimum wage and almost half are below the poverty line.

According to the Economist (14/3) on the health front the private health system is fine for some but when extra services are required the fund demands large additional funds and those who rely on the public system face huge waiting lists. The major pharmacy chains, which control 90% of the market, have also been found guilty of price collusion on drugs and even over-the-counter drug prices are massively inflated.

Now there are no riots in the streets in Australia. But we do pay out millions in subsidies to support a failing private health insurance system. Private sector retirement funds have gouged members for years with high fees for mediocre performance and only the presence of industry funds has ensured that low cost high return funds have been available.

The Chicago-Boys also never got a real foothold in Australia although for a while the then Treasurer, Phillip Lynch and the government were in thrall to monetarist theory along with some other governments. We didn’t have riots then either just another example of failed policies driven by ideology rather than reality.

Max Gillies, recounting the path to this outcome in one of his shows depicting John Howard, had Howard in a chair clad in a dressing gown sipping tea and talking about his career. He goes through the lowlights of his career and how people scoffed at and ridiculed him. At the end the now long-serving PM stops and pauses and then says to the audience: “You’re not laughing now are you?”

Our PM isn’t as blatant except that his society is one supposedly populated by quiet Australians who believe in a fair go but in actuality focus on having a go – at refugees, African gangs, Newstart recipients and many other groups. Or just having a go at that last roll of toilet paper on the shelf.

Noel Turnbull is retired and blogs at http://noelturnbull.com/blog/

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Noel Turnbull is a blogger who has had a 40-year-plus career in public relations, politics, journalism and academia.

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5 Responses to NOEL TURNBULL. Australians aren’t like that are they?

  1. Avatar Graeme Houghton says:

    You make some good points Noel that every Australian ought to think about. But people are people, whatever their nationality, ‘race’ or religion and it’s the generalisations that kill. Are Australians braves and iconoclastic; are they racist? Yes and yes, as are Russians, Chinese, Fijians, Norwegians, Irish, Kenyans and Calathumpians. They all have cultures that differ a little but we mustn’t be trapped by the sweeping generalisations.

  2. Avatar Andrew McRae says:

    Ethical choices for Australians:
    1. Everybody’s doing it.
    2. If I don’t do it, somebody else will.
    3. You’re a mug if you don’t.
    All leading to…
    4. I’m alright Jack.

  3. Avatar Noel Turnbull says:

    Thanks Ian. Long time. Keep me on the mailing list.
    Thank you Ted for the correction. Corrected on the blog but will probably stay as it is on P&I. It also got me thinking about the song We are Australian which prompted a correction on my blog. See https://noelturnbull.com/blog/a-correction/

  4. Avatar Ian Robinson says:

    Noel, I agree with almost everything you say, except for the dig at “I am Australian”. I’m sorry you are tone deaf to its charms. I often find myself with a tear in my eye at the end, even after having heard it for the umpteen thousandth time on the ABC.

    I actually used an extract, ironically and very effectively, at the end of my recent play about the plight of refugees at La Mama: “The Process”.

    But as the say: “De gustibus non est disputandum”.

  5. Avatar Ted Egan says:

    Great paper Noel but I hasten to defend the fine song “We are Australian” (note spelling) The word is an adjective not a noun

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