From We to Me


There is a persistent tendency in this time of trouble to see the Government as the source of the problem. But such a response is facile and unhelpful, for two reasons.

The first is that the Opposition is hard to distinguish from the Government in most of the issues confronting us, and indeed is responsible for some of them because of its own actions in government between 1983 and 1996.

The second is that a major part of the problem in contemporary Australia is us, the electorate.

What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia

The transformation of Australia over the last half-century is a great story of achievement, and I am happy to celebrate it. From a conservative and blinkered, mono-cultural British colony, not at all sure of who it was, we have become a confident, creative, energetic, curious and tolerant multi-ethnic society that, along with Canada, can show the world that multi-ethnic societies can work very well indeed, and in an egalitarian way, too.

Our art, music, sport, literature, theatre, education and creative endeavours are generally high class. Australians participate, they don’t just consume. They are a lot healthier than their forebears, and they live longer (even the obese will live longer than their obese forebears, although there are lot more obese now than there used to be). In comparison to other English-speaking societies Australians are well-travelled, well-read and usually well-mannered. They have a high work ethic and a great interest in learning more.

But these improvements and they are real and important have come with some costs. You could express the costs as the shift from ‘we’ to ‘me’. Unlocking individual creativity is a great gain, and I would not have it undone. Yet, the more we focus on the individual and her rights and needs and future, the less we focus on the community and its infrastructure, values and survival.

In comparison with 30 years ago, Australians are only half as likely to belong to a political party, and much less likely to take politics seriously. In this we are not alone. Declines of this kind are characteristic of modern, developed countries.

At this point, we can turn our attention back to contemporary political parties, who are agreed that they can’t solve all humanity’s problems and that in many cases they shouldn’t even try. In the 1960s, by contrast, Lyndon Johnson, Harold Wilson, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber and Gough Whitlam were all confident of the capacity of governments to deal with social and economic issues of any kind. All that was required was knowledge and money and, of course, themselves in the driving seat.

Such confidence went out a long time ago, with Keynesian economics and cheap oil. For the last 20 years at least we have heard more and more about the power and virtues of a thing called ‘the market’, which shouldn’t be interfered with (although it is society that decides what markets can and can’t sell, when and where and how they operate, and so on).

Governments now see themselves as having minimalist aims. If there is a budget surplus, it should be handed back. Nation-building is a thing of the past, because the nation has been built. Maintaining it is a matter requiring only a tweak here and there. A high credit rating for the country is hugely important, but there must be no borrowing.

The future? That is for individuals to determine for themselves, with the power of the choice that is now available to them. Those who don’t have much choice need to work harder; and they wouldn’t know what to do with the choice anyway. Safety net? The high-wire is good for you. Aspiration is everything.

It is easy to send all this up, but dangerous too. For there is a strong plausibility built into it. A very large number of contemporary Australians know that in material terms they are better off than their parents and grandparents ever were, and their capacity to do what they want is much greater.

Half of all Australian households own shares. It is not surprising that they see economic effort on their own part as more rewarding, and much more immediate in its outcomes, than political action. They don’t quite understand how the market works (but then, no one else does, either) but taking part in its activities and profiting thereby is the new orthodoxy. It is a very individual approach to life, and in harmony with prevailing culture.

Our kind of democracy works because politicians, desirous of gaining and keeping power, listen hard to what they think we want, and promise to bring it about. Forty years have passed since politicians talked seriously about ‘building’ Australia and 20 years since they talked seriously about equality and equal opportunity. Why? Because we the electorate have been advised, and are content, to settle for less for a more individualistic view of society, a vision of the good life that is based on ownership of things, and a confident selfishness that sees other’s misfortunes as probably their own fault. You can find these sentiments in Mark Latham’s 2004 election speeches no less than in John Howard’s.

More, both major political parties proclaim their own version of pro-Americanism, and we the electorate have gone along with it. We simply assume that our interests and those of the USA are so similar as to be identical. We accepted a Free Trade Agreement (that we will probably greatly regret) in part because both sides said it was a good thing. It is almost impossible to get a serious discussion of Australia’s long-term interests, first because of the assumption that we are in America’s corner, and second because many of us feel more ‘global’ than Australian. Australia is just where we live. It is the team we back. Our sense of active citizenship is much reduced.

This slow move into indifference with politics is not a form of wickedness, but it is a serious problem for our society. It has helped to produce the present dreadful mess we are in with respect to Iraq, ‘the war on terror’ and the proposed domestic security legislation. We have lost a strong sense of what our country ‘stands for’, because that is a statement about ‘us’ rather than about ‘me’. We like ‘us’ talk mostly when the Socceroos win.

When we realise that we have let things drift too far the politicians will pick that up, and do something else in response. It is pointless blaming them, for it is we who elected them.

In democracies you get the political parties you deserve, and you can always do something about it. Our problem is that we are very busy doing all the exciting things that out wealth, education and skills allow us to do. The political side of things has become boring, and the politicians themselves a boring, elite profession whose members we hardly encounter.

From time to time you can hear people bemoaning this state of affairs, and longing for a new leader, a man or woman on a white horse who will have the right words and say them the right way, then things will be good again soon afterwards. I think that this is a real error: it is we the electors who need to change, and that will require a lot of effort on our part.

We do need a new dream one based on equal respect, because all of us started with essentially equal talents, although by no means equal luck. We need a recognition that the whole is just as important as the parts, and that a selfish, indifferent Australia cannot help itself, or build a better country for the next generations of Australians, let alone assist others overseas, who are less fortunate than ourselves, to make better societies. And we have the great advantage that we are well educated and well equipped to do all this.

Why don’t we start?

What would you do?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.