The sun has been kind to suburban Australia, whose denizens have long basked in the warmth that comes from the quiet, unaffected enjoyment of one’s homeworld.
This was no nirvana. It had its own failings, some of them awful. And yet somehow much of their force tended to fade under the relentless and enervating glare of Australian ordinariness. Postmodernists, with some reason, decry the cultural pettifoggery that characterised life in suburban Australia.
But we should not forget their remarkable success as ‘machines of tolerance’ that embraced and calmed countless fears and antipathies born in other parts of the globe.
The public spheres were often scruffy the unkempt parks and ovals, the strangely undeveloped pockets of bushland. And they were built piecemeal the shops and the services that we seemed to wait an age for. There were plenty of other instances were the
public sphere was developed quickly and to a
high standard Canberra comes to mind.
Despite these drawbacks, many of them unnecessary, the public sphere served the Australian suburban populace pretty well. For the vast majority, there was no ready alternative and thus almost everyone commingled in the rough and ready civic schools of suburbia.
Australian Heartlands by Brendan Gleeson
There were no racialised tensions to match those of US cities our own racialised minority, Indigenous Australians, were largely missing from suburbia, an absence with complex causes but which surely limited both the quality of suburban life and the breadth of suburbanites’ cultural outlooks. When migrants, and later their children, began to move outwards from inner city toeholds into suburbia, there was remarkably little fuss as school classes, sporting clubs and train carriages began to look more diverse. The sometimes rickety, often scruffy public sphere of suburbia performed remarkably well, keeping the gates of citizenship open for the newcomers.
But now the gates of citizenship are slamming shut in suburbia. Shadows of fear and antipathy are spreading across this bright, occasionally scorching, diorama of Australian life. Some formerly bright places are succumbing to the greys of poverty and neglect, whilst newer, exclusive communities are floodlit, like stage sets, with the garish, artificial light thrown out by relentless advertising and political spin.
The consequences for democracy of the changes described above are surely profound.
Similar, if not identical, shifts have been observed in Britain and the USA. The eminent British sociologist, Anthony Giddens has characterised the phenomenon as the ‘voluntary exclusion of the elites’ and the ‘involuntary exclusion of the excluded.’ Again, social and geographic polarisation is linked to a withering of the public realm.
Another British commentator, Anna Minton, writes in Building Balanced Communities: the US and UK compared:
the result is that mainstream institutions schools, hospitals and local government become increasingly marginalised, with the consequent impact on the public sector services and local government and local democracy.
In suburban Australia these same social geographic shifts register in new polarities of outlook and morale. The strengthening moods of separatism and privatism amongst the growing number of affluent communities are mirrored by the deepening gloom and ill-humour of its excluded and poorer peoples.
The quietly eroding possibilities for integrated social development signal in turn the decline of ‘social solidarity.’ Social solidarity is not the dreary bogey portrayed by zealots of the Right: it requires neither homogeneity nor mechanical uniformity. As the author David Malouf observes in A Spirit of Play: The Making of Australian Consciousness,
wholeness does not necessarily mean uniformity, though that is how we have generally taken it. Nor does diversity always lead to fragmentation.
Social solidarity needs a rich and mixed societal soil if it is to survive and thrive. Practically speaking, this means communities that contain a balance of different views, skills, cultures and resources. As the political analyst, Guy Rundle, points out, the development of ‘communal and collective forms of life’ is the precondition for, not the antithesis of, a flourishing ‘selfhood and individuality.’
Some forms of difference, however, are entirely antithetical to solidarity. The new exclusive and exclusionary residential communities are one such form. Differences based on separation, not mixing, are harmful to collective democratic purpose. The expression of ‘choice’ by those seeking asylum in privatopias [like the new ‘gated’ communities]masks a deep opting out of the social.
The same is true of the other publicly subsidised realms of private choice that are undermining the collective interest in schooling and healthcare. That these actions which injure democracy should be publicly subsidised is a perversity of the age.
Has the erosion of the public realm in suburban Australia reduced the possibilities for mutually enriching social interaction whilst increasing the risks of cultural segmentation and misunderstanding? The western Sydney Regional Organisation of Councils (WSROC) thinks so, expressing its deepening concern that gated communities are promoted as the way to escape from ethnic conflict perceived to be endemic to the middle ring suburbs of Sydney.
It is highly doubtful that these encampments of a broader ‘Fortress Australia’ will provide tolerant, well-integrated communities where differences are understood and respected and where diversity is celebrated. A consequence of this taxpayer-supported narcissism is the further erosion of both the public realm and social solidarity in urban regions as they evolve into increasingly balkanised social landscapes.
Time for the public realm may be running out. In a piece in New Matilda, he political analyst, Ian McAuley, (link here ) asks the question:
Is Australia becoming an ‘opt out’ country? That is, a collection of physical and metaphorical gated communities, where those with the means opt out of using public education and public health services.
He believes that Australia may be approaching a ‘tipping point,’ when public services and facilities will topple into a precipice of social gloom and marginalisation. There is strong evidence already that the middle class is fleeing the public education and health systems, which increasingly service a troubled and poorer population.
Citing the analyses of US economist Thomas Schelling, McAuley observes that ‘Once systems tip into black/white, male/female, or rich/poor divisions, mixed systems are hard to re-establish even if the vast majority want a mixed system.’
In some parts of our cities, the public realm has already capitulated to the neo-liberal siege. The Sydney Morning Herald (link here) recently reported that ‘Public education in Sydney’s inner suburbs is dying,’ whilst ‘private schools in these areas have recorded strong growth.’
An obvious conclusion is that the withering of the public realm observed in Australia’s cities is progressively undermining the preconditions for national democracy and social harmony in this most urban of nations. The market occupies more of our lifeworlds than ever before. It has steadily consumed social time during the neo-liberal reform phases and is now breaking into social space.
On the surface, the
public realm is merely splintering, broken apart by new intrusions and flows of ‘choice.’ Below, however, one senses that the bases for Australian democracy are shattering. Terra Publica is breaking apart.
This is an edited extract from Australian Heartlands the winner of the inaugural John Iremonger Award for Writing on Public Issues. Published by Allen & Unwin, RRP: $24.95
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