Trouble in the Suburbs


The myths that dominate Australian public life don’t start at the bottom and work their way up; they start at the top and attempt to work their way down. Their cult is itself part of the calculated mediocrity that defines much of Australian public life.

On the whole, people don’t ascend to the top in Australian public life by stating beliefs that derive from talent or experience. They get to where they are because of what they believe. Among the people who run things in Australia — the technocratic elite of journalists, economic advisers, politicians and so on, who have been the stewards of economic reform — there’s a mindset and a set of guiding myths to which must be paid lip service in order for them to be taken as credible, to sit at the right Canberra tables, to be given column space on certain editorial pages, to work their way up through the ranks of the right organisations; to be granted, in short, a hearing.

Somewhere near the top of the list of currently prevailing myths is the idea that in Australia "things have never been so good". The problem confronting the Howard government in the lead-up to the 2007 election — as Laurie Oakes, senior sage of Australia’s Canberra punditocracy, concluded in one of his more memorable columns, stating sentiments by then almost universal among the political cognoscenti — was simply that people had forgotten how well they’d done and that Liberal Party strategists, if they wanted to win, needed to remind them.

It was obvious, right, that people were doing well? Yet the very same edition of the Bulletin in which Oakes’s column appeared included a survey that showed that more than half of all Australians believed they hadn’t made economic progress.

Such people, according to the favoured economic story-line, were simply deluded. Back in 2004, the authors Macgregor Duncan, Andrew Leigh, David Madden and Peter Tynan argued in their book Imagining Australia that people were far more prosperous than they realised, and that the real problem was that the government had stopped selling the benefits of reform.

By 2007, those spruiking Australia’s universal prosperity mythology were getting impatient with people’s refusal to get the message. "Stop Whingeing. Life Is Getting Easier" was how one newspaper headline put it. According to the article, "Australian consumers, too busy crying poor, have failed to realise that almost everything — from food and alcohol to cars, and even petrol — is becoming more affordable". Over the past five years, consumer prices had risen by just 14 per cent.

Wages, meanwhile, had gone up by 25 per cent and taxes had fallen. Cited was CommSec chief equities economist Craig James, who accused Australians of having "a chronic case of money myopia" because they "believe that their financial position has worsened rather than improved over time". "And although consumers might not fully appreciate it," he said, "most are enjoying their new wealth, buying bigger homes and investment properties and signing up for new deals such as internet access, pay TV and international holidays".

His colleague, CommSec equities economist Martin Arnold, could only agree. "It’s really a mind-set", he said. "People obviously focus on prices going up, but they don’t take into account other factors such as wages going up … Things may not be cheaper, but they are more affordable."

Such opinions aren’t the exclusive preserve of a perhaps conservative finance elite. "Our lifestyle aspirations", argues leftist commentator Clive Hamilton in the same article, "have been rising faster than our incomes so there’s a misery gap opening up even though we are richer than we have ever been". "We have become a bunch of Aussie whingers", Hamilton says. "How affluent do we have to be before we stop feeling deprived?"

Most takes on Australia’s universal prosperity myth rest on two assumptions. The first is that real new wealth has been created by economic reform and the second is that it’s being distributed evenly. The sources of the new wealth, though, are debatable. Growing household debt is as much a driver of the recent boom as one of its symptoms. Nor is the new wealth, such as it is, being evenly distributed. The mining boom states are propping up the rest of the economy, while government handouts mask significant underlying inequality.

To hear ordinary people being accused of "whingeing", or of "not knowing" their own financial situation or of having "forgotten" how well they’ve done, is to be reminded of how out of touch the expert opinion is with those who have been the objects of economic reform.

So entrenched are the mythologies that dominate commentary that when the suburbs don’t think as the pundits expect, it’s the suburbs that are at fault.

As it happens, and as was reported in Australian Social Attitudes: The First Report, most Australians don’t much like the economic transformation that’s taken place since the 1980s. They’re suspicious of deregulation, wary of globalisation, big business and free-trade, worried by growing inequality, angry at declining services, and believe that government should offer more protection to citizens. Since the 1980s, support for privatisation has fallen.

Also since that time, public support for tax cuts has waned, while through John Howard’s tenure, support for greater social spending by the government increased.

People are seeking things, in other words, that aren’t being provided by markets. And as the Bulletin survey showed, many also feel that they’re no better off than they were a decade ago. Australians apparently go along with reform because they’ve been given little choice. This isn’t to say that people have simply been steamrolled by change. Most have adapted to the post-reform economic world and its uncertainties with an assuredness that belies any possibility that they are simply victims of change. But the fact that people have adapted to change doesn’t make it right or just. Or sustainable. Or best for the country as a whole.

Above all, most people want Australia to be a kinder, fairer place. The concern held by many Australians, that this is a much less equal country than it once was — in 2000, 88 per cent of Australians believed inequality was growing — isn’t simply practical but deeply symbolic. It derives from the deeply held belief that Australian society, by definition, should prize equality, because in Australia one person is as good as the next.

Australians’ definition of wealth, it would seem, goes well beyond their own hip pocket to the very definition of democracy itself.

This is an edited extract from The Land of Plenty: Australia in the 2000s by Mark Davis (Melbourne University Press).

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.