By James Moylan
In just forty years the ‘Australian ethos’ has transformed itself utterly. We no longer believe we are ‘lucky’. Disillusionment and distrust has become the default setting.
Our juvenile political dreaming has been grossly tempered by the events of the last four decades. Our difficult adolescence has given way to widespread and very adult disenchantment. The ‘lucky country’ mentality has vanished. It seems that gradually, as a society, we have incrementally discovered that all of our fondest childhood dreams were mere phantasms.
Forty years ago it was easy to tell the story of what it meant to ‘be an Australian’ – this is no longer the case. All the core aspirations and rationales that were once held in common have, over the years, become ever less substantial. Aussie ‘culture’ seems to have thinned and disappeared slowly like the early morning mist. In its place we are left with cable & free-to-air television, national & local print media, plus local & national radio, that are all brought to you by a the same handful of national and multinational corporations. All with centralised newsrooms and similar post-modern sensibilities. We have over the last forty years turned from considering ourselves to be citizens of a commonwealth to be consumers in an economy. Where once we had local television, radio, newspapers, and school and community events: we are now all plugged into the same huge, massively differentiated yet amazingly particular, world-wide, multi-media experience. In the modern age the Australian accent fades and our disenchantment becomes personal, lonely, digital, and partisan.
Most significantly for the future of the Australian ‘ethos’ is the lack of any new explanations and stories being born on our own soil. It seems the Aussie story is dead. We are now engaged in retelling over and over again all our original stories in a new Aussie/Hollywood/capitalist vernacular. So translating all of our cultural myths for a modern audience. One that simply no longer believes that we all live in an egalitarian society, or that everyone is or should be pretty much equal. Or that this is any sort of an ideal that is worth pursuing. Or that any such agitation would likely make any sort of difference anyway. (Sigh).
So into this vacuum has roared a flood of American and mid-Atlantic comedies and commentaries and celebrities and reality shows, all interspersed with a million disjointed advertisements that all assume you are a heartless mongrel. Thus we have allowed corporations to usurp all authority and dilute ethics until we come to the current juncture where we all know that politicians are owned by vested interests, and yet it somehow just does not seem to matter. They have just been relabelled as ‘sponsors’ and ‘donors’. So now the general opinion is that it doesn’t matter who you vote for your vote is going to be overruled anyway. Cynicism is widespread and perfectly warranted considering there is so much to be cynical about.
As a result our society has become so dispirited and disjointed that we no longer even expect our politicians to act in the public interest. Quiet informed desperation has replaced angry activism. The idea that our politicians were ever anything other than corrupt and eminently corruptible now seems quaint. ‘Society’ is a quaint historical notion. As is ‘the public interest’. Everywhere you look self interest and the economy seem to rule. We are a land where there are lifters and leaners. You are a bludger or a battler. The modern Aussie parliament and our press is positively chock-full of just this moralistic spite.
And whether or not you are labelling or being labelled, in our modern social discourse, the ‘economy’ is considered to be an unstoppable natural force that overcomes and consumes all political volition. In our modern age we simply accept that we are ultimately ruled by ‘the whim of the marketplace’. In this way economic imperative has replaced all other universal considerations. It is the last great commandment left standing. Our politicians must contemplate all matters first and foremost in the light of our ‘economy’.
In the 70’s and 80’s the tone of the discussion we were having had an entirely different flavour. The Australia of my youth was at once a much smaller and much larger place. In 1975 there were only thirteen and a half million of us Aussies and we all shared much the same relatively egalitarian ethic. We were proud that we had a centralised wage fixing scheme and a stable traditional banking system with fixed interest rates and strict prudential controls. Social equity was a lived reality. We had lots of local newspapers with lots of different flavours of ‘news’. Rent was cheap. As were houses. Beers were different in every state, as were the retailers. Retail was still focussed in local shopping centres which were full of independent retail outlets.
However for forty years we have seen the retail, media, banking, and political options that Aussies enjoy shrinking even as the population has grown by ten million souls. From a generally equitable society we have gradually been transformed into a society of the rich and the poor. It is not only wages that have suddenly become ever more wildly disparate, during the last forty years we have witnessed the property owning class in our country become ever richer at the expense of all of the rest of us.
In 1975 average yearly earnings were $7616.00. The most expensive property market in that year was in Sydney where the average home cost $28,000 – or about three and a half times the average yearly wage. In the forty years since we have seen average wages rise to $72,000 and the average price of a house in Sydney skyrocket to just under a one million dollars – or a bit under fourteen times average weekly wages.
In other words earnings have gone up by almost tenfold and yet house prices have gone up by more than thirtyfold. Even while the top marginal tax rate has plummeted by 40%.
Therefore in our public discussions we have had to set aside most of our youthful aspirations. It is no longer tenable to conceive of Australia as being an equitable country. In fact just discussing ‘common’ aspirations at all seems to be naïve considering the constant partisan bickering. So American conversations and stories also seemed to better describe the reality we saw unfolding as our adolescent dreams soured.
Disillusionment and distrust is a far more appropriate default setting for appraising the modern Australian political and social landscape. But it is this disillusionment that is the most dangerous aspect of our current social malaise. The majority have become so despairing they are turning away from the political process in disgust, and our political masters are happily shutting and bolting the doors behind them. They are more than happy to be in control and stay in control.
So while I am confident that the worm will turn (as I do trust the eventual common-sense of the majority) it will likely be a very long time before enough Aussies get sufficiently angry to overthrow the many political and corporate monopolies that have gained such a vice like grip on so many aspects of our society. Everywhere you turn in our country there is immediate and anguishing evidence of unabashed corporate bastardry.
Our retail sector is all about two huge thugs being allowed to buy up virtually every retail sector they want while simultaneously sucking the life out of every one of their competitors and suppliers. Our mining sector is controlled by massive multinational corporations that repatriate their profits and will likewise leave the country as soon as the resources have been exhausted.
Yet still these and most other large multinational companies who operate in our country pay virtually no tax. Which, we are informed, is perfectly all right because our Prime Minister is a businessman who knows all about tax havens and the intricacies of international banking. He says they are sorry but still I am unsure if I should believe him. I am so unsure about so many things.
In our new media environment we all know that half of what is written in our papers and online cannot be trusted. But it’s largely impossible to be sure of which is which. So to get to anywhere where politicians are trusted and the press is reliable, from here, really does require a very long journey indeed. Just thinking about how we might mount such an epic journey is exhausting.
So while I am pretty sure that the current card castle that is the Australian property market will eventually come crashing down, and the giant banking, retail, mining, and press monopolies that have so debauched our society will eventually be tamed once again. The significant question is whether or not this will be in time to stave off economic depression and environmental devastation.
As with most everyone else I remain mildly pessimistic. But I am old enough to remember back before this pervading gloom set in. Back when we weren’t aware that we are all actively engaged in destroying the planet. Back before we surrendered all aspects of our daily life to the monopolising corporations that now crowd every desktop and lounge-room across the country. Way back when life really was a lot simpler. (sigh)
Mild despair does seem to be appropriate in this modern day and age. Excuse me while I reach for a distraction . . .
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