For many Australians, Australia no longer feels like Australia. The relaxed, sunny, and optimistic attitude characteristic of the quintessential Australian has been replaced by a deep sense of pessimism, malaise, and a loss of self-confidence and self-belief. There is a growing unease that something has gone very wrong with our country and way of life, accompanied by an unshakable belief that Australia’s best days are behind it.
The spirit of our sunny optimism was perhaps best captured on 29 November 1948, the day the first commercially sold Holden rolled off the assembly line at Fishermans Bend in Port Melbourne. The Holden was “Australia’s own car.” The first car “made in Australia, for Australia”, described by then-Prime Minister Ben Chifley as a “beauty.”
The Holden was more than a car. It was a symbol of national success and hope for the future. The parent company of Holden, General Motors, stated at the time that “the manufacture of a car is the greatest industrial stride Australia has made since the production of steel was introduced in Newcastle in 1915.” And that the start of car manufacturing “will go down as a milestone in Australia’s history.”
It was a time when almost every Australian who wanted a job had one. And almost every one of those jobs was stable, full-time, and available to Australians of any cultural background, skill level, or occupation. It was the era that gave birth to the Australian dream of owning a home in the suburbs on a quarter acre block.
Australia became a workers’ paradise that attracted millions of migrants after the Second World War from Greece to Poland to Germany to Italy. They readily and happily assimilated into Australian society by learning English, starting businesses, raising their families and, in doing so, enriched our nation. In 1955, the year the one millionth post-World War Two migrant arrived in Australia, half of Holden’s national workforce of 5,400 were migrant workers from 38 different countries. Only 14 per cent of the national population were born overseas at the time, according to the Census of the previous year.
It is true that the end of World War Two did not bring the end of human conflict and division. Internationally, the threat of fascism faded as the spectre of communism rose, and the Soviet Union and Communist China replaced Nazi Germany as the challengers to Western liberal democracies. The Cold War played out as hot conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and Egypt, and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 brought the world close to full-scale nuclear conflict. Australia had its own domestic challenges, too, with sectarian disputes between Catholics and Protestants, workers’ strikes, and the ongoing challenge of socialism.
Australians got through these challenges because we were overwhelmingly united in our shared values and sense of optimism. A shared commitment to liberal democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of religion, egalitarianism, classlessness, family and community, and the heritage of Western Civilisation came to define the Australian way of life.
This communal commitment to equality and national solidarity was demonstrated in 1967 when 91 per cent of Australians voted in a referendum to make Australia more whole and equal by voting to remove certain references to race in Australia’s Constitution so that Aboriginals would be counted as equals.
If 1948 was the year Australia became a grown-up, self-reliant nation, 1967 was the year that Australia became whole. And 1983 was the year that Australia became a global player, with our victory over America in the America’s Cup.
This sense of optimism lasted until the end of the century and was book-marked by the year 2000. The end of the millennium was a time of monumental success for Australia. The economy was booming, there was a popular and stable government in Canberra, and the Sydney Olympics gave Australians the opportunity to proudly show off to the rest of the world not only our athletic prowess, but the great and iconic Harbour Bridge and Opera House too.
Australia won a national record 58 medals at the 2000 Olympics, tied third with China and behind only Russia and the United States. At the same time, the Australian cricket, rugby, and soccer teams enjoyed great successes in their respective international competitions.
Australia was unbeatable.
But much has changed. It feels as though Australia has not had a win for some time. Australians are pessimistic and miserable. Our institutions are eroding. Even sporting success is now fleeting. The Australian way of life has declined so swiftly, and in such a significant way, that Australia is almost unrecognisable from just 20 years ago, let alone since 1983, 1967, or 1948.
Australia is now a free and liberal democratic nation in name only.
The parameters of every major debate are now bounded by a combination of an ever-growing body of laws which restrict speech and expression, and a culture which is becoming increasingly censorious and intolerant to any view that deviates even marginally from the politically correct one. This censorship is taking place across all the major issues which affect our nation and its future: large-scale immigration, climate change, national identity and culture, religious expression, and, most recently, the response of governments to
Worse, the insidious nature of legal and cultural censorship means Australians are self-censoring for fear of an intolerant mob that is all too willing to expel them from polite society, lobby to have them fired, and ruin their life. Self-censorship poses an existential danger to a liberal democratic nation because once people start to self-censor – that is, they stop saying what they really think and believe – they soon lose the ability to articulate their thoughts. Eventually, those thoughts, and the ideas and beliefs which underpin them, simply disappear. People forget. And those thoughts, ideas, and beliefs are lost forever.
Self-censorship is fundamentally at odds with what it means to be an Australian. Australians are renowned for their direct and irreverent (some call it crass) speech and their dismissive attitude toward authority. Australians, in fact, delight in offending the delicate sensibilities of Europeans and, to a lesser extent, Americans and Brits. It is a part of our classless nature. Initiating or enjoying a crass joke, for example, doesn’t depend on one’s accent or cultural background.
Self-censorship results in others erroneously believing that few think as they do. The 19th century French aristocrat and diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America that the effect of censorship is that “[The] majority, feeling isolated, begin to retreat into silence rather than speak out for what it mistakenly thinks is a minority view.”The overwhelming majority of Australians are proud to be Australian, are proud of Australia’s history, and believe, for example, that Australia Day should be celebrated on 26 January each year.
But a cursory reading of the news or scrolling through social media would have one believe that these are arcane, niche views, which only backward-looking and reactionary people would hold.
Perhaps more concerning than the growth of legal prohibitions on Australians has been the advent of the enforcement arm of political correctness: cancel culture. Cancel culture is the phenomenon of Australians silencing and censoring one another through extra-legal mechanisms. Practiced almost uniquely by the postmodern left, common tactics include putting pressure on employers to fire employees who have publicly expressed conservative views; putting pressure on businesses to withdraw their advertising from certain publications and television programs; denying conservatives a platform from which they can voice their opinions (referred to as de-platforming); and the practice of ‘doxing’ which is to publish private information about an individual with the intent of that person being identified and harassed into silence.
The censorship of public debate, and the closing in of the boundaries of what is considered acceptable public opinion is not just a feature of our culture. It is also reflected in our politics and political system.
Australians who are unhappy with the direction of their country have little opportunity for recourse at the ballot box. Over the last two decades Australia’s two major parties have become less and less differentiated. On many of the major issues that matter to the future of Australia, the differences between the Coalition and Labor are of degree rather than kind. In his 2003 book From the Suburbs: Building a Nation for our Neighbourhoods, Mark Latham argued that “the political spectrum is best understood as a struggle between insiders and outsiders – the abstract values of the powerful centre versus the pragmatic beliefs of those who feel disenfranchised by social change.”
The vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in 2016 demonstrates this point on an international level. In Australia, the search for representation is demonstrated by growing disengagement, and a declining share of the vote going to the major parties.
A key driver of this growing discontent and disengagement is a feeling amongst the public that the political system simply doesn’t reflect their interests, concerns, or aspirations. Members of Parliament and those who surround them as staffers, advisors, and in the bureaucracy typically have a narrow background which is unrepresentative of the population at large. At the federal level in Australia, 52 per cent of all parliamentarians have recorded at least some occupational history as a party or union official, or as a staffer to a member of state or federal parliament. This is an increase from 38 per cent among the parliamentary cohort of 1999.
Working-class Australians have historically been underrepresented in parliament but have nonetheless accounted for a significant portion of parliamentarians. In 1950, for example, approximately one-third of the Commonwealth parliament had a working-class background. Today, less than two per cent of Commonwealth parliamentarians were engaged in working-class occupations immediately before entering parliament, compared to approximately 30 per cent of the Australian labour force.
The growing disconnect between the mainstream and the elites has, over the last two decades, metastasised into all areas of our society. Those at the commanding heights of our economy and culture have formed a detached enclave. The upper echelons of big business, unions, universities, non-government organisations, and media organisations increasingly come from a narrow background and share similar values and beliefs.
In The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, British journalist and commentator David Goodhart captured this with his distinction between “Somewheres” and “Anywheres”. Goodhart’s Anywheres are a “large minority group of the highly educated and mobile who tend to value autonomy and openness and comfortably surf social change.” They are the ones who have come to dominate our society and politics. Conversely the Somewheres are a “larger but less influential group” who “value security and familiarity and are more connected to group identities than Anywheres.”
Somewheres are rooted in time and place, and are committed to family and community. They are patriotic, proud to be Australian, and are proud of our culture, traditions, institutions, and history.
The Anywheres, by contrast, are rootless cosmopolitans, who have more in common with their globe-trotting counterparts in London, Tokyo, Brussels, and New York than working-class citizens of their own nation. Not only do they have no sense of allegiance to Australia, or to its values or customs. They are ashamed of them.
The Anywheres see Australia as an international hotel room to which they have the right to check in and out as they please. Any constraint – legal or moral – is seen as an illegitimate and unfair inhibition of their self-expression and self-actualisation. They are, in the main, ungrateful to the country that has provided them with the opportunity to succeed and get ahead.
The corollary of the rise of the elites is the collapse of egalitarianism. Australia was once celebrated as the least class- conscious society in the world, and perhaps ever. It wasn’t where you came from, or your accent or last name that mattered, but your ability to work hard and contribute. True, Australia did not always live up to this ideal. But Australians expected their politicians and “betters” in society to at least pretend that they weren’t better than anyone else.
Well into the 1990s Australia was still a nation where a low-skilled migrant worker, with an elementary grasp of English who had no more than a high-school education, could learn a trade, start their own business, own a home, raise a family, send their children to a good local school, and have a bit left over for a modest but comfortable annual family holiday. Not anymore.
Opportunities for Australians with modest skills and those who have received no formal education beyond high school are almost non- existent. The collapse of industries, such as manufacturing, agriculture, heavy industry, and associated manual labour work which provided stable, well-paying work for low-skilled (and often migrant) workers has diminished opportunity. These jobs have been replaced with predominately low-paying, unstable and precarious work which is at risk of automation and outsourcing.
Since the year 2000, for example, some 43 per cent of all jobs created have been in industries which are in the lowest third of employee pay, while more than half of these new jobs were part-time.
It is simply impossible to buy a home or raise a family with such uncertain employment foundations.
We can see the effects of this on our streets. Australia’s major cities are now scattered with low-skilled and low-paid migrant food delivery drivers who work for multi-nationals like Uber dropping food to the doors of mansions in ritzy suburbs occupied by the cosmopolitan Anywheres who are responsible for the outsourcing and destruction of high-paying, stable manufacturing jobs of the kind the migrant food delivery driver would have held in the past.
The disparity within Australia can also be seen in another bedrock of the Australian way of life: homeownership. As recently as 2014, 67 per cent of households owned the home they lived in. This was comprised of 53 per cent who owned only the house they lived in, and 13 per cent who owned the house they lived in plus at least one other house. By 2018 the percentage of Australians who owned the home they lived in had dropped to just 50 per cent, while those who owned multiple houses increased to 16 per cent.
It is tempting to suppose that the changing structure of the Australian economy and society is the product of inexorable forces. That there is a deterministic process which all nations go through, from agricultural, to industrial, to services-based economies. That economic globalisation, and the free flow of capital, goods, and people is the natural state of the world. That national borders are artificial constraints placed on economic efficiency. And that removing these constraints to achieve global wage and price parity is the culmination of the “arc of history”.
This is true to some extent, but the role of the political class cannot be discounted. Globalisation was, and is, a choice. Successive Australian governments, starting under Whitlam, have made conscious decisions to remove barriers to trade and open Australia up to the global market. There have undoubtably been many benefits of doing so – the forces of comparative advantage and free trade have generally made Australians wealthier – but that is not to say either that there were no costs involved or that our elites had no power to change the shape of this supposed “arc”.
Accompanying the upheaval in Australia’s economy in recent decades has been the gutting of our society. Civil society in Australia has largely collapsed, and Australians now ask or expect government to do what they once did for themselves in concert with local associations. Welfare, health care, education, and other forms of social assistance are now overwhelmingly the domain of government. Over the past 50 years the percentage of Australians engaging in some form of volunteering has declined, as has church attendance, the marriage rate, and the proportion of couples who have children.
Some have suggested that a declining civil society and the associated expansion of government is beneficial because it has liberated Australians from their – in the words of Edmund Burke – “chosen and unchosen obligations” to one another. A government that takes care of children, the infirm, the elderly, and the destitute relieves Australians of those burdens to pursue, presumably, more important things. In reality though, it has left Australians isolated and has diminished the vocational and char