The Big Ideas of 2008

The Upside Down Under

Kevin Rudd may have knocked off John Howard to become Australia's Prime Minister, but now the hard part comes in trying to lead a country that has never had a sense of direction.

With Australia on the verge of calling what was one the most pivotal elections in its history last September, Australians were consumed with excitement and anxiety about the outcome – of the Australian rules football Grand Final. And whether a nationwide outbreak of horse flu would force the first ever cancellation of the Melbourne Cup.

Founded as a convict dumping ground, and with no central moment of self-liberation or revolution to look back on as an identity-defining event, Australians have often looked to sport as a way to define themselves. It has created a hollow nation with no clear footing to build on.

For years, the hole where a really compelling founding myth should be has been filled with a projection into the future – that Australians were marching towards the 'light on the hill', a just society. But that project has dissipated as rates of political participation have fallen; many citizens have retreated into highly individualized and atomized lives, based around the big screen TV in their suburban McMansion.

Supporters of this lifestyle regularly point to quantitative surveys that suggest that Australians have high rates of happiness. But quantitative researchers also find a deep sense of unsettled and indefinable disquiet beneath it. There is only so much sport can compensate for.

Manning Clark, one of Australia's greatest historians, worried that the place might be "the kingdom of nothingness." If a people with no past to speak of, have no myth of the future, no light coming from the hill, then who or what are they, if anything at all?

In the past, Australia has tried to carve a myth for itself out of the "bush," then multiculturalism and finally neoliberalism. But the neoliberal restructuring of Australia's economy came under pressure in the 1990s, as hard-hit communities began to see the cultural (rather than economic) change as an attack on their very being. The mood resulted in the election of the Howard government, possibly the most right-wing in the country's history – one which gained enormous popularity for standing up against perceived "political correctness," and taking a tough pro-US stance in the post-9/11 years.

Percentage of respondents who believe "immediate steps" must be taken to fight global warming. A survey conducted in April by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that, out of 17 countries polled, Australians had the largest majority – 92 percent – in favor of measures to combat global warming. And 69 percent favor taking steps now, even ones involving "significant costs."

Much of the Howard government's support came from the people who would ordinarily have supported the "light on the hill." But who now see the last decade as something of a wasted opportunity. A country that should have been investing in education and a knowledge-based economy has allowed itself to fall far behind – depending on raw material sales to the booming Chinese economy instead. Aboriginal Australia has been treated with criminal neglect, their living standards far behind comparable indigenous peoples in Canada or New Zealand. In complement, much of the political leadership of Australia's aborigines has fallen away in exhaustion or despair.

Nevertheless, after a period in which many people defined themselves against the 'elites' and signed on to the "war on terror," a residual skepticism has re-asserted itself, and notorious figures like Pauline Hanson, who threatened to become a populist right-wing figurehead, can barely muster votes in the four figures. But Australia's reason returned only to find the uninspiring alternative in the Labor party and its leader Kevin Rudd. The country's identity continues to remain stranded.

Instead, what seems to dominate the country politically and culturally is a low-key but pervasive fear and anxiety about the possibility of a global house price crash, about climate change, and about the very lack of a sense of historic momentousness at the heart of the culture.

The truly challenging question for Australians is whether this attitude represents tolerance, apathy or an inability to engage with the country itself. Does the obsession with sport represent a relaxed and hedonist attitude to life? Or is it an infantilism, driven by a pervasive anxiety about facing the questions that other cultures see as central to their life? If Australians truly want to move forward, they're going to have to stop looking to sport and begin playing the game themselves.

22 comments on the article “The Upside Down Under”

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Luke

I am an Australian born in Australian to Australianborn parents. Unfortunately Australian culture often suffers from a bad case of all poppy syndrome.

In the public school system, the smart are mocked as
erds and squares, while the dumbshits who can run a bit faster than the academics are prized.

I think infantilism of the nation does play a part. However, we have always catered to the lowest common denominator. It is frustrating, I know...

Viral

I really hope you're Australian to be saying all that. By the description I feel right at home. Are we north americans just as single minded and sports obscessed?

neocom

As an Australian living abroad, but able to return on a regular basis, I feel Guy has given a very good summary of my country of birth. Yes we are obsessed with sport, and we do have a great capacity for apathy.

I do disagree however that we suffer from a lack of identity defining events, listed below are a number that do not involve sport but do assist in understanding the Australian mindset.

Castle Hill Uprising, Eureka Stockade, Wave Hill Walkout, Battle of Brisbane, ANZAC cove, Kokoda trail, Whitlam's dismissal, Stolen generations and many others.
Even the words of the song Waltzing Matilda which you will hear Australian's sing at international sporting events instead of our national anthem, can be clearly linked back to the violent response of business interests to the rise of unionism in the Australian rural workforce of the 1890's. From this same unionist uprising the Australian Labor Party ALP was formed.

With the election of the Rudd ALP government, Australia has veered ever so slightly off the track that Howard was taking us. Lets hope that Rudd does have the guts to turn the country around in respect to a number of issues.

Melissa

Wow! Tough read as an Australian to hear this perspective penned. And while I must agree with much of what is said here because I've been disillusioned by Australian's general public and am an out spoken anti-sport individual which is considered an up tight & extreme in this country. I have to say that there are many of us Aussies who have been deeply affected by the inhumane and unjust actions of the 11 years of Liberal government. It must be said that we came out in droves to walk across bridges all over the country to say sorry to the Indigenous Australians when the government refused. We protested against these wars and we have finally finally entered an election where the Kyoto protocol was the focus. It is now signed, we have seen the Labor party returned and I feel less disillusioned, less alien to my own country.
Adbusters, I love you but you've published an extremely narrow piece of work and while I won't refute the content I'd like to highlight the benefit of looking at the balance. The idea that Australians are all the same, that we are infantile and cultureless is insulting and self-righteous.

TS

There is much here to ponder here, even if the tone is a little too breathless. A slightly broader view might question the notion of identity implied in the article. Where does national identity represent some charter for the future? Goodness resides in people, not nations.

whitey

The usual lazy take on Australia. How do you manage to say that Australians are politically disengaged and also around twice as keen as doing something on global warming as the USA? The anti-Keating backlash was a cultural one, underpinned by a delayed effect to the early 90s that saw Howard come in no one seriously imagined a right wing party to reverse the existing neo-liberal structures put in place under Hawke and Keating.

And while there's something in the lack of a central myth for Oz it's built around the beach, the outback and sport that's three more than Canada. Rundle, a notorious whinger, is trying to fit a western narrative on a country that doesn't wear it well. And when it comes to empty soulless materialism, then the North Americans do it better than anywhere else in the world. When are you going to print something that doesn't reek of sour grapes about Australia?

Benn O

Good read Guy. Just a quick note to mention that it is probably a good thing that Rudd campaigned as a moderate. Thinking back to the last federal election, Mark Latham the previous Labor leader campaigned against old growth logging in Tasmania. He was comprehensively smashed by Howard. Middle Austalia wants to Save Humanity, but not at the expense of their McMansion. It can be frustrating, but at least we are a step in the right direction with Howard gone.

Nicholas

Unsurprisingly Australia's resident spokesperson for a generation of older 80s leftists Guy Rundle manages to spin a fantastic victory for progressive of all stripes and colours in Austrralia, into a negative rant with little substance.

In his tirade about Australians, who do nothing but play sport, Guy chooses not mention to positive and progressive outcomes such as:

Kyoto has now been signed; The Green party has an unprecedented 5 senators in parliament; Australia has its first every female deputy Prime Minister;
We have renewable energy targets of 20%; An openly gay Chinese and female labor MP is the federal environmental minister; Howard the neocon government is gone; Education and skills training is now a priority with billions to be spent on public education; Social democracy is back albeit in a conservative form.
Even after 11 years of neocon madness Australia still has a social-democratic system others wet their pants about.

Btw its worth noting that if the new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was North American he would be perceived as of the 'radical left.'

Crawl back into your spider hole Guy and stay away from our lovely Adbusters magazine thanks.

Communism Enshrined

Frankly, this isn't a theme that's only in Australia. Hate to say it, but it's in pretty much every country now. . .

At least the Aussies have an excuse Aussie rules Football is amazing.

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