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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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.

Tom

The fact is, Australia is doing so, so much better than the US other such countries. The Australian contribution to looming world crises is hugely insignificant in comparison. As a New Zealander and close neighbor to Australia, and sharing much of the cultural traits as a nation, I feel this article is perhaps pointing the finger in altogether the wrong direction.

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