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Against Roonism: combatting the culture of despair

By Tony Abbott - posted Monday, 30 April 2001

Around the Boree Log used to be one of the staples of an Australian Catholic education. Its best-known poem featured a group of bush parishioners lamenting a world where fire, flood, drought, bad seasons or the banks would surely do them in: "'We'll all be rooned', said Hanrahan, before the year is out". The only non-contemporary feature of this 1921 cameo is its characters' sense of stoicism about the perils of country life.

"Roonism", the conviction that life is bad and getting worse, seems to be a deep strain in the Australian character. "Things are stuffed" pessimism seems to be just as ingrained as "she'll be right" optimism was once thought to be. It seems particularly allied to another characteristically Australian feeling: that of being in the grip of larger forces beyond our control, such as international markets, the weather and the money power. Roonism is almost as prevalent as the "tall poppy" syndrome (of which it seems to be a mutant sibling) and can be just as destructive because few things are more corrosive of effort and achievement than the nagging sense that it's all for nothing.

Contemporary roonism involves a series of unshakeable convictions: "the bush is buggered", "politicians are crooks", "things aren't what they used to be" and above all the pervasive sense that "someone is ripping me off". Dissatisfaction is rife among people whose best selves would concede that they live in one of the greatest countries on earth. Only a few years ago, Australia's self-image was of a rich country getting richer (notwithstanding the mistakes we made). Now, we tend to think of ourselves as a rich country getting poorer. Even among people who are doing well, there is often a sense of loss, the economic equivalent of the "empty nest" syndrome.


A visitor familiar with our traditional readiness to offer the benefit of the doubt might wonder why it no longer applies to anyone in authority or why the price of petrol or the quantity of form-filling should excite so much more anti-government indignation here than in other countries with similar difficulties. In fact, Australian roonism gains its current momentum from a strange alliance between the economically vulnerable and a commentariat which would like nothing better than the destruction of the Howard Government. Three forces are now driving a sense of crisis: long-standing popular disquiet about the pace of change and the human cost of economic re-structuring; elite resentment of the Howard Government's social conservatism; and "Calamity Kim" Beazley and his team of economic ghouls seizing on every bit of bad news to talk Australia down. This is the chattering classes' chance to get square with the Prime Minister by using "Howard's battlers" against him.

The essentially conservative people who have become Labor's polling booth fodder need to understand that a Beazley Government would betray their values as well as further threaten their economic interests. To the extent that anything can be made out in the hubbub, it seems that a Beazley Government would not just say "sorry" to Aborigines but would also apologise to the Indonesians for East Timor, support an open door policy for immigration queue jumpers, give the green light for heroin injecting rooms and allow the ACTU to dictate economic policy. These, at any rate, are the clearest conclusions to be drawn from the Opposition's free-wheeling and often mutually inconsistent attacks on every Government policy which has anyone off-side.

There is no fundamental community of interest between the battlers whose resentment has been channelled against the Howard Government and the elites barracking for a Beazley victory in the coming federal poll. Government ministers and officials can't help the fact that they are public sector employees and therefore not subject to some of the economic pressures which buffet people trying to make a living in the real world. Still, no modern Australian government has tried harder to avoid the "god complex" to which senior politicians are prone – and in the past week the Prime Minister has personally doorknocked suburban streets and the entire cabinet turned out for a meet-the-ministers public meeting. The difference between the Government and the Opposition is not that one is arrogant and out-of-touch and the other isn't. It's more that John Howard hasn't adopted Kim Beazley's habit of agreeing with the last person he spoke to.

Politicians in a democracy never set out to "punish" the electorate. If the Government occasionally projects an image of wanting people to "take their medicine", it's because the alternative to economic reform is even greater pain. Reform is hard but failing to reform is even harder. The only people who can afford to be complacent or dismissive about wealth creation are those who have already made it. Economic reform now evokes a sense of ennui among opinion formers (which helps explain why 1980s economic rationalists so readily became 1990s constitutional dabblers) even though many Australians still struggle to make ends meet and need further reform if living standards are to be protected.

Despite the current economic slowdown (largely focussed on the housing industry and specifically targeted by the Government's beefed-up first homebuyers scheme), the last five years have seen measurable improvements in most Australians' living conditions. Since 1996, economic growth has averaged over 4 per cent a year. Interest rates have averaged 5.6 per cent since 1996 – compared to 11.4 per cent under Labor. Inflation has averaged 2 per cent since 1996 – compared to 5 per cent under Labor. There are now nearly 400,000 additional full-time jobs since 1996 – compared to just 26,000 new full-time jobs in Labor's last six years.

Even so, governments cannot be oblivious to the anxieties of the community and expect to survive. Ultimately, in politics as in business, the customer is usually right. This is why the Government has simplified the Business Activity Statement, rescinded the fuel excise indexation price rise and shelved the entity taxation proposals. But it hardly makes sense to condemn a government when it doesn't listen and damn it when it does. It's important for governments to listen, learn and change where necessary. But it's also important for governments to lead as well as follow public opinion and to give voters what they need as well as what they want. If voters are determined to build walls against the world, they'll eventually have a government which reflects their insecurities. But they cannot subsequently be surprised if Australia starts to traverse the "Argentine road" and becomes collectively incapable of hard but necessary decisions.

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This is an extract from a speech given to the National Press Club on March 21, 2001. It was published in The Australian newspaper.

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Tony Abbott is a former prime minister of Australia.

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