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What sort of Australia do I want?

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 11 June 2021


Actually, the Australia I live in is pretty good, if I compare it to other countries in which I've lived and/or worked. I decided against both England and the US when I could have had good jobs in each. Why not England? The class system, I guess, was the clincher, even though I would have been up there rather than down there. America? Too much gun violence, even in a lovely mid-west college town. Canada? Too cold, apart from Vancouver. New Zealand? Not foreign enough, but the country, scenery and people were and are wonderful.

That's only one sort of comparison. If I compare the Australia of today with the Australia of the mid-fifties, when I became an adult, today's Australia is a lot better in almost every way. Life expectancy, medical care, education, general wealth - today's Australians are well off compared with their grandparents. The country is more diverse in its population, too, and I think that's a real win, though not everyone would agree with me. More Australians have seen more of the world, and they're not so stuck in their ways. There is a strong sense of "us", no colonial cringe that I can detect, and we don't say how good we are. We leave that to the Americans -all right, some Americans.

But there are weaknesses, and ways in which the Australia of today is worse off than its counterpart sixty-five years ago. One is homelessness, the other is poverty. Both are evident on a daily basis in the Canberra suburb in which I live. All those years ago there was no apparent homelessness and no beggars. The police would have moved any beggar on, I think (on to where I'm not sure), while family ties, strong during the Depression and the war, would find shelter for a family member. Family was important.

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There may be other ways in which today's Australia is worse than its antecedent, but those two, and of course they are related, are the ones that stick out for me. Why do we have beggars and the homeless in a country that has ample provision of wealth for all? My first suggested cause is the declining power of "family". My own family has stories of the way in which siblings helped each other in times of stress. One sister took charge of another's new-born baby while the mother was restored to health after a somewhat destructive child-birth. When she needed to return the infant she felt so lost without him that she had another baby herself. Do such cases still continue today? I don't know.

Then there is the teenage threat to leave home if he/she doesn't get what is demanded. The power of family to shepherd young people through adolescence is not as strong as it was. I was occasionally rambunctious as a teenager, but it would never have occurred to me to leave home. Today's teenagers often work as well as study, and they have money as well as high aspirations, an apartment, a car, freedom! They plan to hire an apartment with two friends, and live the exciting life, free of demands from parents, and chores. Alas, there are still chores to do in the apartment, and one of the trio will be lackadaisical about doing them. The trio breaks up, and one of them maybe will add herself to the homeless list. I don't see many teenagers outside our local shopping mall. The ones sitting down with crudely written signs are older, and a bit raddled from drugs, I often think. I often carry change to give to them, and wonder what the money is spent on. Whose responsibility are they?

Are they the result of broken marriages? Where do they go at night? Do they have children? If they do, why aren't the children looking after them? My guess is that part of the reason here is the growth of individualism, and the decline of a feeling of community. What has happened to APEX, Lions and the like in the new burbs? My guess is that they are fading. I have no data, but the urban location of Apex clubs is a bit of a mystery. There's an Apex club in Tuggeranong ACT, but no other club is listed. They abound where there are real communities - country towns being the obvious location. The clubs that are on every list are not those, but the clubs that cater for one's individual interests, archery, lawn bowls, calisthenics, chess. And, of course, the ubiquitous licensed clubs.

That is a real change, and I remember well the time they came in, the late 1960s. I was talking to a local MP for a country electorate. I enthused about the wonderful soldiers club the town now had, with a theatre that could seat a thousand people. He made a sort of growly noise. 'Yes, all that's true. But I see the other side of things. The club has three thousand members, that's the same number, give or take a few, in the whole town. The cafes are closing because the club provides cheaper meals. It works because of gambling. I don't gamble. I'll put a coin or two in the machines, but I almost have to. We used to have a few problem gamblers. Now we have a lot.'

I'm a bit like him. I don't gamble because I see no point in it. I'm a member of a club that gobbles up failing sporting clubs, and I don't even put a coin in the slot. But I often eat at one of its branches. Canberra has a lot of problem gamblers, and maybe a lot of problem eaters, too.

The third way in which you can compare one thing to another is by setting out an ideal, and judging the extent to which what we have is deficient in terms of the ideal. Some of the ideal is not possible. For example, that Australians should all live in harmony with one another and with the rest of the world seems to me an impossible ideal. But I don't think it is impossible to see a better Australia in which there were almost no homeless and almost no beggars. How would we achieve that? I don't know. That's the truth. Yes, we could clear them from the front of the shopping mall, but that is to deal with the symptom, not the problem. I would like a return, at least part of the way, to the strong feeling of community that we once had. There are people doing their best to achieve that in their own areas. More power to their elbows!

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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