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New aspirations and a changed global outlook require re-thinking our role

By Russ Grayson - posted Friday, 7 March 2003

Next door, the family - husband in the building industry and stay-at-home-with-the-children wife - are having a swimming pool built. It's a large pool, deep, occupying the entire width of their back garden. As I watch the excavator scoop up the loose, sandy soil, the thought occurs that, just 30 years ago, a family of similar means would have built a more modest pool. Smaller, perhaps one of those above-ground types.

The streets around here are not noted for an abundance of backyard swimming pools. That migrant family's pool is an indicator of the way that affluence has permeated our suburbs, transforming the once-modest family home into a quasi-mansion with more rooms than families can use and littering our streets with the two and sometimes three cars that families own today. On the surface, our transformed suburbs give the impression of rising affluence but how much of this represents the willingness of banks to lend large amounts I don't know.

The deeper, substantial change that continues to transform Australia started in the mid-to-late 1970s and gained momentum during the Bob Hawke Prime Ministership of the 1980s, to be continued by his successor Paul Keating through the early part of the following decade, a time which saw the internationalisation of the Australian economy. Social analyst Hugh Mackay says the change really started in the late 1960s with the rise of the women's movement and brought the environment and the social movements of the 1970s. Exuberant at first, the change has created economic and psychological insecurity to a great many people at the same time that it has brought new opportunities to those such as the family building their swimming pool next door.


Addressing the aspirationals

The family lives near Botany Bay in a Sydney suburb built during the 1940s. But it's the same in the newly built suburbs with their close-spaced houses that sprawl to the south-west and north-west of the metropolitan area. Out there, 20 to 30 km from the city centre, it's the new Australian suburbia occupied by what the ALP's Mark Latham calls the "aspirational voters", families with aspirations to wealth, private schools for their children (part-financed by the Australian taxpayer) and freedom from the crime of the middle-ring suburbs. If mentality can be taken as an indicator of class, then this is the new Australian middle class.

It is these people that Latham says the ALP must appeal more to but if that happens then what of the traditional Labor voters occupying the older middle ring of industrial suburbs? For a party that has largely abandoned its past and now rides the fickle waves of swinging-voter indecision, it's likely that Latham's solution will prevail. Maybe that will accentuate the drift of Labor's old supporters to the Coalition, however Latham's push to develop a new Labor constituency is understandable in light of the increased affluence of Australian working people over the past quarter-century. His aspirational voters are representative of a similar demographic found in other cities.

A force with political potential

Within this aspirational milieu is another force with considerable political potential: the 'new church'. Most influential in Sydney's north-east salient - what is known as the Hills district - this religious constituency is reminiscent of some of the newer US churches and, in contrast to the established church with its declining congregations, is attractive to younger people searching for meaning in life. The new church is less formal, less encumbered with history, more evangelical in outlook and more exuberant in the form its services take. It is also influential, with members taking their sometimes clannish Christianity into their daily life and using it to exclude those who are somehow too different.

The grassroots structure of the new church widens its appeal in an era characterised by change and uncertainty. And with the old certainties gone and the attitudes and mindset of Australians in a state of change, the potential for a wider appeal by religious interests could, in a significant number of cases, overcome the traditional distance at which Australians have held the church. It may be that the Hills district becomes Australia's 'Bible belt' in at least a limited political form.

Driven by demography

Demography is another driver of change in contemporary Australia. It is a driver that will bring further change to our society because Australia is on the move - to the nation's coasts. This migration has shifted something like 85 per cent of our people to within an hour's drive of the sea and sand. And just as Latham's aspirational voters offer Labor a new constituency if the party can overcome its present confusion, so do the coastal voters.

Some of the new coastal residents are of the same demographic as the aspirationals; however there are differences in outlook based partly on geography and stage of life. The mainly-younger aspirationals in their new suburbs are concerned about services for their young families, the cost of petrol (theirs are car-dependent suburbs) and education. The mixed-age coastals offer astute state and federal politicians who are aware of what is happening an opportunity, at the same time that they offer local government aspirants both a challenge and a chance. A challenge to the old, embedded ways of local government and a chance for those more savvy and comfortable with demographic change to appeal to the concerns of the new coastals and get themselves into council. For the coastals, the issues are to do with town planning, service provision and coastal environmental protection.


Change recycles past patterns

But as Australia changes so it seems that we repeat the patterns of the past. We have a Prime Minister popular, so the analysts tell us, because he projects an image of being 'safe' and because his manner, policies and language appeal to Latham's aspirational voters as well as to some of Labor's traditional constituency.

If that sounds familiar to older Australians or to those who have studied recent history, they will recognise parallels with Robert Menzies. Menzies' policies, though, were different to John Howard's. They had a paternalistic streak towards those not enjoying the rising post-war affluence of the time, which has now gone. It is ironic that at the time when affluence has risen to unprecedented levels, concern for the non-affluent has never been less (unless you happen to be a farmer). Yet reports suggest that even poor people have seen a lift in their standard of living over the past decade. The problem of a severe wealth divide, however, is that the poor, even if their prospects have risen, can never narrow that wealth divide, so their access to the goods and services that the market provides must remain less.

There are other parallels with the past. The federal government's rush to join impending hostilities in the Gulf is reminiscent of the rush to join a certain other war more than 30 years ago, only this time there's none of the hubris, the certainty among the public that the government is doing the right thing. The sudden nuclear scare following North Korea's start-up of its reactor, instability in Indonesia and the hidden presence of Jemaah Islamiah in south-east Asia give alternative foci to the Australian mind and drive the notion that we live in an unstable region and that Australian troops might be better deployed in our country's north so they can respond to unanticipated developments. Unlike the long lead-time that defence analysts say any planned invasion of Australia's north would give us, the shifting forces of political instability and terrorism provide little by way of warning.

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About the Author

Russ Grayson has a background in journalism and in aid work in the South Pacific. He has been editor of an environmental industry journal, a freelance writer and photographer for magazines and a writer and editor of training manuals for field staff involved in aid and development work with villagers in the Solomon Islands.

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