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Re-evaluating our resources - natural and human - is the future for Australia

By Rick Farley - posted Wednesday, 29 January 2003

Australia Day is accepted as our national birthday. Birthdays are complicated things that pull at our emotions in different ways. They are certainly a time for celebration of what we have achieved but they are also a time for reflection about what remains undone and contemplation about the legacy we will leave.

Our young nation has much to celebrate. In the time of white history, we have gone from convict colony to a modern and vibrant society. We are a democratic and civil society that has produced world leaders in science, engineering, medicine, business, agriculture, the arts and sport; and we have the priceless gift of the oldest living culture. We clearly punch above our weight as a nation.

However, for Aboriginal Australians and many others, January 26 is not a day for celebration. As Thomas Keneally noted in his 1997 Australia Day address, a majority of Australians can see why today cannot be a day of rejoicing for all, and that may be grounds for ultimately finding an Australia Day with which we can all identify.


I endorse that view. It would be better to have a more inclusive date for our national day.

We are a highly urbanised society. Over 80 per cent of our population now lives on one per cent of our land mass, and within 50 kilometres of the coast. As Donald Horne pointed out, Australia's national identity now is more about the beach than the bush.

Our industry base has changed enormously. It was once dominated by agriculture, mining and manufacturing, but the services sector now accounts for two thirds of the economy. The transition has been painful and there are many casualties who feel abandoned and bitter.

We are an intensely multicultural society. Over 44 per cent of our population are first or second-generation Australians. More than 15 per cent of us speak a language other than English at home.

With the exception of Indigenous people, we are an ageing population with the proportion of us over 65 expected to double by 2050.

The big economic decisions of the 1980s, to float the dollar, open up financial markets and reduce protection, changed Australia radically and forever. We had no alternative but to enter an ever-expanding global market, driven by the revolution in communications technology and the collapse of communism.


But successive national governments did not manage the transition from closed to open economy very well. The weight of adjustment was not shared equally and some communities, particularly in rural areas and the outer suburbs of the capital cities, fell behind.

My sense is that Australia still is casting around for values to replace the relative certainties that existed before the 80s. We are a small nation in a big new game and we're not quite sure yet of our place in the evolving order of things. The elements which cemented Federation after 1901 - industry protection, centralized wage fixing and the White Australia Policy - are all gone. Where they used to be there is only the promise of more change and greater competition.

Also, terrorism has changed the world and Australia is not immune to that threat. We appear to be heading for war with Iraq, which many Australians find difficult to understand. That already has generated growing unease within our communities and new pressures on the economy.

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This is an edited version of Rick Farley's 2003 Australia Day Address, from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on January 22.

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About the Author

Rick Farley is managing director of the Farley Consulting Group, and one of the architects of the Native Title Act and of Landcare.

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Australia Day Council - past addresses
Full text of the Australia Day address
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