[This post introduces my new book. Full text now available as pdf or epub.]
Australia accomplished an economic miracle in the nineteenth century, rising from subsistence to the richest country in the world. Along with New Zealand, Australia also led the world in political and social innovation, aspiring to provide a fair go for everyone. By 1913 Australia was a distinctive, dynamic and increasingly egalitarian society.
Despite some economic, political and psychological setbacks through the twentieth century, Australia by 1980 was a prosperous and open society still generally pursuing the fair go, notwithstanding some notable gaps.
Australians also had another great accomplishment to our credit: we had peaceably welcomed a great diversity of immigrants who spiced Oz with many new cultural flavours. We grumbled a bit and might not have openly admitted it, but we were a tolerant, talented, innovative, even interesting lot.
Today Australia is a very different place. We are in a lather of fear over moderate challenges that are substantially of our own making. We shrink from big challenges bearing down on us. We are insecure, and increasingly selfish, divided and directionless. We pursue scapegoats, vilifying innocent people and grossly abusing some. We act as though we are incapable, and have to bring in foreigners and their money to run things for us.
Yet we can still be generous and tolerant, and we can still sometimes be the fun-loving larrikins we like to think we are. We have abundant resources, talent, skill and energy, and we speak many of the world’s languages. Why do we make such heavy going of it?
Far from being a triumph and the inception of nationhood, Gallipoli was a traumatic defeat and a body blow to a vibrant young nation. The call of the Empire, stronger then, allowed authority to be reasserted over fractious egalitarianism. We divided bitterly over conscription and suffered horrific casualties the equal of many European nations’. Our bold self confidence died in the mud of the trenches in Turkey and France.
We bumbled and borrowed our way through the twenties and then into depression and another war. This time at least we fought in our own cause, if belatedly and under the dire threat of the Japanese advance.
The long post-war boom brought greater and more widely-shared prosperity then ever before. The boom persisted much longer than any alleged “bounce” after the stringencies of the war, and it required active government involvement in the economy to stimulate and maintain it. The wealth was more widely shared because people demanded it and sacrificed to get it. This fed a virtuous cycle, as people spent quickly back into the economy rather than playing unproductive money games.
The boom faltered in the seventies. An embargo quadrupled the price of oil and the US stoked inflation by printing money to pay for the Vietnam war. Wage demands were not the main problem, and could readily have been managed.
Instead, proponents of a new doctrine seized their chance. The power of the very wealthy had declined since the twenties, and they wanted it back. A well-organised band of ideologues gave them a rationale to exploit. The new doctrine, now called neoliberalism, emphasised selfishness. We should be rugged individualists, we should not cooperate, we should only transact in “free” markets. Community was irrelevant. Government was bad.
The doctrine swept the world in the eighties, imposed in Australia, strangely, by a Labor government. Our society began to weaken and fragment. Inequality increased. The rich diverted money into unproductive speculation, driving up the price of property and weakening industry.
The economy never recovered to its post-war performance. Instability increased, leading in 1990 to the biggest recession since the thirties. Poor performance was disguised by rising private debt – we were living off our credit card. We survived the 2008 crisis only by briefly throwing out the neoliberal rule book. The economy is increasingly anaemic, burdened with misallocation and high private debt.
We followed the US into illegal and disastrous military adventures, intended primarily to capture oil, earning the enmity of those whose countries we invaded and still occupy. The resulting threat of terrorism has been exploited at home to dismantle fundamental civil liberties and human rights.
The political class, still stuck in a colonial mentality, serves the rich and powerful, who are mostly foreigners. Our democracy is corrupted. Our sovereignty is betrayed. Much of the media preaches hatred, and promotes and exploits ignorance, fear and division.
Our once-open, energetic, talented, creative, larrikin society is there for us to reclaim. The means to deal with the challenges of planetary overload are readily available. We can make a good living without wrecking the land or exploiting each other.
We can withdraw our forces from the Middle East and step away from an increasingly deluded United States. We can get abundant energy from wind and sun, store it with pumped hydro, batteries and hydrogen, wean ourselves from oil, coal and fracked gas, and dissipate the terrorist threat.
We can bequeath to our children a fair go in a healthy, properous, open society.