Germaine Greer looks back over 30 years of economic and social change in her native Australia and concludes that what little change has taken place has not necessarily been for the better.
The things that are great about Australia don’t change. The people are still frank, open, egalitarian, anti-establishment, disabused. The sky is still the bluest in the world, the sea likewise. The island continent is still home to ebullient biodiversity, to shoals of jewel-coloured birds and the gentlest mammals on earth. Despite all the nonsense about dangerous snakes, spiders, sharks, crocodiles or whatever, the rule is still the same – leave Australian creatures alone and they’ll leave you alone.
Over the past 30 years, Australia has had a population increase of more than 50 percent, rising from 15 million to 23 million. But because the new arrivals have come from more than 150 countries, they have not been able to change the national culture. They are the hundreds and thousands sprinkled on the cake; the cake remains the same. The immigrants have one choice – to adopt the Australian lifestyle. Groups that insist on their difference will find the walls of prejudice closing in around them. First-generation Australians can be found at all levels of administration; despite their exotic surnames, they all behave like ‘dinki-di’ (genuine) Aussies, only more so.
Australia is now much browner than it was 30 years ago, mostly as a consequence of immigration, but also because half a million Australians now claim Aboriginal descent. The dominance of indigenous and Torres Strait Islander individuals on the sports field is seldom mentioned by the mainstream media, but it is a matter of great pride for National Indigenous TV. Meanwhile, the infamous Northern Territory Emergency Response, triggered in 2007 by reports of sexual abuse of Aboriginal children in the region, continues. Aboriginal Territorians are no longer entitled to decide who may come on to their traditional lands. They may have their welfare payments ‘quarantined’ (paid directly to suppliers of food and basic necessities) if suspected of spending the money on alcohol, drugs, tobacco, gambling and pornography, while their children must be taught English for four hours a day and undergo regular health checks.
Most Australians of Aboriginal descent live far from the Northern Territory; a bare handful can speak an indigenous language and even fewer have been initiated in the lore of the clans. Aboriginal groups, especially those who have had a measure of success in reclaiming traditional lands, are now encouraged to form corporations that must undergo regular audits. Even so, many white Australians erroneously believe that Aboriginal people enjoy privileges and subsidies not available to other Australians.
The population is not so much urbanised as suburbanised… Nearly everyone who has arrived from overseas in the last 30 years has joined all the other Australians who choose to live on the edge of the continent.
The Australian continent still lies wide open to the north. For hundreds of years, Asian traders have come and gone. Nevertheless, Australians are easily made to dread the ‘black and yellow hordes’ that could overrun their undefended country. Successive governments have pandered to this unreasonable fear by persecuting the few people who make the perilous journey by sea, not because they consider them a real threat, but because they think the Australian public will not elect a government seen to be soft on ‘illegal’ asylum seekers. And yet, the truth is that most illegal immigration is made up of the hordes of foreign tourists and students who overstay their visas, far more than have ever been washed up on Ashmore Reef or gone quietly mad on Christmas Island.
Even so, the great south land is not filling up. Nearly all the people who have arrived from overseas in the last 30 years have joined all the other Australians who choose to live on the edge of the continent.
The vast conurbation that is spreading southwards from the Sunshine Coast to Wollongong is equalled by the bay-side sprawl of Melbourne, the expansion of Adelaide along the Spencer Gulf, and the inexorable growth of Perth along the western seaboard.
The Australian population is not so much urbanised as suburbanised. Most Australians live far from the city centres. For them, ‘going into town’ is a major excursion. This was the case in 1980 and is still the case today, only more so. Australians now drive in excess of 200 billion km a year, each vehicle accounting for more than 14,000 km. This it is what gives Australians the worst carbon footprint of any nation on earth. Federal and state governments have recognised that traffic congestion is a serious problem in the inner cities and have set aside funds to address it. But, when it comes to improving the road and rail network, the emphasis is on high-speed connections between the capital cities.
So, while the suburbs continue to grow, country towns are declining. Once flourishing main streets are now strings of empty properties, government offices, fast food outlets and opportunity (i.e. second-hand) shops. All over rural Australia, hundreds of ghost towns are quietly rotting into the ground. A pattern is emerging of retirees selling their houses in the suburbs and moving to cheaper accommodation in the country, increasing the burden on local services while contributing only minimally to the local economy.
Australia is still a primary producer, and as such obliged to compete with the poorest countries in the world. Rather than exporting woollen products, it exports wool as fleece, most of it to China. Australia has now overtaken Brazil as the world’s top supplier of iron ore, but has to buy back foreign steel – the local manufacture of stainless steel ceased altogether 25 years ago.
Modern mining does not build cities or develop infrastructure. Even 30 years ago miners lived in trailer parks. These days, they are far more likely to be flown from the coast to the workplace and back again than spend their earnings locally. The coal is carried on temporary single-gauge tracks from the extraction sites, tracks that will be removed when the mine is exhausted. Mining didn’t employ many people 30 years ago; these days, it employs fewer than ever.
Opinions differ as to whether Australia now has a two-speed economy, with the non-mining states falling behind, as manufacturing enters yet another crisis. Manufacturing was struggling 30 years ago; today even conservative politicians can be heard championing protectionism. Meanwhile, the rate of youth unemployment rises steadily; it is now thought to stand at 16 percent for Australians aged between 15 and 24. In some working-class suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, youth unemployment is running as high as 46 percent. This is a different kind of two-speed economy with the old outpacing the young, and the rich leaving the poor far behind.
For working people, the greatest change in the last 30 years has been the introduction of compulsory superannuation. Australians were the first people to become a property-owning democracy; they are now the first shareholder democracy, with a higher proportion of their income in managed funds than any other nation in the world. Australia invented labour politics; it follows that it also invented the way to break the labour movement, by making all wage earners investors. Nowadays, an entrepreneurial spirit is seen as a cardinal virtue and industrial action as treason. The Aussie battler is still around, but he is battling with both hands tied behind his back.