Floating above all the comment in this election campaign are competing visions of what a ‘good’ Australia might be. I’m not thinking so much of those put forward by the party leaders, but of those that seem embedded in the comments that people make about those leaders, their policies and their actions. And through those visions you can see the issues that often are barely stated. It’s not as though there is an realistic vision and an idealistic one.They are all idealistic, and they are not finally compatible with one another. So what we actually get is a compromise: that’s the Australia we have.
And so few are really happy with it. Election campaigns bring out our strong discontent with what we have, and our wish for something better — or even the nostalgic wish for what we might once have had, with all its rough edges smoothed off. Here are a few of the visions I have noted over the past few weeks.
1. The Small-Business Vision An Australia in which enterprise and energy are not smothered by red and green tape, where businesses are free to grow and cater to the needs they see (the needs that pushed them into this kind of activity, whatever it is). Built into this vision, it seems to me, are lower rents and lower wages, flexible working hours, and an expanding population.
2. The Full-time Employment Vision An Australia where there are very few part-time jobs except for the young — this is the vision where ‘the economy’ takes absolute pride of place: just about everyone has a career, decent superannuation, annual leave, workers’ compensation and so on. Everyone has proper health care, and salaries are high enough to allow those receiving them to lead a ‘decent’ life, with proper holidays, time with children, sport and so on. Built into this, it seems to me, is a static population, and regulated working hours — as was the case a couple of generations ago, when shops closed at lunchtime on Saturday and were never open on Sunday.
3. The Sweden-in-the-Southern-Hemisphere vision Australia with cradle-to-grave social welfare, and all supported by taxation. No one actually talks of Sweden in this context, but Sweden is the model, and the Swedish model is based on taxation at about double our current rates. Those who want more money spent on education, health, the elderly and so on are often imagining a system in which everyone is entitled to the care and attention they want when they need it. There are no queues; it all just happens as it should. We have never had such a system here, nor the taxation rates needed to support one. Our system is based on ‘jobs’ — you ought to have one, and you ought to use the income you receive from it to look after yourself; that is one reason why Australia has had relatively high wages for a century. No one today is talking about increased taxation. The assumption is that we somehow get richer all the time, and that’s how things get paid for.
4. The Humanitarian Vision Australia should help the needy, the dispossessed, the indigenous, the asylum-seekers, because that is the virtuous thing to do. This vision has always been here, for it is associated with the churches and with the large number of voluntary, essentially charitable organisations we support and belong to (we would not have so many were Vision #3 a reality). Built into this vision is the notion that we have the resources to complete this task successfully, and the means to regulate the demands on our nation. The fact of 42 million dispossessed people in the world, and the continuing arrivals of boat people, make these assumptions tenuous. But the vision continues to attract people.
5. The Rising Tide Vision Australia needs to grow wealthier, because a wealthier Australia benefits everybody, the poor as well as the rich (‘a rising tide lifts all boats’). Policies and practices that get in the way of increasing wealth are actually inimical to the nation’s future as well as to its present state. Built into this vision is a relative indifference to ‘society’ and social reality. This is the vision where ‘the economy’ takes absolute pride of place.
6. The Dystopian Vision Australia is threatened by large and sinister forces, and the future is not in our control. There are many versions of this vision: catastrophic anthropogenic global warming (‘we will all burn’), Muslim subversion, Godlessness, Capitalism, pandemics, asteroid strikes. These visions are distinctive in that they see the future as much worse than the present, and the various proponents delight in painting awful pictures of the doom ahead.
There is no matter-of-fact vision, which says that what we’ve got is pretty good, and we might make it better, but the betterment will only come slowly. That’s my position, but it’s not a vision. Whatever the outcome of the election, the new government will have a lot of difficult things to do that will make it instantly unpopular, and the loudest critics will be the visionaries.