To write a new website essay is now a challenge, but I feel up to it. And I’ve wanted to write about this subject at a little length, rather than as a series of asides. It is built around a most interesting book by the always interesting John Carroll, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at La Trobe University. Land of the Golden Cities is published by Connor Court, and my copy took me a month to acquire. And then I got ill. But reading it brought back a platoon of memories. Here are three.

Late 1950s. Two of us, senior undergraduates, are musing on what we have in mind when we leave university and start to work — high-school teaching in prospect for both of us. We are mates. Terry lets out his closely guarded secret. He is going to organise his whole teaching career in order to find the right high school around Lake Macquarie, and put together over the years a weekender on its shores, and fish. That’s all. He has thought it through, quite thoroughly, as he sets it out to me. What am I going to do? I haven’t the vaguest idea. Something will happen. I am awaiting my fate, I think. I am ambitious enough to want to be a subject- master, as my Dad was, but apart from that, nothing. I know about school-teaching because I’m a teacher’s son.

Some time in the mid 1980s. London. I am having lunch with a rather famous man in a rather famous pub, for those who know and like the novels of John le Carre. My host knows people, who pass. One sits down, is introduced, and turns out to be the owner of another pub. We have drinks, served by a young Australian, courteous and professional. Of course, I am interested at once in his accent. ‘They’re the best, the Australians,’ said my new acquaintance, as the waiter goes. ‘They have no hang-ups about whether a job is demeaning or not. It’s there, you do it, and you do it well. You get on with it. It’s the bloody class system we have. You don’t seem to have one, and that’s really good.’ That led quickly to another conversation. But I began to hear more about this wholly admirable aspect of Australian behaviour, so different to the one caricatured in Private Eye by Barry Humphries.

The third is a repeat, about fifteen years ago. Montreal, in an absolutely frozen night; we should not have walked the four blocks from our hotel to a well-recommended restaurant. We were greeted by front-of-house, a most attractive Australian young woman, maybe 25. She was horrified that we had walked. The outside temperature was about minus 35C. She found us a table, and spent a little time with us later in the evening, when the rush had subsided. Her story was the same. Australians in the Canadian hospitality industry were sought after. No hang-ups, plus skilled, courteous and professional in their manner. Very rare to find a lemon, she said. She was a beaut example.

What has happened? John Carroll is interested in this change from an older culture, but his primary interest is given in his book’s sub-title: Australia’s Exceptional Prosperity & the Culture that Made it. Here’s a bit more. Creative and innovative cities need a constraining and directing order to provide clarity, balance, rationality, discipline and a capacity for systematic hard work. His last phrase stuck in my mind. There is a lot of systematic hard work obvious in our country, and we are working longer and harder, rather than having more leisure. Or, as one of my sons likes to put it, we choose to work rather than choose leisure.

In 2004 Helen Trinca and Catherine Fox published their own take on that issue: Better Than Sex: How a Whole Generation Got Hooked on Work. So much ‘work’, they argued, was now knowledge-based and intrinsically interesting that being involved in it was fascinating, not drudgery. I’ll buy that, and did at the time, because it made sense of my own life and work. Of course, there are lots of people for whom all these laudatory notions do not apply, but that there has been a major shift in our culture cannot be disregarded.

Carroll locates his analysis in two large chapters, one defining Melbourne, his own city, the other Sydney. Each is excellent reading. He points to the immigration of skilled and ambitious people, the ease and cheapness of becoming a small entrepreneur, the social and intellectual capital that is abundant in the city’s CBD, the faster rate of population growth enjoyed by Melbourne than Sydney, and a generally prudent fiscal response by governments of both major parties. Sport, art, fashion and vigour of all kinds arrive to play their part in his story.

Sydney has claims to being Australia’s only ‘global’ city, and this chapter, while slighter, is convincing to me in its own way. How did the change take place? We used to be a society characterised by high rates of unionisation; now unionisation is confined really to the public sector, from the high 60 per cent rate to below 20 per cent. That really is a drop. Yes, lots of people have skills but they also have lots of part-time jobs. Yes, many people would like to have one well-paid permanent job. But permanence has gone too, even in the public sector. This is a new world. Carroll sees its relevance in an unexpected way. Australia has done extraordinarily well in the last thirty years, and seems to be continuing to do so.

There is of course no guarantee that Australia will continue to prosper as it has done. Australia has become very good at cities — building ones that combine liveability with economic dynamism. Carroll calls it a rare achievement. He pays tribute to climate, but also to what he calls a civic culture of respect for authority, and a liking for order. It has combined with a practical democratic temper, with its own emphasis on giving everyone a fair go, tolerance of diversity as long as people fit in, and a pervasive scepticism about militant beliefs and ideologues.

And to end with what I see as the take-home message, at least for me . . .

A disposition for hard work has strengthened in recent decades, and contributed to high social mobility, and an optimistic confidence that the conditions of life, both for individuals and collectively, can be improved.

As I know now from several week of important voluntary work done by complete strangers to me, but hugely important to my health and future life, Australia combines all that with a willingness to give time, energy and money to others.

This is a small but most important book. Yes, there are people who are battling on. There are people making squillions. There always were, and there always will be. I’ve read and written quite a lot in the last few months about this issue. The world is improving, and our country is showing that the improvement is out there, and expanding. May it continue!


Join the discussion 22 Comments

  • Peter E says:

    A most interesting essay, stimulating and optimistic. Thanks. they can’t keep a good man down.

  • Chris Warren says:

    There is a bit of deep-seated longing for the past here, and for sure; around the First World War, workers, even if they only had basic education, still received “a fair go”.

    After the Second World War, school leavers at 15 or so still could get “a fair go”.

    All this has gone. Today, unless you want to spend your days as a cleaner or courier, you need post-secondary quals to really get a fair go and those with degree and higher do even better.

    The much vaunted “fair go” has gone and this is clearly demonstrated by the Australian GINI index trend:

    It is also reflected in the disastrous conditions with Australian wages.

    Some are getting a much fairer go than others.

  • dlb says:

    Great to see you back Don, though I beg to differ with you and Carroll on everything being so rosy in the land down-under. That is great the voluntary work being done, but is it from people who had made or are making a good living and want to put something back? Or are they doing voluntary work because there isn’t enough paid work around, and they are only doing it hopefully as a stepping stone into a paid job.

    When I started work you didn’t need degrees, certificates, competencies, inductions, police checks, and resumes for a lot of jobs. In my parent’s generation you just rocked up at a business and there was generally some job they could start you on, and then you learnt on the job. Today employment is so competitive that you really need an IQ over 100 and good health to stand a chance. Even if you land the dream job then the stress of high levels of performance may make you wonder was it worth it? If you are one of the ordinary folk with an IQ under 100 well then you are up against automation and outsourcing to foreign lands, not to mention the “skilled” 457 visa holders driving taxis, working at convenience stores and even menial jobs at hospitals. So much for the London restaurateur thinking Australians were great workers, Australian employers obviously don’t, or more to the point they don’t want to pay them a decent wage.

    SD has just posted about Dick Smith Foods folding, due to competition from foreign owned Aldi. Smith blames it on extreme capitalism and I agree, and both our major parties are complicit in was is happening. Our reliance on the global economy is making some of us very rich while many are missing out, and still both Labor & Liberal walk around with blinkers on. Just a few weeks back I got a puff piece from my Federal Labor member telling us how great immigration was for growth to our economy.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      Thanks, dlb. The volunteers I have encountered aren’t being paid at all. They are giving their time and energy freely to a cause they think important, in my present case the Leukemia Foundation. They’re in their sixties, a couple have wives who also volunteer, but not as drivers, and they are giving back. As my wife and I have done the same for the last twenty years I recognise the need to give back.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Great to hear you are improving, Don.

    We are essentially the lucky country still, in spite of stupid govts and bureaucrats doing their best to globalise us into the ground and “solve” current problems by employing ever more bureaucrats to increase and police regulations on the not-so-free-these-days market.

    Not so long ago it was possible to survive in a reasonable fashion by supplying any number of goods and services at competitive rates. But globalisation is killing this.

    These same booming bureaucracies through wages and thoughtless spending are making it worse by increasing our debt levels alarmingly.

    The way it is going our luck is bound to run out.

    • Colin Clarke says:

      The reality Dib is this. Yes Aldi is foreign owned but so what. The majority of it’s products are Australian manufactured and the staff are Australian and paid well. Dick Smith spends a lot of time complaining these days, the reality is that his Aussie brand strategy did not cut it. This has nothing to do with Aldi which is managed by Australians, pays it’s taxes and is a smart innovative operator.

      • dlb says:

        I was speaking to a former Aldi employee yesterday, he had worked at both Coles and Aldi. Regarding Aldi he said the pay was good but the work was quite stressful. He particularly found it physically demanding as he had to handle both customer service and storeman duties due to the lack of staff.

        I think one of Smith’s gripes is that Aldi’s profits are sent overseas. I’m certainly no fan of the big 2, they have pushed out small grocers, and they have too much control over primary producers. If Aldi is able to sell fruit that has some taste, I might consider shopping there.

        As a consumer, I think retail hardware in Australia is a disaster. Yet another aspect of the country going down the tube.

      • JimboR says:

        “I think one of Smith’s gripes is that Aldi’s profits are sent overseas.”

        Dick need only look at a list of major Westfarmers’ shareholders to realise that’s a complete furphy. Australian companies rely extensively on foreign capital. It’s those foreign shareholders that benefit from any company tax cuts; they’re the ones Scomo speaks of when he says he wants to make Australian companies more attractive to investment. Australian shareholders shouldn’t much care what the company tax rate… whatever tax they pay, we get back as franking credits (ok, those whose marginal rate is lower than company tax rate should care, but to the rest of us it makes no difference).

  • MD says:

    Thanks, Don. Delighted to know you are still writing. I had considered buying the Carroll book and you have persuaded me to give it a go.

    I took a stroll round the back streets of East Redfern in Sydney yesterday and was pleased and a little surprised by the number of design and creative businesses set up there, a little out of plain sight, and such a change in just a few years.

  • spangled drongo says:

    One of the greatest changes in our culture, for both govt and cits, is the embracing of debt.

    Not long ago the best and most common advice was, “pay off your debts and mortgage, clean the slate and don’t owe nobody nuthin'”, but since interest rates dropped in the effort by most countries to devalue their currencies to win the global trade war, debt has become the solution for all.

    When a govt can issue treasury bonds that it is happy to fund at 5% interest and investors are happy with a 2.5% yield for security it means that a govt can “sell” a $1million debt for up to $2 million.

    IOW, the more you squander, the more money you make, the more bureaucrats you can employ, the more you can squander…..

    That philosophy has a definite appeal to a certain culture.

  • Boambee John says:

    Good to see you back Don.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    You’ve lost me. Melbourne is better than Sydney because population growth is higher? Why are you advocating this arrant nonsense?

    • Don Aitkin says:


      It wasn’t intended to be arrant nonsense, but a whole sentence went missing. Carroll was explaining, or arguing, that Melbourne was more successful than Sydney, and I conflated what he had said with a comment I wanted to make, and then left that out. Appalling, and I am surprise you weren’t outraged!

  • Neville says:

    Good to see you back with a new post Don and I hope you continue to improve and perhaps stimulate a few more minds along the way.

  • spangled drongo says:

    “The world is improving, and our country is showing that the improvement is out there, and expanding. May it continue!”

    I admire your optimism, Don, but I do have a few concerns about our changing culture.

    One of them is the ever prevailing lies told by world wide MSM these days:

    “Nat. Geographic Admits They Were Wrong About Famous Climate Change Polar Bear Pic”

    They always knew they were wrong but they are just sorry they got caught.

  • spangled drongo says:

    And the ANU Philistines seem to have declared war on the culture of Western Civilisation:

  • spangled drongo says:

    Is this what you meant by “changing Australian culture” Don?

    Looks like the Muslims have won:

  • dlb says:

    The Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey tells the stories of the same group of Australians over the course of their lives. Starting in 2001, the survey now tracks more than 17,500 people in 9500 households. The (Hilda) survey was conducted by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, University of Melbourne

    The report for this year says there are 10 trends worth noting:

    1. Household spending on energy has fallen since 2014, even as power prices rose. Maybe we’re using less power to cope with higher prices.
    2. Compared to the past, more young people now don’t have a driver’s license, or delay getting one till their late 20s. And 74.6% of men born in the 1920s still held a driver’s licence in 2016.
    3. The survey also looked at what factors might protect against cognitive decline as we age. Turns out brain exercises probably help – but not as much as you may think. The extent of decline over four years in one measure of cognitive ability was slightly smaller for those who regularly do puzzles, and slightly worse for those who regularly write.
    4. Despite what you hear about small business being the engine of the economy, the share of people who describe themselves as “self-employed” has fallen for over 16 years. And these people are not employing as many workers as they once did. The data didn’t show strong growth in the gig economy either.
    5. Our views about marriage and sharing housework are getting more progressive. But women are still shouldering much more housework and childcare than men, even as more women are working.
    6. Single parent women and elderly single women are more likely to experience poverty than their male counterparts.
    7. As wage growth has slowed, household incomes have stagnated. Growth in household disposable income started to weaken in 2009, as the GFC took hold.
    8. Home ownership has declined, more of us are renting and intergenerational inequality has grown.
    9. There is a clear gender divide in financial literacy: when asked a set of financial literacy questions, 49.9% of men answered all five correctly, compared with 35.4% of women.
    10. Australians, especially women, are much more likely to hold post-school qualifications than in the past.

    I find 4, 7, and 8 concerning.

    The second sentence in 2 is a worry.

    Number 3 made me think of Don.

    Marg may want to comment on 6, 9, and 10.

  • JimboR says:

    We hit 25 million last night, a decade ahead of forecasts, with a new person arriving roughly every 1.5 minutes. All that extra demand for your goods and services has to be a good thing, right?

  • […] only copy in the university residences, and those students who were interested got to hear it.  My friend Terry, he who planned to have a fishing shack on Lake Macquarie when he retired, acquired the […]

  • spangled drongo says:

    How come we were so much smarter a century ago?

    Sir Edmund Barton’s ideas on Immigrants and being an Australian in 1907:

    ‘In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an Australian and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person’s becoming in every facet an Australian, and nothing but an Australian. There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an Australian, but something else also, isn’t an Australian at all. We have room for but one flag, the Australian flag…. We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language… and we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the Australian people.’

    Edmund Barton

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