When 9/11 occurred Bev and I were on a small ship doing the last mail run up the coast of Labrador before winter set in, about as safe a place to be as you could find at a time like that. And we could not fly out of Newfoundland for a day or two. When flights resumed we scrapped our former itinerary, which included Washington, and got to California, where every second car was carrying American flags — usually two of them, on either side of the vehicle. Nationalism was intense, and President George W. Bush spoke to his nation. I thought it was an excellent speech, in retrospect probably the best he gave as President.
I was reminded of all this yesterday when I saw a few cars with Australia flags on either side, hats with Australia Day and the flag, and face paint likewise on kids. Our nationalism is in a lower key than in the USA, but it is there, and you see it on Australia Day, even at the barbeques. It is the citizenship ceremonies that appeal strongly to me, and to go to one, as I have done, is a moving experience. Here are people making a new start in a new country. They have already been here for a while, and they have made a choice. The urge to shake hands with them is very strong. Why? Because it reminds me of the virtues of our society, which a diet of TV news can make you forget.
But yesterday also made me wonder, again, what had happened to the ‘Australia project’. This is my term for the urge that immigrants had in the 19th century to build a new society under the Southern Cross that would be free of the the injustices of the old world. As I argued in What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia, the project was put on hold again and again, by the Depression of the 1890s, the Great War, the Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War. You can’t do much about the building of a fair and decent civil society when you are scratching for work or fighting for your country.
The project was resumed in the 1950s, with the real growth of the national capital, the opening of education to girls as well as boys, the building of infrastructure like the Snowy scheme, the common rail gauge and the improvement of highways, and the expansion of higher education. By and large, the new wealth of the society was shared around. In the 1990s and into the new century that impetus slowed and seemed to stop. Wealth became important for its own sake: it was as though the whole point of the Australia project was to make us all rich, and when we were rich we could do what we liked.
As I argued the other day, that assessment of Australia was really a comparison — in this case with the past. Relative to the 1950s Australians generally are three times wealthier than were their counterparts then. But it is surely also true that our society is not three times fairer, or three times more decent, than it was then. A lot of the urge to improve infrastructure has diminished recently, even though the wealth is there.
We are stymied by the fantasy of the triple A credit rating and the utter importance of the balanced budget. We are a smallish population in a large continent, and our infrastructure costs have to be higher than in other countries. We should just accept that and get on with it. The Snowy scheme, when finished, had consumed about an eighth of GDP at the time the scheme was proposed. The NBN, the largest infrastructure project of our time, is trivial in comparison. And we are so much wealthier.
What we seem to do is play political games about whose responsibility anything is. The Canadians are good at this, too: an old joke asks what various countries would do about ‘the elephant’. The French explore ‘the sex life of the elephant’, the Germans define ‘rules to apply to the elephant’, the British propose ‘the Monarchy and the elephant’. The Canadians ask ‘is the elephant a Federal or Provincial responsibility?’ We would do that too, replacing ‘Provincial’ with ‘State’.
So I ask, when will we get back to building again? There is a lot to do, and to do any of it requires someone to cut through the waffle and remind us of the Australia project, and what the next steps ought to be. We are now a much more diverse society than when I was young, and that is a good thing. But our schools and health systems ought to be better, our big cities are a transport nightmare, and we don’t do some of the obvious things about floods, back again for the umpteenth time. There’ll be another drought before long, too
I know that I said a bit of this the other day, too, but then, it is election year, and I am still looking for a political leader, or even an aspiring leader, who would articulate what we need to do collectively, rather than just enjoy ourselves individually.