Resetting Australia’s cultural thermostat

This article was originally published as part of Crikey’s post-election series ‘Remaking Australia’. CPD Director Miriam Lyons was invited to contribute to the series on the topic of ‘culture’.

Writing about culture is like trying to catch a butterfly with a
pin. Culture is a complex, living thing, not easily understood, let
alone broken down and built up again into something shiny and new. It’s
also intensively subjective, and attempts to define a single national
culture are inevitably biased and incomplete.

So instead of a
plan for "remaking" Australian culture, I’d like to look at what we
"need" from Australian culture. What cultural traits will make us
resilient in the face of global change and capable of dealing with
future challenges and what, if anything, can policy makers do to help
foster those traits?

believe that Australia can become a net exporter of cultural progress
by finding Australian answers to a global question — perhaps the most
important question that we will ever be asked. How can we transform our
economy and lifestyle fast enough to prevent not only dangerous climate
change but the irreversible depletion of other "ecosystem services"
that sustain human life on earth?

This may not seem like a
cultural question, yet the answer is definitely more than economic and
political in nature. It involves trust, openness to change, capacity to
cooperate and willingness, in some cases, to prioritise the needs of
future generations over the desires of present ones. It involves a
shared sense that "we’re all in it together", and an ability to think
of ourselves as citizens as well as workers, consumers, and family

In other words, it involves the shift in mindset which Judith Brett gave in March as the reason that John Howard would lose this year’s election:

the looming environmental crisis is one which confronts us with our
interdependence, not just on the environment but on each other, and so
it is likely to propel increasing numbers of people into public action
to seek collective solutions to a collective problem.

do not control a nation’s culture, thank God — but they can have a
strong influence over it. Politicians can choose to appeal to the worst
in us or to call on our better angels, to exploit our fears or engage
our hopes, and these choices in turn can shape how we think of
ourselves and each other.
This power is then amplified by the media —
journalists have a habit of overstating the extent to which governments
are representative of the population as a whole.

The choices
made by the Howard government in exercising this cultural power were
both cruel and negligent. In a decade when we could have been taking
advantage of the resources boom to ease the social cost of transition
to a more sustainable economy, we instead got nothing but bread and

("Circuses" may seem too light a word for the Tampa
election, the invasion of Iraq under false pretences, or the
inflammation of racial tensions for political ends. But the phrase
"bread and circuses" actually comes from Roman times, when senators
attempted to keep the populace under control by handing out bread and
hosting gladiatorial bloodbaths in which slaves, prisoners of war and
condemned criminals fought each other to the death for public

As the Liberal’s new leaders clamour to distance
themselves from Howard’s cultural legacy, it is important to remember
that only last year Howard claimed victory in the culture wars.
Very few people then or since pointed out that this was the equivalent
of standing on the ship of state in a flak jacket under a sign reading
"mission accomplished".

There is a long tradition of
politicians promising to govern for everyone, and there is an equally
long tradition of them breaking that promise when they get a bit
comfortable. In 1963 Menzies promised to govern "for all of you." In
1996 Howard’s campaign slogan was "for all of us," which quickly came
to mean "people like us."

Kevin Rudd’s election night pledge to
govern "for all Australians" may be a variation on a theme, but it’s an
important variation. Like a conscientious Oscar winner who’s anxious to
thank everyone, he rattled off a list of identities so all-encompassing
that no one could possibly feel left out.

The message was
clear. Australian politics will no longer be driven by the Reagan-era
maxim that if you divide the country in half, you get to pick the
bigger half.

And not a minute too soon. Mr Howard’s impact on
Australian culture didn’t go as deep as many assumed, as research by
Gabrielle Meagher and Shaun Wilson has found. Australians are still, on
average, more generous, compassionate and liberal than their
representatives in the major parties.

But the culture wars were a very effective distraction from a number of serious, complex and interrelated problems:

  • The
    retreat from Multiculturalism policy robbed us of a flawed but
    necessary tool for dealing with diversity. The Department of
    Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs was replaced by
    the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (presumably because the
    Department of Immigration and Aspirational Monoculturalism wouldn’t
    have worked on a letterhead), but the word citizenship seemed to refer
    only to new citizens, not existing ones. There is evidence that, all
    things being equal, social trust tends to be higher in more homogenous
    societies. Couple this with the fact that monoculturalism is both
    practically impossible and morally abhorrent, and we obviously need
    invest a lot more in other things that build trust: like education,
    free time, shared spaces, and universal social services.
  • We
    face a future of rising international competition for skilled labour,
    rising mobility of unskilled labour and much larger movements of
    refugees, and we need to shape our policies on immigration and asylum
    seekers to respond to these trends, based on a bedrock of respect for
    human dignity. Mr Howard had to work very hard to dehumanise refugees,
    a self-imposed heartlessness perhaps symbolised most powerfully in
    Philip Ruddock’s reference to a traumatised refugee child as ‘it’.
    A simple act would be to open the doors of the detention centres to
    journalists, including citizen journalists. Protect detainees from
    unwanted prying, but let those who want to tell their stories do so.
    Hearing the personal stories of desperate people who risked their lives
    to escape persecution is perhaps the most powerful way to breathe some
    life back into our better angels. The pledge to dismantle Nauru is a
    good beginning. In the long term, we could look at the idea of
    processing drawn-out asylum cases in ‘welcome towns’ as recommended by Rural Australians for Refugees.
  • If
    the global response to climate change is not fair, it won’t happen. If
    it doesn’t happen, we’re all stuffed. And for it to be fair, those of
    us who live in countries pumping more than our share of greenhouse
    gases into the atmosphere are going to have to accept the principle of
    "contraction and convergence" — i.e. equal per capita emissions, which
    means that a 60% cut in emissions by 2050 translates to a 90% cut for
    Australia. This will require more significant changes than have been
    promised to date. It means economic reform of the scale seen in the
    1980s or greater — designing markets, taxation, and regulation to make
    it cheaper to do business sustainably than unsustainably.

is not without danger. When Paul Keating combined radical economic
liberalisation with progressive social policies, it prepared the ground
for both One Nation and the Coalition to associate the economic pain
with the progressive politics. And, even without implementing major
changes, economic pain is on the way, due to a combination of
international instability, domestic profligacy, and the plain old
business cycle. Several economists are already calling Saturday’s
election "a good election to lose".

A few things will make this easier:

  • There
    are signs of a gradual increase in citizens’ economic literacy, meaning
    that we’ll be somewhat less likely to blame governments for those
    factors which are out of their control
  • The
    last of the resources boom, combined with the auctioning of carbon
    permits will be a major source of revenue which can help ease the costs
    of transition
  • Lastly, and
    most importantly, the push for action on climate change is coming from
    below, not above. Grassroots networks of unprecedented size, making
    effective use of communications technology, should be able help keep
    climate change policy connected to people’s lived experience.

Australians can set our cultural thermostat to a level that will help
keep the planet at a liveable temperature. Somewhere between "relaxed
and comfortable" and "alert and alarmed" – how about "hopeful and

Leave a Comment