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These fifty years (1967-2017)

By Noel Preston - posted Wednesday, 9 August 2017


In 1967 the White Australia policy was still part of our immigration policy. That changed a few years later. Today Australia has significant minorities of citizens of Asian and non-white backgrounds. The overall population data shows numbers which demonstrate the drive for socio-economic change in this island continent. In 1965 the number was 11, 368,011 whereas by 2017 it had more than doubled to 24,544,799. Moreover, 89.3% of that population live in urbanised environments. In my own city of Brisbane where the population was less than half a million when I was a boy, today it is 2.4 million. The changes in lifestyle and opportunity which flow from this growth in cities are numerous and arguably bring great stress especially to the poor. In 1967 Australia was essentially a middle class society; socio-economic changes have increased the gap between rich and poor even though, overall, living standards are enhanced. Consequently, we have a diminishing middle class or as Rupert Murdoch remarked a few years ago, Australia is becoming an "hourglass" society.

Australians can presently claim we are a more independent nation in the world of nations than we were in 1967. We are now comfortable with our role in the neighbourhood of Asia. We no longer look to Britain's Privy Council as our highest Court of Law, though we cling closely to the United States for security and continue with a Head of State who is not an Australian. Our flag still features the Union Jack but we have a different National Anthem than was the case in 1967. Land Rights for First Australians have been legislated. By and large we are comfortable as a secular and multicultural state, though we are not immune from racial and cultural tensions, especially those generated by increasing rates of aboriginal imprisonment and the rumblings of ethnic related terrorism. We remain vulnerable to fear campaigns by opinion leaders, while hardcore xenophobia and perverse patriotism persist, threatening to enlist more moderate Australians. LGBTI members of the Australian community have won many struggles for legal equality but, unlike comparable nations, the possibility of marriage is still denied although a majority of Australians endorse this possibility!

So, is Australia today a more ethical community? Yes and No. We are certainly more culturally aware. The Arts occupy a place in Australian life which is beyond recognition for those who were so interested in 1967 and there is some social and ethical pay off in that. Perhaps we remain the 'Lucky Country', luckier than the rest of the world. However, like the rest, the trust and sense of justice which binds our community seems to be coming more fragile than when I first voted in the sixties.

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For instance, as I write this, 122 nations have just pledged their opposition to nuclear weapons denouncing current stockpiles as "illegal". But Australia is absent from this international agreement! Majority Australia still has a long way to go to be reconciled with the First Australians; part of that process is to urgently redress the fact that our Constitution remains illegitimate until it is rewritten to reflect their voice. The stain of our cruel off-shore detention policy for asylum seekers must also be removed just as the adoption of marriage equality should not be delayed any longer.

Maintaining Australia as a liberal democracy requires a continuing struggle and cannot be taken for granted. Altogether Australia is bereft of the moral leadership in politics we need. Absent that, these social ethical matters I have cited, and others, will be sidelined. Issues such as climate change policy and vigilance about the current retreat from social and economic egalitarianism are likely to be overlooked.

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About the Author

Dr Noel Preston is Adjunct Professor in the Griffith University Key Centre for Ethics, Law, Justice and Governance. He is the author of Understanding Ethics (20O1, Federation Press, Sydney), and several texts on public sector ethics. His web page can be found here.

Noel Prestonís recent book is Beyond the Boundary: a memoir exploring ethics, politics and spirituality (Zeus Publications).

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