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The changing Australian culture

By Don Aitkin - posted Friday, 3 August 2018


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.

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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".

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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!

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This article was first published on Don Aitkin.



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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Moving On, was published in 2016.

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