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Will Mark Latham be able to make 'Society' matter to voters?

By Jackie Bailey - posted Monday, 26 July 2004

Latham has been accused of brandishing social issues as a distraction from the absence of his party's detailed economic policies. He responds to such criticisms by saying that Australians actually care more about issues like boys' masculine identity in a fatherless postmodern world, childhood obesity in the era of working parents and play stations, and community breakdown in a time of gated suburbs and locked doors.

The question which may make or break Latham at the polls later this year is - is he right?

According to Sue and many other middle Australians living in the suburbs with the voting masses that will shape the outcome of the next federal election, Latham may just be on to something good.


"Well. I'm excited. We're all excited." Sue, 41, mother of three and part-time nurse, is smiling over the plate of cold sausage and salad she has just placed in front of her youngest child, four-year-old Cameron. It's Monday, one of the two days Cameron has at home with mum. "Cautiously excited," she adds, laughing as Cameron wriggles out of his chair and on to more interesting things.

Sue is talking about her and her husband's growing enthusiasm for the change they see coming in Australian politics, under Latham's banner of social capital and relationships. "We'll wait and see, but at least Latham is talking about things that matter."

The "things that matter", according to Sue, are family relationships, job and housing security, and general community wellbeing. These middle Australians, living between the rich and poor in the Australian suburban sprawl, are growing disillusioned with the economic-rationalist philosophy of progress and growth at the expense of personal wellbeing.

Recently, Australians have begun to go directly against the grain of economic rationalism, opting for life substance over lifestyle. Sue and Pete are a case in point. They both work part-time so as to spend more time with their children, having decided to sacrifice a portion of their income and, for Sue, job security (she is on a contract), in preference for more fulfilling relationships with their children and each other.

Others are moving their families out of the "rat race" and into small-town communities. In its 2004 Yearbook, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported a trend developing among middle Australians of acting on their dreams of a more relaxed, community and family-centred lifestyle, by moving out of the city and down the coast or into the country.

Still others are turning towards Buddhism and smaller Christian sects to gain a deeper sense of life purpose and belonging. The reasons for following the Buddhist faith are numerous but Australians who have recently become adherents give reasons such as the search for deeper personal meaning, a wish to develop peacefulness and compassion, and to decrease attachment to the material goods and goals so prevalent in modern, individualistic society. Those turning away from mainstream churches and towards smaller Christian sects also report the wish for a more living, active faith, and community, in their lives.


Australian researchers and public commentators are working hard to debunk the "economically correct" point of view that material gain should be the main priority of government and individuals. Australian psychologists Shaun Saunders and Don Munro have found a positive correlation between consumerist, materialistic values and depression, anxiety and anger. Richard Eckersley, one of the creators of the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, recently released Well and Good, which presents international evidence demonstrating that reducing socio-economic inequality would "do more to improve population happiness than maximising economic growth to raise average income." And in a recent Australia Institute report, researchers reported that young people demonstrated a "well-developed critique of materialism”, and a clear preference for more time with their parents rather than more money through parental work.

"This finding is extraordinary!" exclaims Lindsay Tanner, Labor MP for Melbourne and Shadow Minister for the newly created portfolio "Community Relationships." "When I was young, we wanted our parents out of the picture - they were embarrassing, boring, daggy. If teenagers are saying that they want to spend more time with their parents - well, it is a perfect illustration of my point."

Tanner's point, which is the central tenet of his book Crowded Lives and the main reason for creating Labor's world-first "Community Relationships" portfolio, is that relationships are absolutely central to wellbeing.

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Article edited by Katrina-Jae Stair.
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About the Author

Jackie Bailey is a freelance writer and film-maker based in Melbourne. Jackie has also worked as a federal policy officer in social policy and women's policy and as a research fellow at OzProspect. Her current research focus is happiness and public policy.

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