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Our national Christmas presents

By Jill Sutton - posted Wednesday, 22 October 2008

The government’s economic rescue package is described in terms of Christmas presents. Having accrued many decades of wisdom about the effective choice of such presents, allow me to give Kevin Rudd’s Government a three-pronged advice package of my own.

First, when I choose a present for a grandchild I think about what changes in his or her behaviour would be good. I might pick a badminton set for a boy who needs to leave his computer games and get out into the fresh air, or a set of matching word and picture cards for a girl about to start school. They’re fun but they also shift behaviour in the direction I want to see.

So, Kevin, my first grounds for disappointment lie in your failure to choose presents which can provoke change in the behaviour of Australians. Even Fran Kelly on Radio National (October 15) asked Nicholas Gruen if he didn’t think it might have been good to use the package to provide incentives for more expenditure on alternative sources of power like solar in these days of climate change anxiety …


Most governments in the west these days are talking about the importance of a “whole of government” response to national issues and here was an opportunity which you have totally missed. If you can find $10 billion in the surplus why don’t you persuade us to use it to begin moving towards a more carbon-neutral life style?

When we speak of shifting away from coal-based exports, you tell us we can’t afford to do it quickly etc. Why then have you and your quietly impressive Minister, Penny Wong, not demonstrated your ability to act according to whole of government principles? Surely you could have used this big national Christmas present to combine economic rescue with our more long-term need for environmental survival?

The second prong of my advice is related to this first but it is focused on housing. It was so good to hear at least the Victorian Council of Social Services bravely pointing out that a massive promotion of the building of new houses, which will occur inevitably on the fringes of our sprawling cities, will not necessarily be a contribution to our common good.

There are three reasons for this negative impact which your housing minister, Tania Plibersek, could surely have foreseen. First, people who can afford to undertake the building of a new house are not as needy as those who are struggling at the lower end of the renting or public housing market. Second, environmentally, the promotion of sprawling backblock development adds to our environmental footprint with its increased demands on roads, wood, petrol, land and services.

And finally but perhaps most importantly, your over-generous subsidy of new housing feeds our greedy and apparently unstoppable need for newness and bigness in accommodation. It is a case of the emperor having no clothes.

How long are we going to watch this obscene proliferation of enormous houses, with massive concrete drives to accommodate three cars and small unusable spaces between them? Why haven’t you said to the Australian people, “Look at the way most of the rest of the world lives! We need to be more modest in our requirements. We don’t need several bathrooms when millions have no bathroom at all. We can sometimes share space. We can live in smaller houses and we can tolerate greater density in attractive town house and unit developments so that we can share existing spaces and facilities.”


You might be the first federal government to set up a ministry of social inclusion but why haven’t you used your housing subsidies to encourage that inclusion? Kevin, we can’t include people in our community if they live miles away and with no access to public transport. You should have used your Christmas present to get us together rather than to send us further away in sterile new housing ghettoes we will never be able to reach.

And my final prong concerns your Christmas present’s unhelpful goal of boosting the spending of capital for purposes unspecified. I thought that this mindless enthusiasm for the making and marketing of products was on the wane in our world. I thought we might be ready to take the advice of another veteran grandmother I know. She recommends that we do not give the kids any more stuff but focus on gifts which provide opportunities for new, uplifting or edifying experience. She has mentioned season tickets to the zoo or the theatre.

What would this approach mean in terms of the shaping of an economic rescue package? I suspect it indicates more of a focus on what really brings us together, the opportunities for appreciating our differences, for sharing our laughter, for singing our inspiration and for discovering our deepest selves and commonalities.

Yes, I’ll say it straight, Kevin. Why don’t your Christmas presents encourage us to share our Christmas dinner with some new friends and with the poor man at the gate? The arts community could have begun to help us do this, but you keep the silos separate don’t you? Despite your enthusiasm for Bonhoeffer, you persist in seeing the economic behaviour of our nation as a self-contained system which holds pride of place in all your government’s considerations.

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About the Author

Jill Sutton is a freelance writer who last worked with Rev Tim Costello in Melbourne but now lives in Canberra.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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