The success of Australia as a flourishing, dynamic and prosperous democracy has had social cohesion as one of its backstays. Signs are that this fruitful cohesion may be coming under hazardous pressure, pressure that began in the Covid years and is being exacerbated by a dissociation between the political class and the needs of middle Australia.
Australia’s exceptional social cohesion in the modern period is readily documented. The most obvious indicator is the success, since 1945, in assimilating a steady flow of millions of immigrants from hundreds of ethnic backgrounds – only half the Melbourne population is now of Anglo-Celtic origin. Despite peoples arriving who spoke over 200 different languages, no ghettos have developed.
This success has depended on good economic management producing sustained, increasing prosperity. Australia is one of a few societies in the OECD with high social mobility, a status it shares with Canada and the Nordic countries, in contrast with Britain, France, and the US.
In the contrasting case of the once-lauded land of opportunity, the US,there is the stark statistic that the median real wage rate there has hardly risen in 50 years – signalling very little opportunity for social improvement. High mobility indicates that the economic and social status of children, once they reach adulthood, diverges from that of their parents. High aspirations in Australia have been comparatively easy to fulfil.
Recent American literature on innovative cities and regions stresses the importance of high immigration of people in their 20s from diverse cultural backgrounds, who are experimental and untraditional in outlook;and porous, fluid, and mobile institutions with intercultural fusion and links between disparate socio-economic groups.
In Australia, an indicator of intercultural fusion is the rate of intermarriage, with census data showing rapidly increasing rates among different ethnicities of marrying out, generation by generation.
Sociologists stress that social cohesion depends on strong community,people who live near each other sharing perspectives and values. The traditional pre-modern village is the paradigm. But today, in Australian cities and towns, there is a new form of neighbourliness. It is based on common interests, of people coming together from different parts of a city
to participate in a collective passion – football, an arts festival, a fun run,or a parade – and then going their separate ways at the end of the event.
The experience engenders feelings of fraternity, belonging together,common understanding, and a warm attachment to place. This neighbourliness may be looser and more casual than the traditional form,but it is no less intensely communal for that.
The Covid years damaged neighbourliness in ways that have not recovered completely. Long periods of forced social isolation came at a severe but largely hidden cost, one which will never fully be known. Some traumas are ongoing.
Within the smallest and most intimate of communities – extended families – schisms became common, with people not speaking to each other. Domestic violence rose, as reported by all relevant agencies.
The teenage years, normally fraught and unstable as it is, were put under extra anomic pressure, of personal remoteness, loneliness, and detachment from the wider society. An exponential rise in demand for psychotherapy is still not being met.
A main form of contemporary community is found at work. But the pre-Covid culture has gone, which assumed, without question, that people went out to work every day, five days a week. It is clear by now that working from home has become the new norm for a large minority, even a majority, with managers reporting great difficulty getting employees to return to the office. However, the convenience of the home office has come at a cost – to the importance for personal wellbeing of socialising with others.
Another major Australian form of social interaction is facilitated by the ready availability of public spaces in which to gather, spaces from beaches to parks and gardens, from city squares to sporting arenas and arts sites.
Going out into the public world and joining the unpredictable throng of people interacting as they conduct their lives is usually animating,drawing on the buzz and fizz provided by a big city. That buzz is itself still dampened by the shadow of Covid.
To take football as one indicator, AFL attendance figures in 2022 were 20 percent down on the pre-pandemic year, 2019. A passionate habit for a significant minority seems to have broken. Maybe fans got used to the comfort of watching games on large television screens at home, and couldn’t be bothered to take on traffic, weather, and cost, as they would have once without second thought.
Whatever the reasons, here was another instance of damage to the tissues of belonging tying individuals to their fellow citizens.
Let me turn to politics. Social cohesion at the critical public level depends on an unwritten working contract between the people and their governments. Robert Menzies, Bob Hawke, and John Howard, the most effective prime ministers since World War II, all gained the confidence of the electorate, with it believing they were acting in their interest, without fear or favour, and they were doing so as competently as could be expected. There was harmony between leaders and the vast majority of the governed. Robert Menzies’ forgotten people speech from 80 years ago set the tone. It celebrated the middle class: “I do not believe that the real life of this nation is to be found either in great luxury hotels and the petty gossip of so-called fashionable suburbs, or in the officialdom of organised masses. It is to be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised, and who, whatever their individual religious conviction or dogma, see in their children their greatest contribution to the immortality of their race. The home is the foundation of sanity and sobriety; it is the indispensable condition of continuity; its health determines the health of society as a whole.”
Menzies’ “forgotten people”, in its sober common sense, was in tune with the temper of the times. Hawke followed, in the somewhat different 1980s, with his “accord”. And Howard, a decade or so later, successfully addressed his “aspirational” Australians.
Over the past decade a dissociation has grown between politics and people,one centred on the most basic of all civic needs – costs of living. Here has been a slowly developing problem which is now speeding towards a crisis.
The first principle of politics is maintenance of order. The liking for order and a society in which things work is a universal human need. The mark of an orderly society is plentiful goods in the shops, trustworthy banks, clean streets and parks; rubbish collected; compliant traffic, safe neighbourhoods, well-organised sporting events, and fluent public transport. Failure of the general contributors to comfortable and smoothly running everyday life irritates. Shakespeare called it degree: “Take but degree away, untune that string, and hark what discord follows.”
Order requires a stable social contract, at the centre of which is the availability of work, paid at a rate that makes a reasonable quality of life affordable – this was made explicit Australian policy from the early years of the commonwealth, care of the Deakinite Settlement. Today, in suburbs and towns across the country, there is enough to worry about in the vicissitudes of everyday life without adding acute money troubles to the mix. One of the timeless lessons of Western history was highlighted in 1789, with the rising cost of bread acting as one of the main triggers of the French Revolution. And rioting over bread was not new.
Charles Dickens’ Mr Micawber reminds us starkly of the consequences of economic necessity, in a time when there was no welfare safety net placed under the poor and unfortunate. Micawber philosophised: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds,annual expenditure twenty pounds nought and six, result misery.”
And misery for Micawber was true misery, being locked up in debtor’s prison in 1850s London.
Bread’s equivalent in Australia today is threefold: mortgages, electricity,and gas. First, the steep jump in the cost of home mortgages, from 2 percent at the start of this year to near 6 per cent currently, and certain to go higher, means that a large minority are going to find it difficult to meet repayments. This is especially the case for those who took out fixed-term loans at 2 per cent, and for whom the fixed term is about to end. The most recent inflation figure of 7.3 per cent will have sent shivers down the spines of those tuned into its consequences – the Reserve Bank forcing further significant interest hikes.
Interest rates are not the responsibility of the federal government, and it cannot be blamed for their acceleration. But the situation is quite different for the other two threats to household budgets: electricity and gas, steep rises in which also threaten businesses both small and large. Electricity and gas prices have risen punitively over the past two years and are predicted to rise another 50 per cent and 40 per cent respectively in the short-term future. In Britain, the same crisis arrived earlier, is more acute, and has penetrated scarily into public consciousness, contributing to current political instability. With winter approaching, it is predicted that around half the British population will be forced to choose, at times,between heating and eating.
The cause of the disconnect between government and middle Australia is ideology. Its triumph over common sense is due to a split that has been much commented upon between the ideals of inner-city, upper-middle-class Greens and the practical needs of the rest of the country. Climate alarmism won the political debate half a decade ago. Since then, lofty dreams about renewables replacing coal and gas have carried the day,despite a reality in which old power stations continue to supply base-load power, with no alternative supply source in medium-term sight.
Panic in Europe has countries restarting nuclear plants, planning new ones, and even returning to coal. Coalition governments themselves became so spooked by the climate debate, about which they themselves remained, in the main, sceptical, that they found themselves paralysed on the energy front. The necessary long-term planning for power supply, as renewables gradually increase their presence, was simply not done. Peter Dutton shrewdly put cost of living at the centre of his recent budget reply speech, but he spoke from a position of weakness, given the poor performance on this front of governments he served in.
Gas is not much different from electricity, but should be much easier to address, given the nation’s plentiful reserves. The gas problem is particularly acute in Victoria, which has a history of favouring gas over electricity in home heating as in industry, because of decades-long experience of a plentiful supply of cheap gas. Here, the state Labor government is to blame, in banning the exploration of huge reserves of gas available in Gippsland. Again, politics is punishing the people in order to be true to its ideology, with its new social contract open to satire: We are happy to impoverish you, the people, for what matters is that we remain pure in spirit. It seems indifferent to Micawber misery.
At the national level, West Australia could be imitated, in requiring a percentage of all gas produced be kept for home consumption, and at a reasonable price.
To be fair to governments, they find themselves operating within a wider culture that is addicted to virtue rhetoric disengaged from any reality. It is almost as if exponents feel the more virtuous, the more brazenly they snub their noses at reality. So, netball players can refuse to wear the Hancock logo, losing a $15m sponsorship at a time that their organisation was close to insolvent. So, the Australian cricket captain can criticise Alinta Energy and lose its sponsorship. Soccer players to signal their virtue by censoring Qatar, but will play in that country, and one can imagine the Qatar ruling elite quaking in their sandals.
More seriously, a zeal has emerged in political quarters, led by the Teals, for anti-corruption commissions, and the unjust trials by media that inevitably follow their public hearings – despite what should be the cautionary recent example of the most effective Australian political leader in dealing with Covid, Gladys Berejiklian, losing her job over a minor lapse of judgment. One wonders what happened to the pragmatism that used to be a feature of Australian social cohesion.
Politics is about leadership. In serious times, the excuse that it merely follows dominant opinion doesn’t wash. Australia long had a comparative economic advantage over other countries in its plentiful and cheap energy.This advantage has been squandered. The slow realisation among the forgotten people that their recent governments have not served them well on the cost-of-living front will not, of course, lead them into revolutionary rioting. Rather, the rising sense of fracture in the cohesiveness of their social world, across its broad civic breadth, is more likely to produce in them confusion, subtle unease, dampened morale, and political distrust.
John Carroll is professor emeritus of sociology at La Trobe University.