As the election hangover fades and a new government packs itself into Parliament House, we have a chance to remake the nation for a new century. In a special post-election series, Crikey asked leading Australian thinkers to sketch a blueprint for a future Australia. Their brief: to spell out how Australia might fully realise its potential.

On Tuesday, renowned social commentator Eva Cox wrote on social justice. Author David Lindenmayer from the Fenner School of the Environment & Society at The Australian National University pointed out opportunities for the new Rudd government on the environment on Wednesday, with sociologist John Carroll yesterday looking at Australia’s place in the world.

Today, Miriam Lyons, Director of the Centre for Policy Development, takes a look at remaking Australian culture, for want of a smaller topic:

New settings for the cultural thermostat

Writing about culture is like trying to catch a butterfly with a pin. Culture is a complex, living thing, not easily understood, let alone broken down and built up again into something shiny and new. It’s also intensively subjective, and attempts to define a single national culture are inevitably biased and incomplete.

So instead of a plan for “remaking” Australian culture, I’d like to look at what we “need” from Australian culture. What cultural traits will make us resilient in the face of global change and capable of dealing with future challenges and what, if anything, can policy makers do to help foster those traits?

Exporting cultural progress

I believe that Australia can become a net exporter of cultural progress by finding Australian answers to a global question — perhaps the most important question that we will ever be asked. How can we transform our economy and lifestyle fast enough to prevent not only dangerous climate change but the irreversible depletion of other “ecosystem services” that sustain human life on earth?

This may not seem like a cultural question, yet the answer is definitely more than economic and political in nature. It involves trust, openness to change, capacity to cooperate and willingness, in some cases, to prioritise the needs of future generations over the desires of present ones. It involves a shared sense that “we’re all in it together”, and an ability to think of ourselves as citizens as well as workers, consumers, and family members.

In other words, it involves the shift in mindset which Judith Brett gave in March as the reason that John Howard would lose this year’s election: 

… the looming environmental crisis is one which confronts us with our interdependence, not just on the environment but on each other, and so it is likely to propel increasing numbers of people into public action to seek collective solutions to a collective problem.

Governments do not control a nation’s culture, thank God — but they can have a strong influence over it. Politicians can choose to appeal to the worst in us or to call on our better angels, to exploit our fears or engage our hopes, and these choices in turn can shape how we think of ourselves and each other. This power is then amplified by the media — journalists have a habit of overstating the extent to which governments are representative of the population as a whole.

The choices made by the Howard government in exercising this cultural power were both cruel and negligent. In a decade when we could have been taking advantage of the resources boom to ease the social cost of transition to a more sustainable economy, we instead got nothing but bread and circuses.

(“Circuses” may seem too light a word for the Tampa election, the invasion of Iraq under false pretences, or the inflammation of racial tensions for political ends, but the phrase “bread and circuses” actually comes from Roman times, when senators attempted to keep the populace under control by handing out bread and hosting gladiatorial bloodbaths in which slaves, prisoners of war and condemned criminals fought each other to the death for public entertainment.)

As the Liberal’s new leaders clamour to distance themselves from Howard’s cultural legacy, it is important to remember that only last year Howard claimed victory in the culture wars. Very few people then or since pointed out that this was the equivalent of standing on the ship of state in a flak jacket under a sign reading “mission accomplished”.

There is a long tradition of politicians promising to govern for everyone, and there is an equally long tradition of them breaking that promise when they get a bit comfortable. In 1963 Menzies promised to govern “for all of you.” In 1996 Howard’s campaign slogan was “for all of us,” which quickly came to mean “people like us.”

Kevin Rudd’s election night pledge to govern “for all Australians” may be a variation on a theme, but it’s an important variation. Like a conscientious Oscar winner who’s anxious to thank everyone, he rattled off a list of identities so all-encompassing that no one could possibly feel left out.

The message was clear. Australian politics will no longer be driven by the Reagan-era maxim that if you divide the country in half, you get to pick the bigger half.

And not a minute too soon. Mr Howard’s impact on Australian culture didn’t go as deep as many assumed, as research by Gabrielle Meagher and Shaun Wilson has found. Australians are still, on average, more generous, compassionate and liberal than their representatives in the major parties.

Avoiding distractions

But the culture wars were a very effective distraction from a number of serious, complex and interrelated problems:

  • The retreat from Multiculturalism policy robbed us of a flawed but necessary tool for dealing with diversity. The Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs was replaced by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (presumably because the Department of Immigration and Aspirational Monoculturalism wouldn’t have worked on a letterhead), but the word citizenship seemed to refer only to new citizens, not existing ones. There is evidence that, all things being equal, social trust tends to be higher in more homogenous societies. Couple this with the fact that monoculturalism is both practically impossible and morally abhorrent, and we obviously need invest a lot more in other things that build trust: like education, free time, shared spaces, and universal social services.
  • We face a future of rising international competition for skilled labour, rising mobility of unskilled labour and much larger movements of refugees, and we need to shape our policies on immigration and asylum seekers to respond to these trends, based on a bedrock of respect for human dignity. Mr Howard had to work very hard to dehumanise refugees, a self-imposed heartlessness perhaps symbolised most powerfully in Philip Ruddock’s reference to a traumatised refugee child as ‘it’. A simple act would be to open the doors of the detention centres to journalists, including citizen journalists. Protect detainees from unwanted prying, but let those who want to tell their stories do so. Hearing the personal stories of desperate people who risked their lives to escape persecution is perhaps the most powerful way to breathe some life back into our better angels. The pledge to dismantle Nauru is a good beginning. In the long term, we could look at the idea of processing drawn-out asylum cases in ‘welcome towns’ as recommended by Rural Australians for Refugees.
  • If the global response to climate change is not fair, it won’t happen. If it doesn’t happen, we’re all stuffed. And for it to be fair, those of us who live in countries pumping more than our share of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere are going to have to accept the principle of “contraction and convergence” — i.e. equal per capita emissions, which means that a 60% cut in emissions by 2050 translates to a 90% cut for Australia. This will require more significant changes than have been promised to date. It means economic reform of the scale seen in the 1980s or greater — designing markets, taxation, and regulation to make it cheaper to do business sustainably than unsustainably.

This is not without danger. When Paul Keating combined radical economic liberalisation with progressive social policies, it prepared the ground for both One Nation and the Coalition to associate the economic pain with the progressive politics. And, even without implementing major changes, economic pain is on the way, due to a combination of international instability, domestic profligacy, and the plain old business cycle. Several economists are already calling Saturday’s election “a good election to lose”.

A few things will make this easier:

  • There are signs of a gradual increase in citizens’ economic literacy, meaning that we’ll be somewhat less likely to blame governments for those factors which are out of their control
  • The last of the resources boom, combined with the auctioning of carbon permits will be a major source of revenue which can help ease the costs of transition
  • Lastly, and most importantly, the push for action on climate change is coming from below, not above. Grassroots networks of unprecedented size, making effective use of communications technology, should be able help keep climate change policy connected to people’s lived experience.

The blueprint

Together Australians can set our cultural thermostat to a level that will help keep the planet at a liveable temperature. Somewhere between “relaxed and comfortable” and “alert and alarmed” – how about “hopeful and engaged”?

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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