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Apr 23, 2013

What Nick Cater’s book gets wrong about Australia (basically everything)

Australia is a culture of collectivism, not individualism, and no matter what Nick Cater says in his new book, we will never be American go-getters.

The bombs of Oz journalist Nick Cater are dropping thick and fast everywhere, with an extract — free this time — of his book The Lucky Culture in yesterday’s Spiked. It is deliciously unironic — the employee of a family firm that controls 70% of the press and a fair slice of the screen prating on about the absence of privilege in the Lucky Country. Its purpose is purely ideological, but we’ll get to that in a bit. First the hilarious parts. Get this:

” … something particularly refreshing hangs in the egalitarian breeze as soon as you step off the plane [in Australia]. Customs and immigration officers command respect, not because they are wearing uniforms, but because they are earning an honest living, just like the taxi driver you sit next to, not behind.”

God, yes. Nothing to do with the fact they can arrest you, or slip on the latex glove. The country that is known to the world for its paranoia about boats, and for pioneering the fusion of border patrols and reality TV is not hung up on uniforms at all. Here’s something else in that vein:

“Paradoxically, egalitarianism is a force for financial inequality, since it offers an incentive to rise above the crowd, to achieve whatever your imagination desires. It is the motive force of personal and national progress, mining the inner resource Americans call ‘grit’, the British call ‘courage’ and Australians call ‘mongrel'”

Yes, a trend is emerging. Cater, Brit by birth, is doing a bit of home-grown antipodeanism, that great tradition whereby marginal elements of Oz culture are brought to the centre. The litmus test of this used to be “cobber”, a word last used unironically in about 1973, but which we were assured was something we produced at the drop of an Akubra. Now apparently, whether watching Breaking Bad, ordering new paperclips for the office or performing brain surgery, we all bark “mongrel” at each other.

This is fantasy-land Australia, a caricature for naked political purpose. It’s a retelling of the Bush Myth, the way in which a rapidly suburbanising nation that consolidated into a class society preserved an idea of rugged individualism for itself. In this new myth, Australians were American-style individualists from the start. Hence the argument that we used “egalitarianism of manners” to allow people to “rise above the crowd”.

“How could you have a country where each city could sustain an entire league of football teams without a fundamentally tribalist notion of culture and self?”

Seriously, is he f-cking kidding? This is a country that was created out of a series of collective strikes in the 1890s by shearers, sailors and others — strikes in which solidarity was enforced with whatever violence might be necessary. The capital-labour conflict produced a truce in 1907 with the “harvester” judgment, which gave the state the right to set wages. The banking system was dominated by state-owned banks and overseas concerns in equal measure. Utilities were publicly owned from the start. The entire agricultural system ran not as metaphorical but as actual socialism, in which the government practised monopsony (the only buyer in town) to maintain a rural sector that would not have survived through market forces.

For 80 years, the shape of Australian life was this: you went to a state school, or a small Catholic one, subsidised by the government. You graduated to a mid-range job whose terms and conditions were set by lawyers arguing behind closed doors, and applied to everyone from Broome to Bicheno. You bought your house with a state bank loan, and its value was as a house, not some floating shorted futures-debenture that happened to be in bricks and mortar form. Women earned 55% of men’s wages and were sacked when they married. You got your power from the SEC, your phone from the PNG and then Telecom. You watched four channels of TV, and if Frank Packer wanted one of them to run a horse-race six times because he kept missing it, you had to watch it too. The shops closed at noon on Saturday, and there was not a skerrick of commerce for the next 43 hours, until nine on Monday morning. Some 70% of workers were in unions, which won them, successively, the eight-hour day, the full weekend, sick leave, and then that unique institution, long-service leave, 13 weeks on the company dollar — an incentive towards immobility, to hang on where you were for that next sweet break. And on the day of your 65th birthday — which you had specified in the employment form you filled in when joining BHP or Myer or the public service when you joined at 16 — you retired without question and played bowls for a few years, until the high-fat diet laid you out.

Through all that time you worked for businesses owned by the relatively small Australian ruling class, or by Brits beyond them, or by Americans from the 50s onward, or by the state. The Oz ruling class, until the 1970s, resided in a self-contained Melbourne networks, who all began each conversation by asking which of 15 schools you went to. There were a series of interlaced families: the Clarks, the Wentworths, the Packers, the Murdochs … you may have heard of some of them.

Sure, occasionally someone jumped out sideways, started a milkbar, got a pub licence. Very occasionally, you knew someone who made it big. But it was quite possible for millions of Australians to go through life without knowing anyone who had done significantly better than them, whose life had been significantly different.

The Australian idea of life was collective. You could say from this vantage point that it was limited and repressive, and many people thought so too, and got out as soon as they could. But much of what we value, much of what makes us Australian, comes from that collective source. Our music, our TV, our best-loved movies emphasise not imagination and projection but acceptance. We’ve got Flame Trees, about returning to your home town and accepting loss, the US has got Don’t Stop Believin’. They’ve got Field of Dreams, we’ve got The Castle. Try as you might, you can’t turn Australia into America, unless you are fundamentally alien to its ways. A collective culture necessarily involves a limiting, a process of pulling people back from individual achievement. Overwhelmingly, this was expressed in sport. How could you have a country where each city could sustain an entire league of football teams without a fundamentally tribalist notion of culture and self?

The past 30 years have changed that substantially in Australia. But not as much as people like Nick Cater would think, or want us to think. Indeed, it’s that ignorance that may well have ushered in the Gillard/Rudd era — for News Limited encouraged, nay, baited, former PM John Howard, once he had got control of the Senate, in 2004, to introduce WorkChoices, exactly the sort of system that would reflect Cater’s idea of us. What did the Australian public do? They rejected it, the party that proposed it, and the PM that helmed it, out of hand. Without WorkChoices, Howard might still be prime minister, a new Robert Menzies. But Howard let himself be distanced from the people he represented, listened to the alien, Americophile Murdoch sycophants, and imposed something on Australians that a century of levelling-socialist-centralism had inured them against.

How do otherwise sensible people get themselves into such mindsets? By feeding themselves a mythology that becomes total in its purchase.Here’s Cater on our culture:

“Australians are not held back by the social rigidity that saps the British; they frown on the dispiriting nepotism that drains the energy from some developing economies; they would never succumb to the voodoo fatalism that disempowers the people of some cultures from changing their lives for better or worse; Australians (at least until recently) were not allowed to wallow in the mire of victimhood, which becomes a permanent excuse for failure.”

OK, let’s do this backwards. No culture of victimhood? Nick should have talked to my grandma, who started work in the Geelong mills in the 1920s and would, even in the 1980s, talk of “the money power”, the vaguely anti-Semitic portrayal of British finance capital as screwing the country up. “The money power” is forgotten these days, but it marshalled hundreds of thousands of voters away from the non-Labor parties in the ’20s and ’30s. Seriously, how can you celebrate Menzies’ invoking of the “forgotten people”, and in practically the same paragraph, say that we do not go in for “victimhood”?

It was all a piece with another victim myth, that of Gallipoli, in which our national identity was founded in opposition, not to the Turks — with whom we had no quarrel — but against the British, who had allegedly ordered us into that disastrous venture. That they had suffered greater casualties was of no matter. A sense of loss and victimhood, via military disaster, is the hole at the centre of our culture, something that makes it the opposite of the pseudo-American culture Cater would want it to be.

As to the rest of it. You want voodoo fatalism? Try the demarcation system, whereby the building industry — as one among a dozen — was governed by several thousand pages of case law as to who could pick up a piece of scaffolding or not. Social rigidity? Australian equality was, like it or not, an equality of outcome. Equality of outcome performed the function it always does in cultures — it relieved people from the worry that someone might suddenly do somewhat better than them, and make them feel like shit. That’s how collective cultures work, for better or worse — they create meaning by binding people’s fate up together.

Like most individualists, Cater would most like to posit the US as a positive example. But of course he can’t. Because it’s so obvious that the US is a smoking ruin, with a permanent working poor, that it has become indefensible. The only way for the Caters of the world to square that result is to pretend that the Australia was really the US all along.

A sense of loss and victimhood, via military disaster, is the hole at the centre of our culture, something that makes it the opposite of the pseudo-American culture Cater would want it to be.

That might of course, be simple ignorance. Here’s Cater on the founding of Australia:

“Australia, unlike America, was settled in the age of Enlightenment. When the Pilgrim Fathers sighted the Massachusetts coast in 1620, they gathered for a Bible reading; when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove, the new arrivals knuckled down to work; it was eight days before the chaplain could organise a church service. It is not the hand of God or the hand of fate that built Australia but human ingenuity and human labour. There was no need to succumb to fatalism and just wait for something to turn up because something already had: its people.”

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Quite aside from the inconvenient fact that establishing Australia meant clearing away another people entirely, the “new arrival” at Sydney Cove was not the people, it was the state, pure and simple. It consisted of two categories only: state functionaries (i.e. soldiers) and state chattels (i.e. convicts). There wasn’t a free person among them. And if Cater thinks they “knuckled down to work”, then perhaps he should work his way through John Howard’s failed curriculum and read, well, any history book. Whether or not, as some have suggested, Australia began with a giant gang bang on the beach, numerous eyewitness accounts — most particularly that of Watkin Tench — show that although they were knuckled down to work, with the whip and the knout, the early colony collapsed into chaos and disorder quite early.

Still, maybe the stuff on how we hate nepotism is right. If you’d like to submit an article to The Australian about how anti-nepotistic we are, send it to Rebecca Weisser, recent op-ed editor, or to Nick Cater himself. Same difference. They are, after all, partners. If you’d like to make a TV show about it, contact Lachlan Murdoch at Channel Ten. If you’d like to make a theatre show about it, contact Michael Kantor, Rupert Murdoch’s nephew, ex-Malthouse head, who honed his craft for years on a trust fund coming from guess who. Welcome to Australian culture and power.

 

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50 comments

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50 thoughts on “What Nick Cater’s book gets wrong about Australia (basically everything)

  1. zut alors

    A great read, Mr Rundle – points well made to counter the blow in, Cater.

    However, allow me to clarify that our original family telephone was supplied by The Postmaster General (PMG) and was not sourced from Papua New Guinea (PNG).

  2. paddy

    Bravo!
    Definitely worth the price of admission today Guy.

  3. Andrew Norton

    “For 80 years, the shape of Australian life was this: you went to a state school, or a small Catholic one, subsidised by the government.”

    Small Catholic schools were not subsidised by the state during the period Guy is talking about. But consistent with the overall statist culture he is describing they wanted to get those subsidies, and eventually did.

  4. archibald

    Guy, just a query on the utilities bit: my understanding is that – in the case of Melbourne at least – the gas and electric utilities were initially in private hands. In the financial crash of the 1890s, many companies and banks went bust and these included the private utility companies. The state government stepped in and take over the running of the utilities out of necessity.

  5. Peter Murphy

    60s Australia sounds like a good place to grow up (if you were white and male). But damn it sounds boring. That’s why dad – emigrating from the UK – went to Canada in the 60s. They had The Band and Leonard Cohen as musical exports. Australia had Rolf Harris and John Farnham.

    It would be nice to get some more egalitarianism without the mediocrity described in “The Lucky Country”.

  6. Peter Walters

    Brilliant Guy – your best in a long while. May Cater’s influence be confined to the op-ed pages of The Australian, where it belongs.

  7. Bob the builder

    Good work on countering the re-writing of history that’s going on. Perhaps Australia was boring and racist (unlike our current refugee-welcoming society!), but there was much that was good that has been comprehensively attached and undermined.
    I remember when one of the last Gallipoli diggers died and Howard did his usual flag-waving bullshit, neglecting to mention the bloke had been a staunch and active unionist his whole life.

  8. Mike Smith

    Who was the Aussie comedian with the soporific style that used to do this? Killing myself trying to remember.

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