Rebecca Huntley, Still Lucky: Why You Should Feel Optimistic About Australia And Its People. Penguin, 2017
There is, by now, a standard presentation for a certain type of Australian non-fiction book, one that the publishers hope will do well among the festival crowd, and in the windows. Strong, large title, affirmative breezy cover picture, usually of a beach, and endorsement quotes by either George Megalogenis, David Marr, Annabel Crabb and/or Laura Tingle. Indeed, there’s now an entire medical condition, the Megalogenis tingle, which is the shooting sensation a publisher gets when they realise they have another manuscript of this type in their hands, ready for flogging.
Still Lucky has quotes from three of the four — no Annabel — and no wonder, because it exhibits that “certain type” of book very well. What is that certain type? It is a study of Australia written in a spirit of what one might call “consensualism”, the idea that we have got to this place, now, as it is, by a process of agreement, rationality and purposiveness. This attitude can be so saturating that it becomes what is sometimes called “teleological”, interpreting the present as a necessary event, and seeing the past as nothing other than a lead-up to it. This is the defining characteristic of Megalogenis’ The Australian Moment, a good book marred by some sort of need to remove much of the contradiction and conflict from the country as it is, and of Australia’s Second Chance, a very flawed one working off the lustre of The Australian Moment, and using the idea of consensual migration as a master theory of Australian history.
Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essays operate in a similar fashion, but in silhouette: they see our current state as exhibiting a fall from a pure rationality, our current politics as nothing other than the absence of such. That lost rationality is always expressed as the idea of “reform”, a depoliticised notion of steady neoliberalisation of the economy and society, with a few “social market” style safeguards built in. Consensualism relies heavily for its argument on quantitative measures, in a process that is obvious circular logic. If one of the issues of Australian life was that 25 years of economic growth — and the avoidance of the worst of inequality in the process — had delivered not greater happiness but a persistent and pervasive dissatisfaction and anxiety, then consensualism, by its very nature, cannot pick that up.
What makes Rebecca Huntley’s Still Lucky different is that it uses qualitative investigation to give a picture of Australia, Huntley having taken over Hugh Mackay’s “Mind and Mood” survey franchise. What makes it extraordinary is that Huntley, in writing framing essays about her findings from focus group conversations, ignores much of their texture in order to argue that we are as the title suggests, a conclusion not supported by the evidence she herself has gathered. It is consensualism taken to the Nth degree, when even the dissenting voices of actual Australians is not sufficient to prompt some deep reflection on how we got to where we are now.
Still Lucky, like many a volume and article, echoes the title of Donald Horne’s 1964 book, and like many of them also, throws out Horne’s bitter sarcasm and turns it into an affirmative statement, even as it acknowledges it is doing so. “I spend most of the time taking notes and listening, really listening intently,” Huntley says at the start. And at the end: “Re-reading all the research of the last ten years, writing this book, I now believe that Australians are slowly moving past fear and nostalgia”, the latter judgement bewildering to any reader who has got to it by way of the — elegantly, stylishly written — book in between, 200 pages of plaint, dissatisfaction, yearning ache for the past, and a persistent sense of dislocation and alienation — acknowledged by Huntley in the first part of her conclusion. The Australians interviewed by Huntley appear to feel that the bottom has fallen out of society, that though they have become more prosperous, they have become more distant from each other, less trusting, that inequality and competition have become a blight, that house prices and commuting have become a major problem in their lives, that childhood is now an obstacle course of mollycoddling and bullying, and that the onrushing future is one in which mass automation makes life-planning and forecasting — the security of projecting life into the future, for self, children and intimates — an impossibility.
“We ship our resources off to China and they sell it back to us in the form of plasma TVs.”
“With replacement teaching, you’re like slave labour.”
‘ive got fifteen-year-old twins. That [automation] frightens the hell out of me’
“Maybe we’ll have another PM by the end of the week.”
“You bought a house? Good on you. I will never be able to do that.”
Chapter by chapter, these voices add up to a mordant chorus about the present, made all the more portentous by being disembodied: Huntley tells us very little — usually gender only, sometimes city or town, cultural background only in the section on immigration — about the persons and bodies attached to such voices. You could stage this book from the text itself, and it would have a thoroughly Beckettian quality: not I, not us, not anyone.
That might have something to do with the form of investigation itself. Telephone surveys of almost any society usually find that most people describe themselves as “happy” — except in Eastern Europe, the rule-proving exception — which might have a lot to do with the degree of “face” we present to the world, a basic outgoingness, unless we are actually lying in pieces on the floor. Focus groups (Huntley’s uses groups of friends in familiar locations, not strangers) have a different process, very much like group therapy — from which process they were derived — creating a transitional space, with a degree of rapid disinhibition. The question with the sheer volume of dissatisfaction on display here is whether the process offers people in need of a place to vent, the opportunity to express a pre-existing dissatisfaction and mild dismay, or whether it produces a mild regression, in which adults get an opportunity usually offered only to children, to express their disappointment nakedly and without mitigation.
Huntley explores neither of these to any great degree. She seems intent on rushing onto an interpretation that finds an optimism underlying what sounds like a series of really depressing group conversations in living rooms. One can see no reason for this other than that the “consensualist” ideal is so strong — in someone like Huntley, a Sydney Labor penumbra figure, born in 1972 — that it can turn any evidence at all into a feelgood story. One suspects that consensualism must do that, because it is bound up with the rise of a group of people in times that suited them. The times were the Keating era, and the people were a whole phalanx of soon-to-be journalists, public servants, policy advisers, think tankistas, going through, and coming out of the booming and expanding universities. As the Hawke period — one in which the old class social contract and social management held sway — waned in the 1980s, Keating rose. With his unapologetic stylishness, his drive for a more dynamic, and also harsher Australia, his enthusiasm for a mid-century middlebrow culture that passed for high culture, Keating not only inspired a generation to his vision, he inspired them to believe that they were the generation to deliver it. For a lot of people looking for a way to frame and project their life, it was a compelling and intoxicating vision.
So it would be a melancholy thing for many such to admit today that the vision was a little wonky, in many respects. That the country’s protectionism and all its attendant features had to be reconstructed is not in doubt. But Keating’s way of doing it was not the only or best way. “A Nation-building state changes its mind” the subtitle of one of Michael Pusey’s books — far tougher, mentally, than many of the consensualists — but of course he meant it figuratively. An interconnected group of free-market enthusiasts took control, removed and sold off most of the state-based mechanisms we could have used, in a modified form, to channel and steer a two-decade resources boom, and instead of that delivered what we have now: a country prosperous on its surface, but swimming in private debt, its prices inflated by resources money, its alternative sectors deprived of focus, ingenuity and labour by the iron-ore cargo cult, its future fund derisory. Yes, we’re still doing pretty well, some of us anyway. It wasn’t a disaster. It was what politics usually is, a series of kludges in which the unintended consequences pile up until the machine is silted to stasis, and we have to dig it out and start again.
But for many of the Keating kids, that would be the worst thing to have to admit. That is why there seems to be such an urge to find a simple narrative in the last three decades, or longer, whether it is Megalogenis’ elevation of migration (above and in contrast to the statist, corporatist Anglo-Celtic society we really were for much of the twentieth century) as our essence — to the absurd point of portraying the imperial de facto slave/master convoy of the First Fleet as “the first migrants” — or Tingle’s invoking of a golden age of “reform”, or here, the finding of deep disquiet among the general public, nevertheless rendered as an ebullient Australian spirit despite it all.
There are other problems too. The distance between knowledge-class author and her raw material is sometimes achingly obvious — at one point she says of her own project that it is “adventurous”. “Some people …volunteer to work in war zones. I research people.” What? Going to Bathurst and staying at the Ramada? Not exactly Mogadishu, is it? Much of the research appears to have been done in quick visits, a sort of knowledge-class FIFO, and such a process is only “adventurous” if you already feel so distanced from the public in general that the project has taken on an anthropological cast. “I dress casually as if I was going to the shops to get some milk,” she notes of this behind-the-lines mission. “No make-up usually, and I often wear my glasses, and my hair in a tight bun.”
A bit more time on trains, the Firefly bus and in the public bar, would give an alternative take on the country — one that might have offered more evidence to support the author’s optimism. But above all, the disembodied voices gives insufficient measure of culture, race or economic class difference, an approach which seems hopelessly archaic, distorting, and also tends to predispose to the conclusion sought, that we are not divided as a people.
The alternative take might be that the mordant tone of many of the respondents expresses the inevitable melancholy of multicultural modernity — that we are a people compiled from a series of economic and policy processes without much binding us together moving through social and public spaces that we no longer share, with an absence of shared cultural meanings that have not been dodged up by desperate citizenship program in the Department of PM&C. When you live in such a society you not only have to renounce certain possibilities, and emphasise others, you have to be clear-eyed about where we are. Still Lucky is put together with great skill, and it is vastly superior to the safari-suited musings of Bernard Salt (‘time to telex your pet rock! The cappuccino is here!’), but cover to cover, it appears to represent the most determined exercise yet in an elite consensualism. Life’s a beach, but it’s also a blasted heath, and as well as listening, one has to hear.