Hugh Mackay On the State of Australia by James Reed

Social commentator Hugh Mackay says much that we would disagree with, but all he publishes is informative and thought provoking. Thus, in his Gandhi Oration, delivered at the University of New South Wales on January 30, 2017, while acknowledging that we have much to be grateful for in this country, there are still alarming problems, indicating that we are no longer “the lucky country”:
“We are a society in the grip of epidemics of anxiety, obesity and depression – 20% of Australians experience some form of mental illness.

More than 700,000 children are living in poverty. Although we pride ourselves on our low rate of unemployment, we often overlook the problem of underemployment. About 2 million Australians are either unemployed or underemployed. 100,000 Australians are homeless. We are further from egalitarianism than we were 50 years ago. We are showing signs of a disturbing retreat from the values of an open, tolerant society for which we were once famous.”
Australians do not trust big business, and for good reason, given their track record on selling us out (my view). Mackay says; “An international survey conducted by Ipsos showed that more than 70% of Australians believe the nation “needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerful”; 68% believe “the economy is rigged to the advantage of the rich and powerful”; and 61% believe “traditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like me”.

That decline in respect for contemporary institutions of all kinds might well contribute to our level of anxiety, though I suspect the main response among people who lose faith in an institution is disgust rather than anxiety. They are more likely to switch off, or retreat into cynicism, rather than to worry about it.”

And that’s not all. He cites research indicating that one third of Australians don’t trust their neighbours. Mackay interprets this as meaning that people don’t know their neighbours, but other evidence indicates, I believe, that this is too optimistic a proposal: many people see their neighbours as aliens, as Robert D. Putnam showed, in multiethnic/multiracial neighbourhoods, that people do tend to hunker down and community solidarity is low: Scandinavian Political Studies, vol. 30, 2007, pp. 137-174. We have mass migration to curse for that.

Other factors producing social dislocation include:
•    “changing patterns of marriage and divorce, with 36% of contemporary marriages expected to end in divorce and the consequential disruptions of families, friendship circles and communities – including for the 1 million dependent children who are now living with just one of their natural parents;
•    a record low birth rate: meaning children, the great social lubricant, are in shorter supply than ever (while compensatory pet ownership has soared);
•    the rise of the two-income household, with a greater sense of “busyness” and less time and energy available to nurture the community;
•    our rapidly shrinking households, with the average now down to 2.6 persons per household and single-person households the fastest-growing type, expected to reach 30% of all households within the next ten years – increasing the risk of widespread loneliness, social isolation, even alienation;
•    our increasing mobility (we move house on average once every six years);
•    our almost universal car ownership reducing footpath traffic; and
•    the IT revolution that has led us to confuse data transmission with communication, altered our perceptions of privacy and identity, and – above all – made it easier than ever to remain apart from each other.”

These factors are compounded by global crises, such as the looming global economic crisis, which will make all of these problems much worse.

Mackay concludes that people need to stop hoping that some leader will come riding out of the blue to save them, and start making an effort to save themselves, starting today, and starting on every street. It will be extremely difficult, but there does not seem to be ant other option. Even here, it is pretty much an open question whether we can save ourselves in time. But don’t tell anybody, we would not want to scare the salt of the earth, for we must keep on whistling in the growing darkness.



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Friday, 18 September 2020
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