As the holidays end, let’s take stock of how lucky we are
If I was looking for a metaphor for Australia this Australia Day long-weekend, I’d choose the barbecue. A place where lamb chops can sit alongside teriyaki chicken skewers and greek-style calamari, and where diners can enjoy the benefits of diversity.
In my lifetime, this country has blossomed from a slightly gawky adolescent still unsure of its place in the world, to an independent nation. With little fuss we have built a peaceful and prosperous nation made up of people from across the globe without compromising the values of fairness and opportunity that has made us a beacon to migrants.
We are part of a young nation whose story is still being written. The issues that always pop up at this time of year: the flag, the republic, whether January 26th is the right day to celebrate our nationhood, are signs of healthy debate about our future.
The Australia Day weekend marks the end of the long Australian summer holidays, which give us a chance to relax, recharge and take stock of where we are.
This weekend is a chance for Australians to reflect how lucky they are and remember that most countries would swap problems with us in a flash.
If you look at the turmoil in Europe, the high rate of unemployment and the unresolved debate over the debt ceiling in the USA, you realise that Australia has, through a mix of luck, hard work and good planning, become an example to the world.
About 17,000 people will become Australians today at citizenship ceremonies across the nation. For many of them it is the achievement of a dream that began in a refugee camp or a crowded city slum. Letting them add their pages to the national story is what modern Australia is about.
I believe that the average Australian is smart enough to appreciate the things that make us special and retain a sense of perspective about our first-world problems.
So why have we been living through the sourest political climate in decades? A time where personal attacks and abuse are not just part of politics, but seem to be politics itself? The 2010 election was widely seen as the most dispiriting in years, but this year’s is shaping up to be even worse.
Politics and media seem to be locked in a damaging relationship that brings out the worst in each party. There is not much to inspire the average non-committed voter.
The “character wars” in Parliament, the abuse of the court process to attack Peter Slipper, the misogyny debate that generated more heat than light, and the grudging and adversarial nature of politics are feeding cynicism and apathy.
Media on both the left and the right have become more partisan, less open to diversity of views, more focused on surfaces, and more of an echo chamber.
New forms of social media have huge promise to create communities, allow people to discuss ideas in more depth, and to organise and agitate, but this promise is still yet to be fulfilled.
As a society we are still working out how to ensure that the newly expanded space created by social media has its own standards that allow for a civil debate which is a genuine exchange of ideas rather than just repeating fixed points of view.
Both mainstream and social media would rather inflame shallow controversies, and attention seeking mundanities than debate real issues.
Even the debate about an important issue like the Federal Budget became reduced to whether the Government could deliver a surplus. Budget debates should be about more than this year’s budget bottom line, and the size of the tax cut or handouts that are delivered.
Budget debates should be debates about Australia’s future. How do we best build essential infrastructure? How we pay for the disability insurance scheme that everyone agrees is long overdue? Can we afford the current level of subsidy for private health indefinitely, or do we need to focus on public hospitals?
How do we balance the needs of an ageing population against the duty to give our children the best possible education to compete in the 21st century? Is having two-fifths of our population in insecure forms of work good for society in the long-term? How do we help manufacturing and other industries adjust to the high dollar?
These are issues that will not disappear at the end of a 24-hour media cycle, but will stay around to shape the lives of future generations.
There is a dissonance between political leadership and views of ordinary people. Every day Australians retain their willingness to listen to other ideas, to compromise and to admit when something is not working, to try and understand other points of view.
They retain a belief in fairness, reward for effort and the duty of a society to help those who are victims of bad luck.
I hope our politicians and influential media figures have taken the time to talk to them over Christmas break, and try and make this year a little better than the one we’ve just had.
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