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What kind of society do we want to become?

Like patriots everywhere, Australians like to brag about our achievements – and with some justification. It’s true that we’ve created such a harmonious society out of our mongrel diversity that when outbreaks of racial prejudice or ethnic tension occur, they tend to make the news. We are rightly proud of our inventiveness – everything from the stump-jump plough to wi-fi. We like to say we punch above our weight when it comes to Nobel prizes, Olympic medals, Oscars and cricket.

We’re not quite so keen to acknowledge that we also punch above our weight when it comes to carbon emissions, though we are, in fact, among the world’s heaviest per-capita carbon polluters. Nor are we so keen to claim the title of ‘world’s most overweight nation’, though we’re heading there, too.

Why do we tolerate these shortcomings?

On reflection, many aspects of Australian society raise searching questions about the kind of society we are becoming. For example: how did we end up slithering so far down the OECD league table of school education outcomes? Could that have something to do with the fact that, every year, we pour $12 billion of public money into non-public schools, which means our once-proud public education system is struggling to maintain standards across all its schools? (Finland, the country we tend to look to for inspiration on the subject of schooling, simply doesn’t have private schools.)

How does a society like ours tolerate such a persistent problem of homelessness, with more than 100,000 Australians having nowhere to call home tonight? (Again, Finland’s example is instructive: they solved the problem by giving homeless people homes. D’uh.)

Have we given up on the egalitarian dream? In spite of our fabled 26 years of continuous economic growth, two million Australians are still either unemployed or underemployed. How did we become such an increasingly unequal society, with three million of us living in poverty and 16% of our dependent children lacking regular and reliable access to safe and nutritious food?

How, in a society that once prided itself on its ‘mateship’, have loneliness and social isolation joined the list of our most pressing social issues? In a recent study conducted by the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University, almost half the respondents felt they couldn’t call on their neighbours for help, and 25% reported feeling lonely most of every week.

The factors driving social fragmentation are well known: shrinking households, high rate of relationship breakdown, excessive busyness, population mobility, increasing dependence on IT at the expense of face-to-face interaction (‘connected but lonely’ has become an accurate description of many members of the smartphone generation). But their impact is not inevitable. We have unwittingly promoted social fragmentation, isolation and loneliness by embracing a culture of individualism and materialism. In the Age of Me, deteriorating mental health is just one of the symptoms of the trouble we’re in.

There are pinpoints of light

All over Australia, enlightened individuals are starting to galvanise local neighbourhoods and communities into rediscovering the joy of neighbourliness. Book clubs, community choirs, ukulele bands, street parties, Friday night drinks, sporting clubs, library-based community events, sausage sizzles, trivia nights … all good signs of pushback against influences that would otherwise divide and fragment us.

Another pinpoint of light – our generosity in a crisis – can be glimpsed through the pall of smoke from a bushfire season that, as predicted by climate scientists, is longer and more intense than ever. (We may say the 2019-2020 season is shocking in its ferocity; we can’t say it was unexpected.)

Yes, we can be generous, kind and compassionate in response to a catastrophe, but what a tragedy it would be if we needed a catastrophe to make us generous, kind and compassionate. What a tragedy it would be if we lost sight of the fact that we belong to a species that depends for its survival on our willingness to co-operate rather than compete; that we are people for whom generosity, kindness and compassion come naturally when we are not being distracted by baubles, corrupted by wealth or power, or seduced by selfish dreams of personal gain.

The response to appeals for bushfire relief is a welcome sign that the nation’s heart still beats, (though it’s legitimate to ask why more money had not previously been spent on precautionary measures). But where is the sense of urgency about all the other challenges, including those related to climate change, that don’t force themselves on us as obviously as smoke in our eyes and lungs?

Where, for instance, is the comparably generous response – whether from socially sensitive governments, a more enlightened tax system, public appeals or philanthropy – to the socially corrosive problems of homelessness, poverty, and the malnourishment of all those kids?

Taking matters into our own hands

When institutions – political and otherwise – fail us, we tend to take matters into our own hands. As successive governments harden their hearts against people seeking asylum, great generosity is being shown by local communities towards organisations who offer them practical support. In the absence of a coherent energy policy, millions of us are seeking our own ways of transitioning to the clean energy future the government seems unable to imagine. We’re starting to look for smaller, more accountable alternatives to the discredited big banks. Some disenchanted ex-churchgoers are joining the growing ‘house church’ movement. New online media platforms (like this one) are usurping the role of traditional mass media.

In response to too much disappointment, too much anger, too much frustration, perhaps we’re gradually learning how to reshape our society, piece by piece, street by street. That might be grounds for some muted celebration, after all.


Hugh Mackay AO is a social researcher and bestselling author of 19 books, including The Good Life, The Art of Belonging and his latest, Australia Reimagined (2018) published by Macmillan. Hugh has been elected a Fellow of the Australian Psychological Society and awarded honorary doctorates by Charles Sturt, Macquarie, NSW, Western Sydney and Wollongong universities. He is often described as ‘the man who explains us to ourselves’.


Lewis Waters
February 25, 2020

I can't believe that none of you can see what a great country this is. It is NOT more racist than other countries. How can it be when we all come from somewhere else. We will also develop alternative energy sources in time but don't look at other countries like the UK. Although they have largely weaned themselves off coal, there major source of energy is now nuclear and gas. Wake up to yourselves and stop putting shit on Australia. Stop waiting for government to do something. Turn off your air-conditioning. Stop buying gas guzzling 4 wheel drives and start walking, cycling and using public transport and stop telling everyone else what to do without setting the example yourselves

Tony Dillon
February 20, 2020

"though we are, in fact, among the world’s heaviest per-capita carbon polluters"

The high "per-capita" emissions chestnut. It's total emissions that really matters, and our country is small. Besides, Australia is unique in terms of geography and location. For a start, we are such a vast country, it takes a lot more effort to get from A to B than almost any other country. For example, we rely on the aviation industry for domestic travel, far more than European countries. No wonder our "per capita" emissions are on the high side. And with 5% of the world's land mass, our emissions per square kilometre are one of the lowest.

Warren Bird
February 21, 2020

What you've said is, mostly, factually correct, but irrelevant to whether Australia should take a leadership position in the fossil fuel reduction challenge that the world faces.
But be that as it may, the reality is that the planet is heating up due to burning fossil fuels. Most of the investment community and many governments around the world recognise what this means and are shifting strategy towards sustainable development. Therefore, the future is becoming inevitable. Coal will be stranded, renewables will be the world's major source of power and we'll miss out on some amazing investment opportunities if we don't change policy direction soon.
No amount of self-justification about the distances we have to cover to travel in our wide brown land will change that.
Australia has the choice right now as to whether to continue to kick against the pricks or to be a responsible global leader, bringing creativity to the table to participate in - indeed to help shape - the future.

Tony Dillon
February 22, 2020

Warren, renewables will never satisfy baseload energy needs. They will have a place as part of the energy supply mix, but alone are not the answer. Even with optimistic assumptions, only 20% of global energy is projected to be derived from renewables by 2050, with global emissions 10% more than today courtesy of increasing emissions for developing nations projected to outweigh any reductions achieved by developed nations. And adjusting costs for reliability, fossil fuels are projected to be the cheaper energy option at least through until 2040.

So our $60b coal industry will have a place for a considerable time yet. At least while we continue to be a net developing world, certainly beyond 2030.

As for Australia taking a leadership position, we should not put being virtuous above protecting our economy and the livelihoods of many Australians. We should allow global market forces to determine the timeframe and the extent to which there is demand for our coal.

February 23, 2020

"responsible global leader":

90+% of green house gasses are emitted by North Hemispherians.

If all the world were like Australia there would be no potential emissions consequences.

If all Australians were exterminated there would be no measurable change in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

Ditto If all Australians became net carbon neutral.

Warren Bird
February 23, 2020

Tony, it doesn't surprise me that you'd say that. The "base load" argument is a furphy. Technology has moved on. Our future is in wind and solar, backed up by hydro.

February 24, 2020

'The "base load" argument is a furphy.':

Pumped hydro loses ~20% of energy round trip, consequently likely to become obsolete 'overnight' when a cheap safe more efficient alternative storage is invented.

Non coal non nuclear base generation is increasing being supplied by natural gas turbine generators. The resource base for natural gas is currently much smaller than coal.

Vast numbers of researchers are working on the premise: "Build a better battery, and the world will beat a path to your door".

Warren Bird
February 24, 2020

Last thing I'm going to say on this topic on this thread at least. Read about what "baseload" actually means and how renewables can meet it from an independent expert:

February 10, 2020

I wish people would stop talking about climate change and start talking about carbon emissions instead. Using a term like climate change allows non believers to swat away any discussion. Rising carbon emissions are undeniable.

Approximately 15% of emissions are caused by motor vehicles, so why isn't the government coming up with ways to limit their use or encourage smaller cars. Taxing gas guzzling, emission spewing SUVs that account for a substantial portion of these emissions would be a start.

Also, emissions don't happen by themselves. People create emissions via everyday life (driving, cooking, heating, etc). Consequently, the more the population grows, the more emissions we create. Given our government's propensity to grow out of trouble via immigration, and their inability to provide sufficient infrastructure, it's hard to see how we are ever going to be carbon neutral.

Hayden Legro
February 07, 2020

The divisive response to the bushfires is unprecedented, sparked and kept burning by the progressive left, who being singed at the election responded with a vitriolic overlay and interpretation of events which has never happened in natural disasters crises in this country before. The generosity of this country’s people has always been there. Looking for govt to solve every problem and worse blaming private schools for education standards dropping is not only ludicrous when private schools do better on average than govt schools but it places the state over the individual Hugh Mackay.
Australia by 2030 will not be far behind the top countries in the world in percentage of renewable energy. Comparing us to tiny countries like Scotland and Finland is simply not accepting their comparative advantage in less transport distances, reliance on coal gas exports etc.
Transition to renewables is happening everywhere in this country. The best transition comes from individuals and business supported by govt . There are complex transition issues. The polarisation of the debate demonstrated by academics is part of the problem.

SMSF Trustee
February 08, 2020

Actually, the polarisation is so extreme that it's actually not polarisation. People from across the political spectrum have been outraged by the lack of Prime Ministerial leadership, including this right of centre commentator. Don't dismiss what's happened by labelling it as 'progressive left' thing, because it isn't.

Boyd Craig
February 06, 2020

An excellent article that makes me wonder: do many people who voted in this government to avoid the ALP's somewhat inequitable changes to imputation credits, gearing etc (which parliamentary debate may have softened) wish that they had voted differently after experiencing the effects of the government's refusal to take climate change seriously? The excessive focus on a budget surplus has left us vulnerable to bushfires; bank malpractice; hospital, aged care and housing shortages; education etc.
If any of us are feeling 'buyer's remorse' then, besides making donations, maybe we have to ask: why do we choose such political mendacity and harshness?


David WIlson
February 07, 2020

Well said Boyd. And it is disturbing to see Australia's international reputation being trashed by the Morrison government's attitude to climate change. This from a recent article in The New Yorker (on 13/1/2020):
"The Trump Administration, which has filed to withdraw from the Paris agreement, and the Morrison government, which wanted to use an accounting trick to fulfill its Paris commitments, were explicitly blamed for the stalemate. Many commentators noted the irony of the situation. A headline in The Guardian put it this way: 'AUSTRALIA TOOK A MATCH TO THE UN CLIMATE TALKS WHILE BACK HOME THE COUNTRY BURNED'. "

February 07, 2020

As a mature, educated and sensible person, I realise that none of climate change, the Morrison Government nor God created these devastating bush fires in our high country and other areas.
The 2009 FIRES Royal Commission recommended urgent, necessary reduction of fuel loads, in Victoria.
The more fuel left on the ground, the greater the ferocity, intensity, temperature and destruction caused by the fire. This applies to National Parks, State Forests and suburban areas.
It is a State responsibility, but the volunteers of the CFA then are our main front line savers. Premier Andrews, it's never too late.

February 08, 2020

In reply to Boyd Craig: Unfortunately, Labor's position on climate change action was, and continues to be, ambivalent. While it continues to support coal mines, including Adani, which has a proven record of environmental destruction, it will not get my vote. There being little difference between Labor and Coalition policies I may as well vote to retain my franking credits so I can direct my money to the organisations that are actually doing something to protect our biodiversity and ecosystems. If Labor would show some real leadership and say they no longer support coal and gas mines (which emit huge quantities of methane -- a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2-- and are rapidly depleting aquifers so farmers and rural towns are running dry, ruining agricultural land and killing community life (FIFOs, etc), then they would be worth voting for. As for coal jobs, there should be generous compensation for workers losing their jobs, unlike the car workers, the TCF workers, and the Latrobe Valley workers, etc who were hung out to dry when their jobs were abolished. And as for protecting coal jobs, miners are subject to black lung disease and horrific accidents. Why would anyone want to be a coal miner? And, anyway, these jobs are going as robotics increases--self-drive trucks, trains etc. Not sustainable. But the fossil fuel political donations certainly are, which is driving both Coalition and Labor agenda.

Dr Doug Hill
February 06, 2020

An informed and perceptive account that raises critical issues that need to be resolved by individuals, communities and governments at both state and federal levels.The Coalition is firmly in the camp that forgets about the need for a connected, cohesive and healthy society.

Gary M
February 06, 2020

Agree, you can see from the comments in the OK Boomer poll that we seem more divided than in the past.


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