Still the lucky country

Julianne Schultz introduces a special report on Australia - a nation anxious to recover its old conf

On the April morning I was due to start the punishing journey back to Australia, I woke with a minor ailment, one quickly cured with antibiotics. "Don't put yourself under pressure waiting here," the hotel concierge advised. "See a doctor and get a prescription when you get to Heathrow."

This sounded sensible. Airports these days are towns, where you can shop and eat and drink. But not, I soon discovered, see a doctor - at least at the world's busiest airport.

"There are doctors at Australian airports. Even third world airports have medical centres," I fumed later to the steward.

"Yes, that's one of the reasons I want to leave this country," he said. "It doesn't work any more. My wife and I want to migrate to Australia, but we haven't got family there, enough points to get in or a spare A$100,000 to invest."

The price of entry to Australia has risen over the past 220 years. Once a dumping ground for criminals and ne'er-do-wells, it became home in the decades after the Second World War to nearly seven million immigrants, many of them "ten-pound Poms" wanting to start over in a sunny new country with a promising future. Tens of thousands still want to go. Last year more than 130,000 migrants arrived, a fifth of them from Britain. Australian cafes, shops, offices and hospitals are filled with British backpackers working their way around the country, undeterred by gruesome tales of murder in remote locations. But the traffic is not all one-way. More than a million Australians - one in 20 - live abroad, at least 300,000 of them in Britain.

The force field connecting the two countries is magnetic - it both attracts and repels. The pull of the cosmopolitan centre, for those living in a country that the former prime minister Paul Keating once described as the "arse-end of the earth", is nothing new. It has operated since settlement.

Yet the scale of the current Australian diaspora is unprecedented, drawing happy-go-lucky youngsters, the best and brightest graduates, high achievers and retirees seeking new challenges. Researchers find only a tenuous link between the political climate and emigration, but undoubtedly many have left disappointed by the direction the country has taken since 1996. Intercontinental moves need a push to amplify the pull.

Over the past decade under John Howard's leadership, Aus tralia has become a much more cynical, unimaginative and materialistic place. Gone is the sense of crafting a unique environment, characterised by cultural diversity, openness, inclusiveness, Aboriginal reconciliation and a creative yet pragmatic approach to policymaking. The spirit captured by the Sydney Olympics and beamed to the world in 2000 has dissipated. That outward-looking, self-confident Australia has become defensive, socially and culturally divided and domestically complacent. It still works better than most places, but it is no longer a demonstration project on the future.

Instead, Australians have jettisoned much of their carefree larrikinism and learned to be fearful, seeking solace in perfectly appointed homes bursting with appliances.

Lost confidence

The country has grown fat on China's insatiable appetite for minerals and energy, repaid in ever-cheaper consumer goods purchased with ballooning credit cards and mortgage redraws. The wealth generated by the long-running boom - the quantum of tax revenue is unprecedented, and even the treasury regularly revises its projections upwards - has not been directed into renewing social or economic infrastructure, or building social, educational and cultural capital. It has not been evenly distributed, although almost everyone is better off. As in most countries that have adopted a neoliberal economic agenda, the rich have got richer than they could have imagined, but more than a million households still live in relative poverty. And as interest rates and petrol prices rise, so do the numbers in financial stress.

After an unimpressive first two terms, the post-2001 world suited Howard. He is not afraid of being divisive: indeed, he has made an art of targeting those he casts as "elites" in a series of culture wars aimed at imposing his narrowly nationalistic view of what it means to be Australian. He has learned how to appear empathetic when necessary.

Despite widespread opposition, Howard has pulled Australia into ever closer lockstep with George W Bush's America since 11 September 2001, when by mischance he was in Washington, DC, not far from the Pentagon, as one of al-Qaeda's piloted planes crashed into it. Australia's membership in 2003 of the "coalition of the willing" was trenchantly opposed with large rallies and widespread activism. Yet, when the troops departed for the Gulf, the opposition appeared to fade away, in part because the involvement, though costly, is only a notch above the symbolic. As other countries have withdrawn troops, Australia has maintained its small commitment of about 1,500 troops in the region, most engaged in training, logistics and support in southern Iraq. Only one Australian soldier, Jacob Kovco, has died: a result of "skylarking" on the base, not enemy fire.

In consequence, Iraq does not generate the same passion in Australia as in Britain or America. Australians are accustomed to deal with great and powerful allies, and prepared to accommodate them so long as the cost is not too high, the action not too close to home and the benefits tangible - a pragmatic, if unattractive national trait.

The cynicism that marks this engagement has been repeated time and again during the past decade, in immigration, Aboriginal affairs, foreign relations, security, climate change and education. Mapped on a flow chart, the pattern would be boxed as denial, followed by distraction and finally belated action. As this year's election approaches, we have moved to the belated action frame, with (uncosted) initiatives announced daily on education, Aboriginal affairs, climate change, broadband and health. While this cynical style has enabled many to feel "relaxed and comfortable" - Howard's stated ambition - it has had a corrosive impact on the character and confidence of the nation, sapping initiative, stifling creativity and undermining public engagement.

Immigration is a good example. Successful management of mass immigration has been central to the creation of the ethos of contemporary Australia, once at the international forefront with policies that integrated new arrivals while respecting cultural and religious differences. This was built into every facet of public life, from language classes and anti-discrimination laws to a dedicated national television network with an explicitly multicultural mission. Its success could be measured in many ways, the most tangible being very high rates of intermarriage between people of different backgrounds.

A new spirit

Howard was never comfortable with multiculturalism, a concept he had branded "politically correct", and once elected he set about dismantling the mechanisms that ensured - until December 2005, when thousands of drunken "Aussies" fought equal numbers of louts "of Middle Eastern appearance" at Sydney's Cronulla Beach - that Australia stayed free of ethnic violence. In January 2007, Howard signalled it was dead when he renamed the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs the Department of Immigration and Citizenship and started drafting multiple-choice questions to test would-be citizens' understanding of Australian values.

Yet immigration has been at record levels for five years. Typically of the bait-and-switch trick that has characterised Howard's premiership, the very real impact of this increase has been deflected by public focus on the plight of some refugees. Howard has made political hay for years by sowing the seeds of social distrust and then declaring, like the authoritarian father he often resembles: "We will decide who comes into this country" - and then suggesting a judgement based on ethnic characteristics.

But the mood of the country is changing, as shown by the strong public reaction that forced the release late last month of Dr Mohamed Haneef, after he was wrongly charged with recklessly supporting terrorism. Every week, polls provide evidence of less support for the government, a trend that has left many mystified. Never before when the economy has boomed has the electorate been so ungrateful. "It is as if they are no longer listening," senior ministers say. It is clear most people are no longer convinced that "father knows best". Instead, according to internal Liberal Party polling, they consider the 68-year-old premier an "old, tricky and dishonest" liability.

Polls now show that, beneath the complacency fostered by strong economic growth, dissatisfaction is real, and not confined to core Labor supporters. Some of the prime minister's most strident critics are former leaders of the Liberal Party, affronted by the reactionary insularity that has been encouraged by his willingness to foster an "us and them" mentality, targeting Muslims and refusing to apologise for past injustices to Aboriginal people or, most recently, to Dr Mohamed Haneef for his "crime" of association.

Just as British Labour learned how to develop and implement an inclusive modernisation agenda from the Hawke-Keating years, John Howard learned from Margaret Thatcher, his political heroine. A photo of them together is on proud display in each of his offices. Howard mastered the code words that ensured sufficient numbers responded "quickly, effortlessly, automatically and emotionally" to his agenda. He skilfully pitched his message to a media that had been bullied and wooed and used his favourite medium - talk-back radio - to reach lower middle-class and working-class "battlers" whom he rewarded with a complex system of family income support, noisy nationalism and force-fed fear. In this he became the "stealth bomber of libertarian politics".

The competing visions at the heart of the Australian story were categorised by the historian Manning Clark as the battle between the "enlargers" and the "punishers and straiteners". The past decade has not belonged to the enlargers.

In 1964, the writer and academic Donald Horne sought to jolt the complacency of another era when punishers and straiteners prevailed. He famously described Australia as "a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck". There is still a lot of luck in the country; there are fewer second-rate people; things work and life is good. But the spark of creativity and flair has not burned brightly for a long time.

Even if the polls are wrong and Labor does not win the 16 seats it needs to form a government later this year, a new spirit is budding. It promises to displace the fearful cynicism that has prevailed and pushed many people abroad. Over the past year more than 300,000 people have flocked to see Keating: the Musical, a witty, high-camp political cabaret that celebrates Paul Keating's bold vision, his flamboyant language and personal style.

It's a sure bet that in 2017 Howard: the Musical will not be the sell-out show of the year.

Julianne Schultz is editor of The Griffith Review