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Can’t-do country: how Australia is on the brink of environmental disaster

Rather than tackle the impending catastrophe, Australia seems intent on becoming the most nannyish nation on earth. 

The great Australian clichés: G’day; fair dinkum; dinki-di; fair go; no worries; good on yer; she’ll be right; mateship; whingeing Poms; the lucky country. Only one of these has been known to cause its progenitor any grief. The late Donald Horne’s book The Lucky Country was published in 1964 and became an Australian phenomenon, described by one critic as “a bucket of cold saltwater emptied on to the belly of a dreaming sunbather”.

“Dad was very happy that the phrase caught on,” said Dr Julia Horne, associate professor of social history at the University of Sydney. “But if he was watching TV and saw it being used without irony he would stick his thumbs in his ears and waggle his fingers at the set. A wine started using the name and he couldn’t bear it.

“Much of the luck came from the postwar mineral boom. His point was the luck of the boom would run out. He believed that Australians were forward-thinking but that their politicians and businessmen were stunted creatively and imaginatively.”

Donald Horne died in 2005. Minerals boomed again; Australia is still lucky. Gamblers’ luck. And, as a nation of punters ought to know, that is not something that repeats itself indefinitely.

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I had been away from Australia for eight years and something struck me at once: the blocks of flats. Sydney hardly had any until now, apart from a few old mansion blocks in the Little Old Lady-land near the beaches. Part of the Australian dream, even in its biggest city, was the bungalow and a quarter-acre, big enough for growing vegetables, and growing families.

Large numbers of “ten-pound Poms” from damp and distressed Britain pursued the dream on assisted passages in the decades after the war. Similar schemes were extended to southern Europeans, who were less fussy about taking grotty jobs and were considered just about white enough to meet Australia’s traditional criteria before the old whites-only policy for migrants was abandoned in 1973.

The latest wave of migrants is different. They are highly educated, often in Australia’s own schools and universities (whose export dollars are a match for the iron-ore and coal mines). They are often single and not averse to flat-dwelling. More than half come from Asia, mainly India and China.

In the traditional Australian imagination, there was no greater terror than “the yellow peril”. The fear of land-hungry Asians engulfing the wide open spaces was a major driver of the postwar immigration mantra: “Populate or Perish”. Now the blocks – many of them shoddily built, so it’s said – line the westward roads and railways all the way out to Penrith, a distant suburb with near-Outback temperatures in sight of the Blue Mountains. I have heard of migrants out there who have never seen the ocean. The flats are essential – Sydney is hemmed in by natural obstacles.

So why do you want more immigrants, I asked the Sydney-based writer David Marr. “They make us rich,” he replied. “The Italians, Greeks and Yugoslavs built this country brick by brick. These people are largely the doctors and computer scientists. If it hadn’t been for immigration, there would have been many years of recession. It’s not an act of charity, it’s an act of prosperity. They bring their skills, their intelligence and their energy to make us richer.”

Australia is already rich: 27 years without a technical recession, supposedly beating a 26-year mark previously set by the Dutch (their sporting heritage makes Aussies very fond of world records). The GDP per capita figures are slightly less impressive: the population, now 25 million, has more than doubled since Horne’s book. It was only 20 million when he died 14 years ago. But the success, in economic terms, is beyond dispute.

Still, part of the governing right-wing coalition’s line of attack for the next election, expected in May, is immigration policy. This does not involve the legal migrants (although one senses underlying disquiet about them among older Australians) but those who have almost wholly failed to materialise: the refugees and asylum seekers perceived to be heading south by boat in their millions from countries in turmoil.

The coalition, which regained power in 2013, has adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards this group, sending the navy to sweep the seas and detain them in offshore camps of infamous brutality. In principle it is not unkind to deter the wretched of the Earth from entrusting their lives to oceans. In practice the disgraceful conditions of detention have done much to damage Australia’s reputation.

The prime minister du jour, a deeply unimpressive ex-tourism executive called Scott Morrison, has been aiming to exploit supposed Labor softness on asylum. Even so, the betting is still on Australia’s seventh change of prime minister in just over 11 years: the advent of the not-quite-as-unimpressive Labor leader, Bill Shorten.

But the immigration that has taken place is startling enough. At the millennium, Australia’s two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, were overwhelmingly white; now they have a substantial Asian component. It is not easy to determine who the faces belong to: students, migrants or tourists, or perhaps all three at once – students acquiring permission to stay on and being visited by their wealthy parents.

This is a localised phenomenon: it is much less obvious in Australia’s other state capitals. It is almost wholly absent from the decaying small towns of the near-interior, never mind its empty top and midriff. It is always tempting for liberal-minded people to see immigration as an act of altruism. Here, as Marr hinted, it is something different. One might be tempted to see it as a kind of intellectual property theft on the part of the host nation.

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I became infatuated with the idea of Australia as a child; in my early thirties I arrived and fell in love for real. I enjoyed the ease of conversation, the abrasive edge, the Aussies’ unexpected sentimentality. And the weather. I was delighted by the charmingly Victorian but ungrimy city centres, the green suburbs and, when I got the chance, the boundless hinterland. I loved the way the warm winds from the interior sometimes suffused even the city air with eucalyptus. I actually learned to identify a fair number of the 750 different types of gum tree.

I grew to love the rich seam of Australianisms that had failed to escape into broader English: “rort” – a con-trick; “stoush” – a punch-up; and, my favourite, “Sydney racing identity”, which is the newspaper euphemism for a blatant, high-profile crook.

My affection has not gone away but time has made it more nuanced. And very little in Australia these days is what an outsider expects. A land of wild rovers and drovers? The Man from Snowy River and Crocodile Dundee bestriding the Wide Brown Land? This is one of the most urbanised countries on earth. Or to be exact, suburban. When I took out an online subscription to the Sydney Morning Herald, it demanded to know what suburb I was in: compulsory answer. What if I lived in Kirwirkurra, 435 miles from Alice Springs? Am I banned?

However, about 80 per cent of the population do live in the south-east corner, which occupies around a tenth of the landmass. They have the tiniest toehold on the continent, huddling fearfully by the coastline as though keeping their retreat options open. Enemies lurk everywhere: sharks to seaward; snakes to landward. Sometimes Aussies’ herding instinct takes on insane proportions. Hyams Beach, in southern New South Wales, has become so popular that villagers have had to put up roadblocks. There are said to be 10,685 beaches in Australia, one of them 90 miles long.

Australians also pride themselves on their contempt for authority. (Old First World War joke – Furious British officer: “Who called the cook a bastard?” Cheeky Digger: “Who called the bastard a cook?”) Nothing of the kind. Australia has steadily become a clear front-runner for the most nannyish country on earth.

It has only recently got over its old school puritanism: homosexuality was illegal in Tasmania – and not just technically – until 1997. Now the police have other fish to fry: mature ladies cycling helmetless down quiet streets; grown men not wearing back-seat seatbelts; 2am jaywalkers in deserted cities; random breath tests. There is no infraction too minor for attention, and the law-abiding have no immunity from intrusion. No wonder so many Sydney racing identities are at large; the cops are far too busy.

“Double demerits Friday to Monday” yelled a sign on a main route out of Sydney before Australia Day weekend, meaning that speeding penalties were being doubled for the duration. Sometimes the whole country seems infantilised. Outside the Red Cow Hotel in Penrith, where pubs might advertise their beer, food and charms, there are instead signs with 20 house rules, the dress code spelled out in Royal Ascot-style detail with an added footwear fetish.

Police also run regular campaigns to “Dob in a druggie”; Australia, thanks in part to the lingering power of the Murdoch tabloids, is a long way from having an intelligent discussion about the drug laws. “We are an orderly country. We do what we’re told. We deeply respect the police,” says David Marr.

Rich as it is, this is also to a surprising extent a can’t-do country. A fast Sydney-Canberra-Melbourne rail service, to replace the current walking-pace trains, would render thousands of flights a year obsolete. The countryside being so empty, there are no major obstacles except the lack of vision. It has been talked about for more than 30 years; it doesn’t happen. The major highways are not great either. Australia is incapable of replacing its absurd Union Jack-based flag; it cannot resolve the monarchy-republic conundrum; most urgently, it insists on holding its national day on the date the Aborigines associate with invasion and destruction; and it cannot even now bring decency and sense to its treatment of those whose land was stolen.

And it does not particularly welcome heterodoxy. “One of the things about Australia is that there’s a very narrowly framed culture, particularly economically,” says Professor Stephen Garton, social historian and deputy vice-chancellor of Sydney University. “We’ve got a few mega-rich; we’ve got an underclass of poverty. But both ends of the spectrum are quite small. Instead you’ve got a huge, highly prosperous middle class, which leads to a certain conformity of perspective. There’s a lack of diversity of opinion, and that’s increased.”

The norms have changed, though. It was once a very difficult place to grow up gay, fey or unsporty, or indeed female if you spurned the conventions. Now those norms have flipped. A rough masculine culture still exists, which explains the body of laws governing the Red Cow Hotel, but it is being driven underground and deep inland. “It is a dramatic change in Australian culture, possibly more than anywhere else,” says Garton. “You still get beer ads with blokes in the bush knocking back pints, but the ads are now seen as problematic. They have to be done tongue-in-cheek.”

It is fair to see much of this as progress. But in one respect, more existential even than gender relations, the old certainties are colliding against reality with a fearful grinding sound.

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The conformist middle class certainly believes in climate change. At any rate, everyone (except this Pom) whinged like mad through January when Australia had its hottest month in history. Across the country, average daytime highs were one degree centigrade higher than the previous monthly record; in New South Wales it was two degrees. Adelaide reached 46°C, about 115 Fahrenheit – a record for any Australian state capital. Night-time lows also broke records.

The Sydney news bulletins hardly knew where to turn first: floods in Queensland or bush fires in Tasmania, though Sydney normally cares little for such distant places. In Australia’s fragile river system, millions of fish were found dead; environmentalists blamed water extraction by cotton farmers. Health researchers advised people not just to put on sunscreen when spending the day outdoors, but even when walking to the bus stop. The Great Barrier Reef, Australia’s wonder of the world, is already desperately, and perhaps fatally, ill.

In no other large country, taken as a whole, is human life so marginalised by geography and climate. No other large country is so at risk from environmental catastrophe. Yet its leaders rival the Trumpians for visceral denialism. The US we know about. Australia is a harder case to explain except to say that it is more American than it first appears. It has a penchant for materialism (this country really adores its fancy gadgets), political corruption – especially at state level – Murdoch-employed outrage specialists and itinerant snake-oil salesmen (a British denialist called Viscount Monckton became a right-wing rock star here).

I spoke to several Australian farmers about climate change; none of them doubted it was real. They included Tim Fischer, now retired from politics but deputy prime minister in the 1990s and former leader of the rurally-based National Party (perpetual partner of the misleadingly named Liberals in right-wing governments). “We’re in a funk. Every farmer in my region can see how the weather has changed,” said Fischer. “More snap droughts in spring. Late frosts doing damage to the wheat crop. Deluges in summer, which are questionable benefits. In Sydney and Melbourne we’re getting railway shutdowns from the heat because the system’s not robust enough. There are some thoughtful people in my party and elsewhere but they’re taking their time about it, and we can’t afford that.”

Some of them are doing more than take their time. The former prime minister Tony Abbott has adopted various positions on this subject in the petulant manner favoured by well-funded anti-scientists: the science is “crap”; no, in fact change is happening but it is “beneficial” etc. In 2017 he told a private meeting of the like-minded in London that it was “barely better than futile” for Australia to do anything because its total emissions were less than China’s annual increase. Of all the arguments for inaction, I do believe this is the most despicable. Screw you, world; we’re doing fine.

The political impetus is driven by the multiple links between the Australian right and the coal industry. “There are about a dozen MPs who stand for Christ, coal and the Crown,” says Marr. Australia has a bigger share of the global coal market than Saudi Arabia does of oil so there is a genuine concern, abetted by the familiar mix of lobbying, political donations and favours. But there is clearly no future in this business.

“Many conservatives in Australia have run with this narrative that what’s good for coal is good for the worker,” says Richard Denniss, chief economist of the Australia Institute think tank. “But 99.6 per cent of Australians don’t work in coal mining. And in any case the industry is investing a fortune in robotic trucks so they can get rid of the people.”

And the industry is actually leaving the government behind. When the multinational Glencore announced a cutback on coal production in February, ministers got very huffy. As Donald Horne said all those years ago, Australia is “a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people”. A New Zealand friend of mine put it even more succinctly this year: “Big country. Small minds.”

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Abbott’s fall was not directly connected to climate change. He was toppled by his own party, mainly for being a dork, and furthermore a dork who woke up one morning and handed Prince Philip a knighthood (his once safe Sydney seat is now imperilled by an independent). But climate change has become Australia’s Brexit, bedevilling everyone who touches it, including non-deniers Kevin Rudd and Abbott’s in-house usurper Malcolm Turnbull, who both struggled to find the necessary political courage, that rarest of resources, to start moving forward.

Australia has been much-mocked for its revolving-door prime ministers. Rod Tiffen, emeritus professor of politics at Sydney University, wrote a 2017 book, Disposable Leaders, which chronicled the phenomenon of the “spill” – the back-benchers’ penchant for getting rid of leaders. He makes the score 73 spills, at both national and state level, since 1970. He does not see it as necessarily a bad thing. “People talk about instability being a problem,” he said. “But stability is also a problem. It means you’ve become unresponsive. We had 11 years of John Howard and he became ever more doctrinaire.” Consider the consequences of Westminster MPs being unable to get rid of Thatcher, Blair, Brown, May and Corbyn.

The spill is the least of Australia’s political problems. I spent a week observing the national parliament in Canberra in 2010 and was horrified. It made Westminster look a bastion of intelligent democracy. I saw mindless partisanship, appalling behaviour and a wholly choreographed, whip-dominated, fearsomely dull “Question Time that made it impossible for the rank-and-file to make intelligent contributions. Occasional assassinations are the poor saps’ only non-sexual diversions. And constitutionally, Australia has major barriers to serious policymaking: three-year parliaments, the federal system, and a powerful second chamber that is often heavy on the brake.

It has long been assumed that Labor will win the imminent election. The government is much reviled. Scott Morrison’s major achievement in life was to mastermind a national tourism campaign with the slogan “Where the bloody hell are you?”, which flopped. But Labor’s poll lead is not secure. Morrison is now hammering the traditional right-wing good-times mantra of don’t-let-Labor-ruin-it and he is ahead of Shorten on the preferred PM question. There is a whiff of Neil Kinnock in 1992. “The public don’t warm to Shorten. He’s a deal maker who’s always teetering on the edge of what’s legal and proper. But he knows how the Labor Party works,” says Tiffen.

By chance there is an appetiser on 23 March: a very tight election in Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales. The Liberal premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has been under attack for favouring new stadiums rather than schools, hospitals and transport. Not at all, she said last weekend: “NSW can have it all. And NSW should have it all.”

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The lingering belief that it can have it all is precisely what’s so repellent about modern Australia. Because it has come at a terrible cost. In the words of the poet Laurie Duggan: "I like the way we’ve been able to fuck things here as good as anywhere else in only half the time."

Or, to be more precise, on the basis that Homo sapiens have been around for 300,000 years and the whites in Australia for 231, only 0.001 per cent of that time. Either way, the paradise parrot, the desert bandicoot, the lesser bilby, the desert rat-kangaroo, the broad-faced potoroo and the Tasmanian tiger – among many other locals that have become extinct since 1788 – might like a word put in on their behalf.

Nowhere is better placed than Australia to set the world an example. Grow up, lucky country. Please make me fall in love with you again.

Matthew Engel will report next from New Zealand

This article appears in the 15 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, She’s lost control