|Photo courtesy of Gorman|
For a short period of time it seemed as if Australia was a nation coming of age. Fresh ideas, original policies, the shedding of the White Australia Policy, the adoption of multiculturalism, a commitment to Indigenous empowerment, an accord between government and unions and embracing of the arts and innovation were just some of the developments that saw Australia become a country willing to lead the pack between 1972 and 1996.
The cultural and social renaissance put in train by Whitlam, partly sustained by Fraser and given new direction by Hawke and Keating echoed an earlier time when Australia was in the vanguard of progressive social policy (though sadly not where race was concerned). Stonemasons who walked off the job on the site of Melbourne University in 1856 were among the first in the world to achieve an eight-hour working day. Non-Aboriginal Australian women were granted the vote at federal level as early as 1901 (compared with Britain, which did not grant equal suffrage for women until 1928). The Deakin government introduced invalid and aged pensions in 1908. We were the country of the fair go.
Howard's reign from 1996 to 2007 took us back decades. Squandering the GST billions, he threw them back to the electorate in the form of often regressive bribes, priming the electorate to ask 'What's in it for me?' He demonised boat people while eventually sustaining record numbers of economic immigrants. After the 2005 Cronulla riots he dog-whistled at the rioters and their supporters by refusing to admit Australia was a racist country. His ministers openly labelled unemployed people dole bludgers and his government silenced advocacy groups by threatening them with a loss of funding if they spoke out against government policies.
Yet some of the seeds of Australia’s malaise lay in the actions of the previous government, and its fateful decision to let Rupert Murdoch buy the Herald and Weekly Times in 1987, thereby granting him not just a stranglehold over Australia's print media and the tenor of its policy debates, but power over the very make-up of its government.
Australia is now a backward-looking country. From a small window when we seemed to have regained some of that early idealism, we are now provincial and moribund once more, and in the grip of entrenched corporate interests. We may have thrown out the cultural cringe, but perhaps we need to adopt a social one. We need to understand how behind we actually are if we are to become the forward-thinking, innovative country we once were.
What is most disturbing is that we don't get to hear the truth about how far we lag behind. The Murdoch-dominated press, and the ABC, which now takes its cue from it, fail to tell us. We need a new version of The Lucky Country. We need outsiders to dare criticise us, to tell us how inward-looking and insular we have become. Here are just some of the ways in which we've fallen behind the rest of the world.
Ethical and sustainable fashion
There are loads of interesting designers and developments relating to ethical, sustainable fashion in Australia (such as Lisa Gorman, whose work is featured in the above pic), but you wouldn't know it in the mainstream media – nor would you know how advanced the UK is in this area compared with us, and the extent to which ethical and sustainable fashion are becoming part of the mainstream there. Sadly, some brands that have ethical accreditation in Australia don't even see it as worthwhile, from a marketing perspective, to highlight their accreditation.
Many commentators see the status of women in Australia as somehow naturally improving over time as if by some immutable law. This couldn't be further from the case. Women's rights and status are constantly under attack, and things went backwards over the Howard years. Australia is now one of the most sexist of the advanced Western nations. For example, we rank only sixteenth in the world, behind Thailand, when it comes to equality in the office.
The default family structure has the man working in a prestigious full-time job while his wife does a couple of days in a poorly paid position and bears the bulk of the housework and child-raising burden. If they divorce she moves into poverty due to her lack of skills and childcare responsibilities, and he gets angry because he doesn't see enough of the children. Until the business sector takes shared parenting and flexible work arrangements seriously and until the government properly funds childcare, and pays workers in the care sector a living wage, nothing will change.
The two larger parties still won't support gay marriage in Australia, despite the fact that a majority of Australians now do. According to Wikipedia, the following countries now allow same-sex couples to marry: Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, South Africa, and Sweden. Same-sex marriages are also performed and recognized in Mexico City and parts of the United States. That some fiercely traditional Catholic countries now allow gay marriage and we don't is pathetic.
In Europe, many more things are recycled as a matter of course than they are in Australia, and one of these is batteries. This may seem a minor issue, but battery pollution is one aspect of our environmental footprint that doesn't even get discussed here. Batteries contain toxins, including mercury, nickel and lead, that leach into the environment and pollute water systems.
The European Parliament's 2006 Battery Directive has led to many European member states passing battery and waste management laws, including Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Finland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and France. According to Wikipedia, Belgium and Sweden have battery recycling rates of 59 per cent and 55 per cent respectively. In Australia, used batteries go straight to landfill.
Economist Ross Garnaut, hardly a radical, has said that Australia lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to dealing with climate change, but he goes further: he believes that our attitude has held back international action on climate change. Given that we are the highest per capita emitters, the situation can only improve.
The USA is hardly a bastion of progressive thought when it comes to sentencing and prison rehabilitation. Yet the fiscal situation there is making it politically feasible for mainstream politicians to adopt more enlightened sentencing policies.
In contrast, in some Australian states our prison policies are going backwards. Governments of both major parties establish an unholy alliance with victims' groups and the uneducated to pursue policies that actually perpetuate crime rather than tackling entrenched disadvantage and second-rate education. Sentencing policies are about to hit a new low in Victoria, as the state government is currently conducting a survey via the Herald Sun newspaper that asks readers to recommend suitable sentences for a series of crimes; the Baillieu government has promised that the results will inform government sentencing policy. On the face of it, this seems to violate one of the basic tenets of Westminster parliamentary democracy, the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.
Animal torture is legal in Australia. As we speak, exhausted, debeaked and defeathered, aching from osteoporosis, hundreds of defenceless chickens are enduring a living hell at a factory farm near you. Industry self-regulation in the form of the 2009 Code of Practice permits the use of the battery cage for hens. It's legal for farmers to stuff these intelligent animals into cages so small they can't lie down (if there was a floor to lie on), with each hen assigned a space smaller than an A4 page. Some starve to death, many remain in pain for months after debeaking because the nerves are still active, prolapses are common. Many animals succumb and their brethren are forced to remain alongside their corpses. The federal government promised to revisit the issue in 2010 and did nothing. Yet a national survey found that 86 per cent of Australians believe that battery cages are cruel.
According to Wikipedia, the European Union is planning to ban battery cages from 2012 after a 10-year phase-out, to be replaced by 'enriched' cages. Hens must be provided with at least 750 sq cm of space, and cages must contain litter, perches and 'claw-shortening devices'. The use of battery cages is already banned in Germany, Belgium, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands, while Germany will prohibit enriched cages from 2012.
When it comes to banning suspect ingredients from food and non-edible products, we’re sadly remiss. A number of suspect beauty industry chemicals are banned in Europe and Japan but available here.
On the food additive front things are also dire. For example, a number of food colourings that damage children’s behaviour and learning are being phased out in the UK and carry a warning in Europe, but are available here.
I know there are still a few areas where we lead the world. These tend to be the areas where entrenched interests have absolutely no credibility with the wider community – restrictions on smoking and cigarette advertising are one example. As I write, the House of Representatives has just passed a bill mandating plain packaging for cigarettes. Yet whenever a powerful and influential lobby group threatens to unleash a media storm, the government shies away from bold reform. It doesn't have to be this way.