Before The Economist magazine became the in-house journal for the woke business elite, it printed a fascinating article entitled “The burden of history” about how the past is viewed in the different countries of the European Union.
The piece began by quoting Javier Solana, then the EU’s foreign policy spokesperson who talked about how Americans and Europeans each interpret the exact same two words: “Ponder the phrase ‘that’s history’, and what it implies on either side of the Atlantic. When Americans say something is ‘history’, they mean it is no longer relevant… When Europeans say the same thing, ‘they usually mean the opposite’.”
How Australians regard history, in keeping with us as being a little bit American and a little bit European, falls halfway between the approach of the two continents. Sometimes debates about our past are dismissed as nothing more than attempts by conservatives to stir up the “culture wars”. At other times, such as this moment, in the midst of the discussion about whether the Australian constitution should be amended to provide a permanent Indigenous voice to Parliament, for example, it seems as if most of the country, or at least most of the media, is engulfed in the meaning of what happened 230 years ago.
The more we talk about our history the better. One of the many benefits of talking about history is that young people are beginning to appreciate the importance of events and dates – even if the teaching of history has long ceased to be about anything so mundane.
However, while Australians are talking about their history, we shouldn’t neglect what’s occurred in our more recent past. Which is why on Australia Day, the Institute of Public Affairs released a research report entitled; The Fair Go – Going, Gone: The Decline of the Australian Way of Life 2000 to 2020. The report is the first attempt of its kind to define and measure the Australian “way of life”. And it reveals the gradual decline in the quality of our way of life.
The Fair Go measured the changes in 25 key indicators in the categories of home, work, enterprise, governance and lifestyle. Indicators included the rate of home ownership and household indebtedness, levels of employment, self-employment and entrepreneurship, family formation and the proportion of young people living at home, and the extent of community volunteering.
All but two indicators have got worse over the last two decades – the only exceptions were the rate of car ownership (a proxy for mobility and independence) which has increased, and the proportion of the working-age population in receipt of income support payments, which has fallen. A key finding of the report is that if all the indicators were consolidated into an index, the quality of the Australian way of life has declined by nearly 30 per cent since 2000.
The scorecard provides the evidence of a sentiment, sometimes only vaguely expressed, that some of the material things that have made Australia so special are slowly being lost, and in some cases have been lost quite quickly. This is not an exercise in nostalgia. For instance, home ownership is a key determinant of a family’s financial security while the number of new small businesses being created every year tracks the economic vitality of the nation.
The evidence of whether Australians have more or less “freedom” or “opportunity” today than 20 years ago can be the subject of debate. What’s not debatable is that the proportion of 15-to-24 year-olds not in full-time education or work has increased from 22 per cent in 2000 to 27 per cent in 2020.
Nor is it debatable that some of the ill-considered and disproportionate responses of Australian governments to COVID-19, as schools were shut and businesses closed, disproportionately affected young people and will likely see a further deterioration in their participation in education and work.
Australians don’t like talking about themselves – a reticence that at times can be endearing. Examining what it is about the country’s way of life that is worth saving is a task that makes many Australians uncomfortable. Yet we’ve got to talk about ourselves if the Australian way of life as we know it today is not to be consigned to history.