Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
I love a sunburnt country – but the stupidity can be hard to stomach
Is it just me? OK, I know nothing about money. But I look at the biggest mining boom in history and the talk of a sovereign fund to soak up the excess. Then I look at the $4.5 billion budget “hole” and how – oh, sorry – we won’t actually be funding that medical research, reforming mental health care, housing the homeless or doing anything much about the environment. And I think, how does this make sense?
Julia’s mining tax cave-in lost us $60 billion when the fiercest advertising campaign ever seen in this country persuaded her – or persuaded her that it would persuade us – that the tax would decimate employment and bring the economy to its knees.
So not true. Not only because BHP then posts an obscene $10.5 billion half-year profit. But because mining provides a tiny fraction of Australian jobs; just over 1 per cent compared with 11 per cent in healthcare, which the government so happily trashes. We could drop the entire mining sector and still keep unemployment well below the OECD average.
Be-nice-to-miners month wasn’t really about jobs or money. It was about politics: a bizarre reluctance to offend Big Money. This is especially ironic in Australia, whose entire reason for existence is to offend Big Money.
Of course, the victims will be mostly the voiceless – the ill, the mentally ill, the homeless and the endangered. But we, too, connive at it by staying silent.
Most of us happily carp in private but shrink from airing our views publicly – lest we offend the powerful, or look stupid. But this is inside-out. Our public exchanges should be robust and forthright, giving and taking offence as necessary to get to the heart of things. In private – that’s where tact and politeness belong. Lick arse (if you must) in private, kick arse in public.
Don’t misunderstand. I love Australia, especially at its most Australian – its grey bush and crusted deserts, its whistling flats, loose-limbed larrikinism and criss-cross cicatrice of songlines. I love to wake on the Murray banks with cockies screeching in the redgums. But I’d trade the lot to live where intelligence was currency.
There are plenty of intelligent people here, smarter, more inventive and more intellectually demanding than I. But they’re shy creatures; mostly you see only their tracks, after lectures, dinner parties and the occasional TEDx-type intelli-fest where the learned go and converse at length with, well, the learned.
This leaves the public debate to four classes: politicians who lie for a living; lobbyists who are professionally myopic; academics, generally too busy trading unreadable peer-review papers; and shock-jocks, with their tangled webs of pre-paid loyalties.
So our intellectual environment comes to resemble our bricks-and-mortar cities, a private realm that is progressively enriched and a public realm that is ever more windswept, grubby and unsafe. Also at risk, therefore, are its hapless denizens, for whom intelligent debate – honest, critical, free-range talk – is as essential as oxygen.
Just about everyone I know is driven to despair by the sheer idiocy of our public life yet clings to this country out of loyalty, love and a sense that if we leave for brighter intellectual shores nothing will ever change. I see these people as pioneers; risking pillage, scalping and rape for an imagined future.
A European friend, an urbanist specialising in Australian cities, recently outlined his theory that Australian society is not stupid but layered; with the dumb, brutish and thuggish floating atop a lively and cultured minority. “You,” he said, “aren’t weird. In fact you’re normal. You’re just not in the majority.”
My immediate response was Rum Corps, a corrupt and thuggish crust on a wholesome civic pie. But my friend parsed it differently, blaming the Civil Service Act of 1918 that, in restricting public sector jobs to returned soldiers, screwed a lid of redneck conservatism onto a hitherto progressive society.
Either way, I suddenly see this top-heavy, forelock-tugging dumbness everywhere. I see it in Julia’s ludicrous assertion of Julian Assange’s criminality, without the merest evidence of lawbreaking, and in her preparedness to inform on him to US authorities, when his actions shone with exactly the kind of truth-hugging heroism we stand for and should applaud. Why wasn’t she laughed off the stage?
I see it in the lies about a carbon price (no, it won’t ruin the economy, unless we exempt the big emitters), about Iraq (no, there were no WMDs and we knew it because Andrew Wilkie, the Assange of his time, told us) and about poker machines (no, the clubs won’t die).
I see it in the fact that, even now, we’re clear-felling old-growth native forests for woodchips, and getting carbon credits for new ones. And I see it whenever an Australia Post truck parks in the cycle lane, automatically giving dirty car traffic priority over its clean bike equivalent.
That’s why I’m thinking Clubs Australia may be right, in its pro-pokie campaign. Maybe it is un-Australian to oppose a regime that has always sought the little guy’s blessing to thieve from the poor and give to the rich. Less lions led by donkeys than galahs led by wombats.