Australia cruised through the 2008 global financial crisis on the back of a massive minerals boom. China could not get enough of its iron ore. The lucky country, rich enough to be a laid-back country, proved its good fortune once again. After agriculture and wool came coal and ore. Meltdowns were for losers.
In the US, there is the affectation of industriousness. People like to make it appear they work all the time. In Australia, as the environmentalist Tim Flannery said, there is the affectation of effortlessness. People are determined to make it appear they are not working too hard. Sometimes that is the case.
However, some of the angst endemic to the developed world, with its lost manufacturing jobs and squeezed opportunities, has seeped of late into the irreverent Australian psyche. The minerals bonanza and commodities frenzy are over. Jobs in services are beginning to follow manufacturing offshore. For many young Australians the only way to get into the stratospheric Sydney housing market, inflated by rule-of-law-seeking Chinese buyers, is to wait for parents to die. Unemployment is not high, but underemployment is. Australia is the US’ ally in an increasingly Chinese neighborhood; that could be problematic. The next big thing is unclear.
Could Australia’s luck have run out? Is it ripe for the politics of anger that play well these days from the US to Austria?
“There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian,” Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said.
He is big on digital innovation, from which he made a fortune, and the convergence of great universities, scientific research and creative industries. Ministerial delegations troop off to Israel to learn how to turn “she’ll-be-right” Australia — a country that believes things work out somehow — into start-up Australia.
That is troubling to some.
“For a lot of people, innovation equals ‘I am going to lose my job,’” political scientist David Smith said. “They’re asking why it’s so exciting to be an Australian now.”
This is the backdrop to an election next month in which Turnbull and his conservative Liberal party confront Bill Shorten of the opposition Labor party. Turnbull promises a more entrepreneurial Australia, Shorten a fairer one.
“There has never been a less exciting time to be an Australian voter,” said Michael Fullilove, the executive director of the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
The Labor party has committed to legalizing same-sex marriage and fighting climate change, issues Turnbull has shied away from. Climate change is nonsense for the flat-earth rightist wing of his Liberal party, whose figurehead is former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott. Turnbull took Abbott’s job, but has generally hewed to the Abbott line.
The only issue the parties seem to agree on is getting tough with refugees trying to reach Australia by boat — so tough that the refugees end up in limbo on sweltering Pacific islands where desperation, self-harm and death stalk them. This untenable policy, too, reflects anxiety.
Australia shows signs of the fundamental divide in developed societies today — between an international urban elite of progressive social values and angry nativists suspicious of the outsider, blindsided by globalization, wary of change and unsure of their children’s future.
Indeed, Abbott — a loudmouth with a loony streak — was in some ways a precursor of presumptive Republican US presidential candidate Donald Trump.
His slogans had three words — “Stop the boats” (immigrants), “Axe the tax” (climate change).
He also made a speech in front of a sign, referring to then-Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, that said “Ditch the witch” (misogyny).
He crashed and burned in a gale of gaffes — bringing back knighthoods and bestowing one on Britain’s Prince Philip was an example — but only after he had ranted his way to the top job. This precedent is troubling. Trump has gotten three-word slogans down to two-word epithets — “Little Marco,” “Lyin’ Ted,” “Crooked Hillary” and so on — and he has raised Abbott several notches on the mob-mobilizing meanness front.
Humanity is showing its other face.
The sway of neoliberal economics favoring the wealthy in Western societies, the departure offshore of manufacturing jobs, stagnant wages, large refugee flows from war zones, media outlets with tribal followings and the flourishing of violent anti-Western extremist ideology in an Arab world of blocked political systems have created a near-perfect storm for rightist populists of the Abbott and Trump ilk.
In the US, two wars without victory that involved vast expenditure of blood and treasure — wars in which Australia (as ever) fought alongside the US — have contributed to a mood of restive frustration.
When the authority of a great power ebbs and the tectonic plates of the global order shift, there is always a frisson of danger.
Australia in its vastness, at once protected and troubled by the tyranny of distance, watches US and European political dramas from afar. However, it is not immune to the new anger — as Turnbull’s deference to Abbott shows. That is a sign of the extreme vigilance needed in a world of violent volatility.
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