February 3, 2021


Viral culture

By Russell Marks
Image of cartoon map of Australia with figure pointing to it
What has COVID-19 taught Australians about themselves?

That Australians are more obedient than anti-authoritarian

Generations of settler Australians were raised on the idea that there is a more or less naturally anti-authoritarian streak that runs through their national culture. This streak was first observed by those in positions of authority over convicts who, in a penal colony, naturally made up quite a large proportion of the settler population and were not particularly happy about being there, at least initially. The same streak could be traced all the way through the 19th century – through the Ballarat miners’ insistence on “no taxation without representation”, the alleged public support for Ned Kelly and the adoption of “Waltzing Matilda” as the popular anthem – and well into the 20th, when conscription referenda were defeated, when soldiers ran amok in Egypt and when Bob Hawke called any boss who sacked a worker for not showing up the day after a yacht race a “bum”.

However, when premiers told Australians last year to sign in, mask up or just stay inside for days – or months – on end, most Australians did as they were told. The COVID-19 public health restrictions were enforced by swarms of police officers wearing full paramilitary accoutrements. When the prime minister told them, like a disciplinarian to unruly school children, to stop panic-buying because “that’s not who we are”, Australians dutifully returned to buying one pack of toilet rolls at a time. Outside of a small rump radicalised by Rupert Murdoch’s pro-Trump ratbags, or by QAnon on Twitter, or a combination, there was very little public dissent.

The empty beaches and lengthy testing queues snaking patiently around blocks didn’t seem representative of a national culture dominated by an anti-authoritarian streak. That streak was a source of not inconsiderable anxiety at the beginning of the restrictions, when commentators worried that Australians wouldn’t respond anywhere near as obediently as their Asian neighbours who live in rigidly disciplined societies to their north. Yet obey they did. What explains this?

There are other ways of summing up the settler-Australian culture. There’s an extraordinary array of micro-restrictions that govern practically all public aspects of everyday life here. Series of fastidiously designed regulations regulate what people can do on roads, footpaths, public transport, beaches, parks, in hotels, motels, hostels, pubs, tenancies. Voting, breath tests and bicycle helmets are compulsory; cigarette smoking is banned practically everywhere. The much-feared “nanny state” of Fox News tirades exists just across the Pacific.

And, really, it has been this way from the very beginning of white “settlement”. Unlike the United States, where the 13 colonies forged the state out of rebellion and the constitution to protect themselves from it, the Australian state was, for all intents and purposes, carried here on the First Fleet, as an arm of the British state. Often through necessity, but also because they didn’t spend much on defence (because they relied on the Royal Navy), colonial governments assumed responsibility for all kinds of “services” – healthcare, education, aged care, child welfare – often decades before governments elsewhere. Visitors are often struck by the remarkable role the state plays in the lives of people here. Its reach is no less remarkable when it becomes malevolent, as when it storms into homes in Aboriginal communities without warrants, or when it denies refugees their rights to work, healthcare and liberty for years.

And while Australians are occasionally exercised by a rights discourse that draws from classical liberalism, political historian Judith Brett – in her recent book, From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage – suggests that Australians generally prefer an approach she describes as “majoritarian and bureaucratic”. Unlike the United States, where distrust of the state was coded into the Constitution, Australians are more likely to accept that their rights are dependent on the government and the state to provide them. This creates problems for people in genuine strife, like Aboriginal people denied the right to enforce their laws, or refugees imprisoned on Pacific islands in hellish conditions for years. But when governments tell people to mask up, sign in or stay home, most Australians respond pragmatically rather than by asserting their rights against the state. Six months after the “hard” five-day lockdown of nine public housing towers in Melbourne, the Victorian Ombudsman concluded that the lockdown – in the absence of specific health advice requiring it – was “incompatible with the right to humane treatment when deprived of liberty”. But there was no contemporaneous legal challenge.

How are we to reconcile settler Australia’s belief in its own irreverent attitude toward authority with the observable reality of a highly compliant public? The late historian John Hirst, who enjoyed stirring the pot, often told newly arrived international students at La Trobe University that Australians are “a very obedient people”. He would then ask them to keep it a secret, “because Australians imagine themselves to be the opposite of obedient”. Hirst’s answer to the riddle of that apparent contradiction was that settler Australians’ experience of government, by and large, is benevolent, impersonal and egalitarian, an experience that makes it possible for them to afford it the respect it deserves (in their eyes). It is to the impersonal authority of the state that settler Australians are obedient, even as they decry and denounce individual politicians.

That Australia’s housing bubble will never burst

For years, Australians have endured warnings that their overheated property market is a classic bubble on the verge of bursting. The story is well known. By the end of the Howard government the average house price in Australia’s capital cities was equivalent to about seven years of average earnings; between the 1950s and early 1980s that ratio was just three. The International Monetary Fund told Australians in 2014 that they had the third-highest house prices relative to income in the world. Then the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development predicted in mid 2016 that Australia’s housing market was headed for a “dramatic and destabilising” crash. Forecast upon dire forecast have for years pointed to a tax system chock full of artificial incentives for the asset-wealthy to get asset-wealthier, and record low interest rates, themselves symptomatic of an economy that has long since practically stagnated for all but those at the top. Let’s not even mention the trade war with China.

And then came COVID-19. In April, with the prospect of months of lockdowns and a tanking economy, some experts gave worst-case scenarios that involved a correction of up to 30 to 40 per cent in Australia’s housing market. International tourism and education died overnight. Immigration – one of the main drivers of house prices – stopped equally as dead. GDP collapsed by a staggering 7 per cent in the June quarter and plunged Australia into its first recession – on Julius Shiskin’s famous New York Times definition, two consecutive quarters of negative growth – since 1991.

And the housing market … held up. The median house price even reached a record high in December. The only possible conclusion to be drawn is that the Australian housing market is structurally incapable of collapse, no matter what happens. This is no doubt a bad lesson to learn, because economic history guarantees a collapse sooner or later. But not even the greatest teacher controls what their pupils take away with them.  

That it’s not possible to live on the unemployment benefit

For two decades, Australia’s unemployment benefit – Newstart, which became JobSeeker in March last year – has risen commensurate with Australia’s (low) inflation rate, while rents, pensions and other incomes have risen much faster. The Australian Council of Social Service began urging an increase in 2009. Even the Business Council of Australia got on board from 2011. The base rate of $282.50 per week no longer covers the rent for a one-bedroom unit in most places in Australia, and never mind food or bills. Until March last year there were regular news stories about Australians on unemployment benefits who were unable to buy shoes and bus tickets.

Then came COVID-19 and, on 22 March 2020, the second Keynesian stimulus package designed to soften the pending economic collapse. Governments know people on low incomes spend any extra they get. The Morrison government introduced a $275-a-week Coronavirus Supplement that almost doubled the JobSeeker payment. Those who’d been calling for a rise for the previous decade were shocked at the ease with which it happened. Journalists marvelled at the way the virus had “changed Australia’s welfare system overnight”.

They really should have known better. The change was never going to be permanent. The supplement was textbook Keynes, sure, but most of the federal Liberal Party has never given the slightest inkling of having read it: Menzies and his treasurer, Harold Holt, did nothing as Australia’s economy sank inexorably into recession in 1960–61; and John Howard, as treasurer, famously disagreed with Fraser’s expansionary budget in 1982 as the economy tanked during drought.

At the same time that they doubled JobSeeker, Morrison and Frydenberg dramatically expanded the eligibility criteria and did away with asset tests, waiting periods and mutual obligations. Why? They wanted to “ensure access for groups who may be affected by the pandemic including those who are stood down from their jobs”. In other words, if middle-class people were suddenly going to need unemployment benefits, they couldn’t very well be expected to live off $282.50 and do Work for the Dole.

The distinction between “deserving” and “undeserving” recipients of state relief has been around since at least Elizabethan England, and the supplement made it impossible not to see that it survives in contemporary Australia. When the middle class needed relief, Morrison and Frydenberg made sure they got it. Now they’re winding back the supplement (and reinstating mutual obligation) as things return to “normal”, at least domestically. The “undeserving” poor can go back to their Kafkaesque nightmare of surveillance and poverty.

That there are borders between states

Aside from fruit fly quarantine reminders, quirky time zone changes and occasional interstate sporting rivalries, Australians could have been forgiven – especially after the rail gauges were finally standardised in 1995 – for forgetting that the nation was once six separate and rather disparate colonies, and that Federation was a reasonably big deal. But Australia’s interstate borders, it turns out, can actually be shut.

That governments can go into debt after all

Australians have been told for about as long as anyone can remember that government debt and budget deficits are bad. Oppositions promise surpluses and debt reduction. Incumbent governments promise the same thing, only faster. It doesn’t matter that the cost of borrowing money is ridiculously low, that surpluses are inherently contractionary, that public debt is much more manageable than private debt. Both major parties have sung more or less from the same neoliberal song sheet since the late 1970s, and budget deficits are electoral bogeymen in Australia’s political culture. When Kevin Rudd’s government borrowed and spent to stimulate Australia’s economy and avoid a recession during the 2008–09 global financial crisis, he was empirically validated – and politically lambasted. Despite the fact that Australia’s economy had already slowed to a halt, Morrison and Frydenberg promised austerity and tax cuts ahead of the 2019 election.

And then came COVID-19. Instead of austerity, Morrison and Frydenberg gave Australia a $200 billion budget deficit and a trillion-dollar debt. The economy responded as Keynes’s General Theory predicted – GDP rose 3.3 per cent in the September quarter alone – and the recovery from recession began.

That Rupert Murdoch isn’t all-powerful

One of the podcasts I listen to on a fairly regular basis is the audio version of Sky News Australia’s The Bolt Report. It follows a pattern: the host’s monologue; a series of guests who are asked to agree with the points made during the monologue; and a panel with more guests who are asked to agree with the points made during the monologue. For most of 2020 and into the new year, the Herald Sun’s nationally syndicated columnist Andrew Bolt and all of his guests and panellists have been revved up about just how shockingly terrible “Dictator Dan” Andrews and his government’s administration of the Socialist Republic of Victoria has been. Practically all of Murdoch’s columnists and shock jocks across his various media holdings have spent the better part of a year throwing the kitchen sink and most of the house at Andrews. During occasional breaks from that sport, they’ve launched urgent invective at the very idea of restrictions and lockdowns at all, and they’ve reserved no small amount of shade for Scott Morrison who, after all, is not “their man”, Tony Abbott.

And then, a week before Christmas, The Australian published – though not on its front page – the preliminary findings from the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute’s recent Mapping Social Cohesion surveys. According to those findings, Australians had never trusted their federal government to “do the right thing” more than they did now. And despite the months of winter lockdowns, substantially caused by poor hotel-quarantine arrangements, Victorians were by far the most complementary toward their state government’s response to COVID-19. Murdoch’s efforts to import an American mistrust of the state has (so far) failed.

That Australians don’t have long political memories

Scott Morrison might be all Mr Popular suburban everydad now, but wasn’t he woeful during the bushfires and despicable as immigration minister?

It doesn’t matter, I can’t remember anyway.

That, despite everything, Australia remains the “lucky country” – and that phrase can still be used as ironically as one likes

“Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck.” That’s Donald Horne’s excoriation of Australia’s political culture which, he said, had led to an unimaginative dependency for the nation’s wealth on natural resources and immigration. He wrote those words in 1964, and the point remains salient more than half a century later. But the title of his book – The Lucky Country – was misinterpreted by a self-congratulatory public to the point that Horne felt the need to explain himself in his 1976 “sequel”, Death of the Lucky Country: “I didn’t mean that it had a lot of material resources.”

Australia’s island geography, its relative remoteness from the worst-hit places (Europe and the United States), its lack of population density, its strong public-health system, its pragmatic obedience to authority: perhaps these are the “material resources” that helped Australia to (so far) avoid a COVID catastrophe, despite some second-rate political leadership. Then again, second-rate, insubstantial and unaccountable leadership must surely be preferable to the barrel-scraping variant that Britons and Americans have had to endure.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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