BOOKS: by Martin SheehanNews Weekly
'The Packaging of Australia: Politics and Culture Wars', by Gregory Melleuish
, April 22, 2000
The Packaging of Australia: Politics and Culture Wars
by Gregory Melleuish
Available from news Weekly Books for $22.95 plus p&h
Exposing Australia's New Class culture
Despite all the chatter in Australia today about the big issues (i.e. multiculturalism, the republic, etc.) ideological commitments mean that debate rarely rises above the level of a debate between branches of the Young Liberals and Young Labor.
However Dr Gregory Melleuish from the University of Wollongong is one commentator who does step back from the passions of politicised individuals to take a more detached and objective view of Austrlian culture.The Packaging of Australia
refers to the author's main thesis, that political debates in Australia are so dominated by ideological prejudices or "packages" that real debate is being sacrificed to ideological point-scoring. Melleuish reveals these packages for what they are: the means by which various interest groups have pushed their specific barrows into the Australian mainstream.
Melleuish divides Australian history into three broad periods, colonial, modern and contemporary.
Modern Australia, according to Melleuish, subordinated the pluralism and individualism of the colonial period for a more communal approach, which emphasised Australia's cultural uniformity and high standard of living for all.
Modern Australia emphasised a fair go for the working man, material comfort and the need for Australia to go it alone in the world, though cultural links with Great Britain were obviously important to people. This form of society gave ordinary Australians a sense of pride in themselves and their achievements, and reinforced a sense of democratic participation and patriotic duty.
The down side of modern Australia for Melleuish was its cultural uniformity and conformity which restricted individual initiative.
Contemporary Australia, which Melleuish believes dates from the late 1960s onwards, is a very different place. Today's Australia seems more pluralistic, individualistic and cosmopolitan.
The forces of the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, and the Economic Revolution of the 1970s and 1980s, have devastated if not completely destroyed the culture of modern Australia. Now everything seems up for grabs. People are more free, but less secure. Protectionism, censorship and the traditional bonds of family and community life have all been eroded.
Melleuish identifies four major packages dominating contemporary Australia: economic rationalism, the clever country, republicanism and multiculturalism. These packages seek to reform Australia along "rationalist" lines; that is, to find a blueprint, or master plan based on abstract reason, on which the future of Australia can be built.
The problem with these packaged plans is that though they may contain elements of truth, taken as a whole they bear little relationship to the realities of Australian life. What they all have in common, despite the various contradictions and antagonisms between each, is their belief that unless a specific package is adhered to in full, Australia as we know it is doomed.
For instance, according to the economic rationalist, without major economic reform along the lines of more deregulation, tariff reductions and privatisation, our standard of living will decline drastically.
For the proponents of the clever country thesis, like Donald Horne, unless we pour more money into research and development, and into education more generally, other countries will overtake us and we will be left behind.
To the republicans, the fact that we are "tied to the coat tails" of Great Britain via the British monarch is a source of cultural shame that makes us the laughing stock of the world. And according to the multiculturalists, unless we embrace so-called cultural diversity we will be regarded throughout the civilised world as racist and backward.
It goes without saying that these ideological world views are not held by the majority of Australians. Rather, they are the obsessions of the intelligentsia.
The average Australian seems happy to leave tariffs and industry protection in place. He seems content with our present high standard of education and little concerned that our neighbours to the north may be overtaking us scientifically and materially.
The average Australian feels comfortable with our present political system and turns out in droves to welcome the Queen. Most of all, ordinary Australians are proud of their Anglo-Celtic heritage, and loath to consider it dull or philistine when compared with other cultures. Hence the appeal of Pauline Hanson.
However, Melleuish suggests that the demise of "modern Australia", though sad in some respects, is not a complete tragedy.
Although the present state of affairs seems insecure and bewildering, he suggests that such a state cannot last long. A new "Australia Settlement" will have to be reached. What will not help us reach that new settlement, however, are more rationalistic packages.
Ideas are important, but once they become all-embracing solutions to our problems, they lose contact with reality.
Melleuish suggests we need to respond in more practical ways to Australia's problems, rather than come up with more ideologies for the intellectuals to play with. And we certainly need to move away from the contemporary elitist culture, which suggests that ordinary people do not know what is best for themselves - they have to be instructed by "experts" on how to behave and how to organise themselves, their communities and their culture.
This book is highly recommended to all those interested in the cultural future of Australia.