02 September 2007

David Malouf on Australian values

A few days after Hugh Mackay gave us his thoughts about modern Australia, David Malouf writes in Saturday's Age about modern values. He stresses the importance of maintaining a sense of neighbourliness or, as he puts it "preserving bonds of trust" in times of rapid social, economic and technological change.

Perhaps I should just recommend that you read the entire piece (which isn't very long), but here are some extracts which I think sum up his views:

There are values that are common to men and women everywhere, whatever their culture or race, and we too share them. A feeling for family and the immediate social group. A sense of personal and group honour. A willingness to sacrifice oneself for the security of others. A sense of the sacred, and of the sacredness of creation itself.

What I am thinking of as specifically Australian values are ones that have grown up here out of the special circumstances of Australian settlement, and the effects on us, individually and in our dealings with one another, of what the land itself presented: a whole complex of values that we might think of as constituting our own New World democratic style.

These would have been well developed by the 1880s and were still in place when I was growing up in Brisbane at the end of the Second World War. My question is whether in the Australia of 2007, with its very different demographic mix and social conditions, its changed economy and technologies, those older values are still ones that we can refer back to and live by.


Australian society grew out of an English and Scottish Enlightenment world that had high standards of civic duty and service. These guaranteed the kind of political and social institutions we inherited and the public tone of the place. A reliance on negotiation rather than violence in the settling of disputes. The separation of powers. Freedom of worship, and of opinion and speech. Free universal education. And rather earlier than some other places, first universal male suffrage, then votes for women.

A good many of these qualities of civil life we share with other Anglo-Saxon places; as we do an education system that, generally speaking, prefers facts and "what works" to abstract theory, and uses sport, in a uniquely British way, as a training ground for such civic virtues as team spirit, fair play and respect for your opponent. To this we have added a strong egalitarian sense, and because the grounds of living in this particular continent were hardship and poverty, a strong tendency to hang together and look out for one another in adversity. We have never regarded success as a sign of divine approval, or failure as its opposite. What we tend to say, taking in all the circumstances, is: "Poor bugger, he had no luck."


We still salute those older values and in some ways make a cult of what we like to think of as our Australian style — mateship, laid-back tolerance, an easy-going humour, a hard-headed distrust of large statements and large gestures. We still have a strong sense of civic duty and devotion to the public good. The number of men and women involved in unpaid community service, for example, is larger than ever.

But that said, Australia in 2007 is no longer a mono-cultural place and it is no longer a poor one. My question is to what extent values that grew out of a response to shared adversity can be sustained in a society that for nearly half a century now has known nothing but undreamed of affluence; a society with many newcomers and little now that we could call a shared history. Affluence produces a different style or tone from adversity and leads to other temptations. Greed, perhaps. Complacency. A tendency to look out for No. 1 in a fiercely competitive world and, more subversively, to believe that you actually deserve the good fortune that has come to you. Prodigality in the use of resources. Individual wastefulness. An unapologetic and even defiant materialism. A reliance on credit and on what we call, half-humorously, "shopping therapy".

Then there are those technological changes I mentioned, which, useful as they are have also worked towards the undermining of small-town virtues. Global travel and a global economy. The influence of global media agglomerates on what we watch and hear and think. The complex moral and legal questions that arise from the use of mobile phones and the internet.

The world we live in now is confusing — the immediate present is always that. It is also contradictory. We know more of what is happening around us and in the world beyond than at any other time in history, but because information is part now of a hugely profitable industry, we are also more vulnerable than ever to misinformation. Famines, disasters, political upheavals become spectacles without context that we register, and may even be moved by, but can do nothing about. The way the media plays politics, and politicians play the media, raises serious questions about the role of what we used to call the Fourth Estate.

The media now are players, not simply observers and commentators. Acts of terror, for example, are possible only because the media are there to report them. They happen not in "history" but on our screens, in our heads, and in the shocked voices that sensationally spread terror by reporting it.

We need to remember that the object of terror is just that, terror. Beyond the physical threat to societies like ours is the moral threat of what terror of terror might lead us to: the suspension of habeas corpus and the presumption of innocence, the watering down of the prohibition against torture, old guarantees and rights we might be led to trade away in order to be safe. We know what the absolute answer to such challenges should be; but what of the practical answer, for politicians who have on their conscience the security of their people and will answer to history for what they do or fail to do?


We are all of us — all except our indigenous people — newcomers and settlers here, however far back we go, and to begin with at least, strangers to one another, united only in that by sharing the land we have become neighbours. Neighbourliness is still what holds us together as a nation; that and our public institutions, and the common good, and whatever we have developed, and are still developing, of a national style.

But each day presents us with conditions to which yesterday's values are already inadequate. Staying human means staying alert. We should be wary of what prevailing opinion proposes and thinks right because it is necessary, and beware, especially, of accepting the thinking of others just because they present themselves as men of probity or as "the best minds of the day".


Values are established and maintained, and the civil tone of society created, at the personal level, in the daily exchanges of individual men and women. That is where that neighbourliness was discovered that formed the bonds of our Australian society, and if it is to be maintained, that is where concern for one another, and respect for one another's difference, will continue to be discovered. The tone of a society is established by us; by our individual decisions and acts, and at the most local and personal level.

What this requires is an understanding of what at any moment we are dealing with, our history, and what we have to lose. And, at a local and personal level, a keen alertness to those pressures that in an increasingly complex world have daily, and from moment to moment, to be assessed, questioned, and sometimes, in the face even of general acceptance, resisted.

Highly recommended.

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