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Letter from Australia: Here you’ll find a rich, inclusive culture

  • People sitting on the footpath outside cafe's in Lygon Street, Melbourne, Australia, on February 29, 2012, Australia.(AP Photo/Mal Fairclough)

    People sitting on the footpath outside cafe's in Lygon Street, Melbourne, Australia, on February 29, 2012, Australia.(AP Photo/Mal Fairclough)

  • People sitting on the footpath outside cafe's in Lygon Street, Melbourne, Australia, on February 29, 2012, Australia.(AP Photo/Mal Fairclough)

    People sitting on the footpath outside cafe's in Lygon Street, Melbourne, Australia, on February 29, 2012, Australia.(AP Photo/Mal Fairclough)

  • The Princess Theatre in downtown Melbourne stands out as an example of the Victorian architecture the British settlers brought with them to Australia. Australia's second-largest city is well-served by trolley lines and is ringed by dozens of attractions from Fitzroy Gardens to cricket and football stadiums. (AP Photo/Glenn Adams)

    The Princess Theatre in downtown Melbourne stands out as an example of the Victorian architecture the British settlers brought with them to Australia. Australia's second-largest city is well-served by trolley lines and is ringed by dozens of attractions from Fitzroy Gardens to cricket and football stadiums. (AP Photo/Glenn Adams)

  • People sitting on the footpath outside cafe's in Lygon Street, Melbourne, Australia, on February 29, 2012, Australia.(AP Photo/Mal Fairclough)
  • People sitting on the footpath outside cafe's in Lygon Street, Melbourne, Australia, on February 29, 2012, Australia.(AP Photo/Mal Fairclough)
  • The Princess Theatre in downtown Melbourne stands out as an example of the Victorian architecture the British settlers brought with them to Australia. Australia's second-largest city is well-served by trolley lines and is ringed by dozens of attractions from Fitzroy Gardens to cricket and football stadiums. (AP Photo/Glenn Adams)

Too dry or drenched? Fire or flood? Australians have always faced a brace of poisons, but in the 21st century, the extremes of weather have become even more commonplace here. This year, as parts of Queensland and New South Wales soaked, other sections of this country faced bone-dry conditions. In New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, fires scorched thousands of acres and destroyed scores of homes. On a recent visit to Tasmania, the southern-most tip of this large continent, we saw the fire damage first hand. It was sobering.

Back for our fifth sojourn in the land called “Oz,” for purposes of pursuing our respective scholarly projects, my wife Robin and I have found our niche in Melbourne, one of the most livable, albeit expensive, cities on the planet.

Melbourne is Australia’s “second city” by some measures – Sydney being larger and having claims to precedence on that count alone. But Melburnians have no sense of inferiority. Its vibrant cultural life need take a back seat to no city, here or abroad.

Melbourne’s great asset, aside from a magnificent Botanical Garden, first rate museums, and a panoply of options to sample great theater and music, is a network of trams and trains that makes it easy to navigate all corners of the metropolis, well into the distant suburbs. As visitors this network has been our lifeline.

As we traversed Melbourne, a city of more than 4 million people, mostly spread out in neighborhoods stretching out 20 or more miles from the core, we could not help but notice the remarkable wealth prevalent in this city.

While mortgaged to the hilt in a real estate market as daunting for the average family as one might find in Manhattan, Boston or Washington, D.C., Melburnians and other urban dwellers in Australia don’t pull in their fiscal horns. They are a hedonistic people, sparing little expense on creature comforts and sports. Cafe culture is booming, as we noticed everywhere we traveled. So is the intake of alcohol, the latter inevitably associated with a rash of “drunk and disorderly” behavior, including the horrendous incidences of “bashing,” wherein young toughs in their cups seek out someone – often an innocent person at a bar or nightclub – to beat to a pulp, just for the fun of it. The phenomenon is sobering and all too prevalent.

Taking stock of our experience in Australia, I’m mindful that broad generalizations are always subject to qualification and counterpoint. That said, I can’t help but reflect on what I’ve seen, heard and thought about a place that has long been “the lucky country” but rarely feels lucky. Indeed, where the American is typically viewed abroad as brash and overconfident, the Australians have long suffered from a lack of self-confidence – what one journalistic observer once described as “the aching tooth called the Australian identity.” It may be over-hyped, but there really is something to the complex generated by having been initially established as a convict colony.

Long a “white man’s” enclave, indeed, pugnacious in maintaining its “racial integrity,” Australia today is a very different place than it was as recently as the 1960s. In recent decades its cities (in which the great majority of the nation’s population congregate) have transformed into a multi-cultural salad bowl. Asians – notably Chinese, Malaysians, Vietnamese and Sri Lankans – stand out as the most prominent element of the new immigration.

It is not difficult to see why Australia would be attractive to newcomers. Despite the lack of arable land and increasingly hot summers (this one was the hottest ever on record), the quality of daily life for most people in Australia is about as good as it gets anywhere. Plenty of sunshine and relatively mild winters are welcome. Freedom of expression and religious practice is a given. And ample job opportunities exist for those who aspire to improve their lot in life. What is not to like about that?

One reason the quality of life here is so high is the wealth generated by the exploitation of Australia’s mineral wealth. Gold rushes originally sparked the population explosions of the 1850s and 1880s. Today Australia’s economy is powered by its large-scale export of minerals – iron ore, lead, zinc, uranium and coal – most notably to China. It used to be said that if the U.S. sneezed, the world economy caught cold. Today, if China’s economy catches even a mild cold, Australians can feel pneumonia coming on. A slight slowdown in the Chinese economy last year contributed to a temporary dip in its imports from Australia. This unanticipated development knocked the budget out of balance, giving the lie to the Labor Government’s repeated assertions that it would without doubt balance the budget in 2013. The government’s failure to keep its promise has afforded the Liberal (i.e. Conservative) opposition fruitful talking points for the coming federal elections.

Worse for the Labor Party, it turned out that when it negotiated an arrangement to tax the super-profitable mining companies it effectively let them write the provisions of the tax. Is it any surprise that what was projected as $2 billion in income from this “carbon tax” has so far generated barely $100 million in revenue. The hooting from the Liberals about mismanagement has been echoed across the media and in Canberra, much to the government’s discomfort. It’s worth noting that under a new Liberal government carbon tax revenue would be zero, since the Liberals don’t believe in taxing the mining companies at all.

As a consequence of the above economic and tax stumbles, various scandals and other self-inflicted wounds (including bitter factional infighting) the Labor government seems poised to suffer a Waterloo rout in the Sept. 14 elections. While a day can be a lifetime in political campaigns, the polls and focus groups strongly suggest people think it is time for a change.

Whether Liberal leader Tony Abbott takes power or Julia Gillard holds it, Australians are not going to see any major upheavals in their public policy. The conservatives had largely come to a grudging acceptance of man-made climate change. Their attacks on the government’s social welfare policies have focused more on mismanagement than altering the fundamentals of a generous system. One commentator has denominated Australia’s welfare state as “Pollyanna socialism.” I take that to mean that since every major interest in the country, rich or poor, gets a subsidy for something, there’s no substantial class resentment and little reason to do more than tinker with a system that “takes care” of just about everyone.

Consider, for example, government aid to two constituencies that would never be subsidized in the United States: wealthy private schools and inner-city parochial schools. Both are part of the fabric of the welfare state here, even though the most venerable private schools are clearly preserves of the very rich. Further, paid parental leaves are available to families earning $75,000 or less. There have been some limits on financial benefits for parenting, based on family income, but you have to have an upper middle class income or higher not to qualify for some assistance. The panoply of health programs for all, especially pre- and post-natal, for mothers and their new offspring, is a model that the U.S. has yet to embrace.

For all its wealth and all its attractiveness to newcomers, Australia today is in something of a funk. This comes through most clearly on the op-ed pages of the daily newspapers, where headlines like “Not the Lucky Country Any More?” are commonplace, along with a raft of articles about slowing economic growth, a higher cost of living and lack of affordable housing. I’m always struck by the disjunction between the low level of unemployment (about 5 percent) and the high quality of life I notice on one side, and what the “whingeing” (Australian for whining) one sees in the press and overhears in conversation. Perhaps that’s the way of a free society. However good people have it, they always want more. Politicians, for their part, are pretty much the same everywhere – ambitious, fallible and sometimes crooked.

For all its most notable deficiencies – among them a less than robust educational system, an emphasis on “mateship” over merit, and a lack of confidence about its national identity – Australia is a great place to build a life and raise a family. If the Aussies can figure out how to solve the country’s water problems, and if they can find a sweet spot in terms of tax and spending policies, they’re going to be an increasing Pacific power, and an increasingly valuable ally to the Americans in the 21st century. There is no nation on earth today that more resembles the United States in terms of its multiculturalism and its commitment to expanding freedom and democracy. As appreciative visitors, we leave Australia humming its national anthem and wishing its citizens “Godspeed.”

(Michael Birkner, a former Monitor editorial page editor, is professor of history at Gettysburg College. He has spent the past four months on sabbatical in Melbourne, Australia.)

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