Australia—The Anxious Country

Right now, Australia appears to be a nervous country. The economic bravado that came with its almost 30-year stretch without a recession is long gone. Election campaigns are intended to instill a sense of optimism and anticipation, but this is missing.

Instead, there is widespread concern that the second quarter of the twenty-first century will be even more depressing for Australians than the first.

The first interest rate rise since November 2010 has aggravated Australia’s cost-of-living issue. Mortgage stress is expected to affect over 40 percent of homeowners. Property values, which are used as a proxy for national well-being, are leveling off and even declining in certain areas.

Even if the property bubble has slowed, housing remains out of reach for many young Australians. Because of the rising cost of raw materials, home upgrades – doing a “reno” is something of a national sport – are becoming prohibitively expensive.

Add in the climate emergency, as evidenced by once-in-a-century natural catastrophes that now occur every few years – even every few months in certain areas, such as Lismore, New South Wales. During my first eight years in Australia, I began to see this country as the world’s lifestyle powerhouse. However, global warming alone threatens that position.

There’s also the persistent threat of the pandemic, which has splintered Australia into states and territories that seem more like silos. People are fatigued and tired. During the Omicron epidemic, the government’s trust was shaken by the slow vaccination rollout and the lack of quick antigen testing.

Then there’s the country’s tense relationship with China, its main trade partner, which poses not just an economic but also a national security risk.

The Australian foreign policy establishment had a freak-out moment over Beijing’s security arrangement with the Solomon Islands, little over eight months after it experienced orgasmic paroxysms of delight over the Aukus nuclear deal inked with the US and UK. The agreement, which has been bitterly opposed by both Canberra and Washington, increases the prospect of a Chinese military presence in Australia’s backyard.

A low national mood has been exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine, as well as an abnormally dark and damp southern summer and early fall. Something is wrong. Things haven’t been resolved. There is a persistent feeling of discomfort.

Although it’s important noting that the term was invented by public thinker Donald Horne in the mid-1960s to be self-flagellatory rather than self-congratulatory, Australia no longer seems like a Lucky Country. “Australia is a Lucky Country managed primarily by second-rate individuals,” Horne said in his scathing tirade.

I’m hesitant to bring up another dog-eared quotation. If Donald Horne were living today, he could come to the same conclusion after observing what has been largely viewed as a disastrous campaign. His words have stayed resonant, which is one of the reasons why his work has remained so relevant.

Australia, it may be argued, is paying the price for its ruthless politics during the last 15 years. Two of the country’s most important recent prime ministers, Labor’s Kevin Rudd and the Liberal Party’s Malcolm Turnbull, were both assassinated by Canberra’s coup culture. Julia Gillard, the country’s first female prime minister, did not survive long.

Voters frequently complain that a country with 26 million people should have a better choice than Prime Minister Scott Morrison or Labour leader Anthony Albanese. This competition has a none-of-the-above vibe about it.

That helps to explain the growth of the so-called “teal independents,” a group of female candidates who are challenging Liberal MPs in seats that are normally secure for the party. The epithet “teal” refers to the color of many of these politicians’ pamphlets and posters, which are abundant in my Sydney neighbourhood. Perhaps there will be a teal swell. This election may deliver the lowest level of support for the two major parties since the war, as many voters actively seek alternative choices.

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