How Australia became the anxious country

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A person walks alone on a beachImage source, Getty Images

Millions of Australians will vote in a federal election on Saturday. But, asks Nick Bryant, is the country's luck running out?

Australia feels right now more like an Anxious Country. Gone is the economic swagger that came from its almost 30-year run without plunging into recession. Absent is the kind of hope and expectation that election campaigns are supposed to engender.

Instead, it is possible to detect a widespread sense of nervousness that the second quarter of the 21st Century could be more joyless for Australians than the first.

Australians face a cost of living crisis, exacerbated by the first hike in interest rates since November 2010. Almost 40% of homeowners are thought to be experiencing mortgage stress. Property prices, which serve almost as a gauge of national wellbeing, are levelling off, and in some places falling.

But even though the property boom has subsided, homes remain unaffordable for younger Australians especially. Home improvements - carrying out a "reno" is something of a national pastime - are becoming prohibitively expensive because of the spiralling cost of raw materials.

Add to that the climate emergency, evident in the once-in-a-century natural disasters that now come along every few years - or in some communities, like Lismore, New South Wales, every few months. During my first stint in Australia eight years ago, I came to look upon this country as the lifestyle superpower of the world. But global warming alone puts that status in peril.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Climate change and Covid have challenged Australia's lifestyle

There is the ongoing threat from the pandemic, which has had a splintering effect on Australia, a commonwealth of states and territories that have come to feel more like silos. People are tired and exhausted. The sluggish vaccine roll-out and unavailability of rapid antigen tests during the Omicron outbreak undermined the faith in government.

Then there is the troublesome relationship with China, the country's largest trading partner, which not only poses an economic threat but a national security dilemma as well.

Little more than eight months after the Australian foreign policy establishment went into orgasmic paroxysms of joy over the Aukus nuclear deal signed with the US and UK, it had a freak-out moment over Beijing's security agreement with the Solomon Islands. The deal, fiercely resisted both by Canberra and Washington, raises the spectre of a Chinese military presence in Australia's backyard.

The war in Ukraine, and even an unusually grey and wet southern summer and early autumn have contributed to a flat national mood. Things aren't right. Things aren't settled. There is a nagging sense of unease.

No longer does Australia feel quite such a Lucky Country - although it is always worth remembering that the term coined by the public intellectual Donald Horne in the mid-1960s was intended to be self-flagellatory rather than self-congratulatory. In his excoriating polemic, Horne noted: "Australia is a Lucky Country run mainly by second-rate people."

I am loath to trot out such a dog-eared quote yet again. However, if he were alive today, watching what has widely been regarded as a dismal campaign, maybe Donald Horne would draw the same conclusion. One of the reasons why his book has remained so relevant is because his words have remained so reverberant.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The second leaders' debate was an ugly shouting match

Arguably, Australia is paying the price for the brutality of its politics over the course of the past 15 years. Canberra's coup culture killed off two of the country's most substantive recent prime ministers, Labor's Kevin Rudd and the Liberal Party's Malcolm Turnbull. Nor did Julia Gillard, its first female prime minister, last long.

A frequent grumble that you hear from voters is that a country of 26 million people should produce a better choice than Prime Minister Scott Morrison or the Labour leader Anthony Albanese. There is a none-of-the-above feel to this contest.

That partly explains the rise of the so-called "teal independents", a group of female candidates challenging Liberal MPs in what are ordinarily fairly safe conservative seats. The term "teal" comes from the colour of the pamphlets and posters that many of these candidates use, and my suburb of Sydney is awash with them. Maybe we will witness a teal tide. With many voters actively seeking alternative options, this election might also produce the lowest level of support for the two major parties since the war.

More on Australia's election:

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Durack: The Australian electoral seat six times the size of Britain

It has been a scrappy six-week campaign, marked more by lowlights than the high. The second leaders debate, which was hosted by Channel Nine, was an ugly shout-fest. The media has faced criticism for often pursuing a gotcha line of questioning. Anthony Albanese's failure to be able to quote the unemployment rate on the first day of the campaign dominated the entire first week, and set the tone for press conferences throughout the campaign. Some voters will regard this as legitimate media scrutiny. Others might look upon it as a mind-numbing game of trivial pursuit.

Big ideas and overarching narratives have been in short supply. With the Labor Party so determined to fight what party insiders call a small target campaign, there's been surprisingly little talk of a post-pandemic build back better agenda. After the fracturing of Australia during Covid, when some states like Western Australia acted more like independent countries, there has been no appeal for national reunification.

Instead, negative partisanship has been a recurring theme: with leaders often spending more time attacking their opponents rather than advancing their own ideas. Partly because of the savagery of Canberra politics, the Australian system has become better at producing effective opposition leaders than effective prime ministers.

In short, the political leaders of a nation of natural storytellers have seemingly lost the ability to come up with a galvanising national narrative, a vision of Australia's future. This election campaign has been marked more by anxiety than ambition.

Nick Bryant is a Senior Fellow at Sydney University's Policy Lab.

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