It’s easy to think that everything is going fairly well in Australia. By most measurable ways, it is. The country’s made it through a global economy that most of the world was nearly crushed by – and in the case of the Eurozone still might be. America’s public officials watched the crisis unfold and couldn’t figure out what to do – Australia actually grew the economy.
I’d never been to Australia. Within three days of arriving, I watched the country begin a meaningful dialogue with itself on weighty questions of national security, judicial review and free speech. Workers make a minimum wage so high that the US Congress considers itself brave when they introduce a bill to raise America’s wage to half of Australia’s. You have an unemployed workers’ union. American unions represent 11% of the working population.
It’s comforting to think that those facts represent stability. I was impressed with Australia’s system on first sight. Then I started asking questions. I wondered how a country with such a strong safety net, such a national ethos of all being in it together, could have elected a government that seems to be moving toward an American-style economy despite the most glaring of its downsides – rising inequality.
The idea of meritocracy, the “leaners and lifters” (which in America is known as “makers and takers” and in the UK is called “Skivers and strivers”) is central to an American’s understanding of the world. We are a nation that elected a black dude to the White House against the backdrop of race relations so tense that we’re gassing our own people and can’t even agree on whether to fly a flag from a failed pro-slavery secession. That capacity for success against hardship is inherent in our national identity. The corollary is, of course, that if you’ve not succeeded you simply haven’t tried hard enough.
I’m not sure how well Australians broadly will adapt to an American ethical system being imposed on them, but the country is well on its way to finding out. You’re starting to trim your social safety net, you’ve privatized your prisons (which, really, Australia?) and you’ve adapted pithy slogans to deal with rising inequality.
We’re a few years ahead of you in America on this inequality thing. If you want to know what a country with a lot of very tall poppies looks like, well. It’s homeless people shivering in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. (We decided to take the exhortation literally and make sure we always had a steady supply of tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to break free.) It’s banking regulations – put in place after the crash of the markets – being repealed last fall at the behest of the banking lobby. It’s 45 million people living below the poverty line because the only jobs available to millions of people are still nothing like a wage you can live on.
People who do well in America do very well. We’ve got hospitals that are the envy of the world, although most of the country isn’t precisely receiving top-notch care. We’ve some of got the best universities in the world, and a populace so far in debt by the time we’ve graduated from them that we can’t afford houses and marriage and most of adulthood. I am 32 and half my friends can’t afford to move away from home yet.
We’ve had what you call “casual” work for ages. It means that nearly a third of our economy is made of jobs that are part-time, last-minute, and low-pay. People are juggling multiple jobs and still falling behind. Social services are being cut and ridiculous schemes are being implemented to make absolutely, positively sure that nobody is getting anything “free” from the government.
I didn’t expect to find so many people who felt that shift here. But over and again I’ve heard people talking about how to balance their jobs, how to find an extra shift, what to do if the benefit they depend on is cut. It feels familiar, because they are the same concerns that the working classes in America face daily. How to pay for childcare when you make minimum wage, how to put food on the table when you’re losing benefits unless you miss a shift at work to make the meeting?
This, at the same time the government is handing out lucrative contracts to private interests to run refugee camps. You know, the ones where you’re giving us a run for our money as far as human rights troubles. You’ve got ministers saying demonstratively ridiculous things – that the poor don’t drive cars – and then two weeks later turning around to wonder aloud why the poor simply don’t hop in their cars and hand out resumes. That dude is helping run public policy in Australia.
It’s a lot like watching our own conservative politicians say things publicly. In Kansas they’ve outlawed using food stamps on cruise ships. As a landlocked state in the dead middle of the country, it makes perfect sense for them to hedge against the potential scourge of people who get food stamps taking luxury vacations at sea.
Tony Abbott says the government can’t help all those degenerate addicts and gamblers on public assistance. He says people aren’t being left behind. For all the rhetorical difference, I might as well never have left America.
Whether or not you want to continue to drift down an American path is up to you. There is a stunning allure and beauty in a few large blooms, but to get them you have to change your idea of what a field should look like and accept that some flowers, no matter how hard they try, will never see the sun, stuck in the shadows of the tallest of poppies.
It isn’t the fault of the flowers. It’s just how the world works.