Monday, September 18, 2006

The heartburn of Australia's McValues meal

The recent furore over 'Australian values' and whether we think we can impose them on those wishing to visit or come live in our country has served nothing but to reinforce xenophobia in Australia, and disguise Australia's true values – an obsession with stuff.

The outcry over Opposition leader Kim Beazley's bizarre proposal to force all overseas applicants for tourist visas to Australia, or wanting to migrate to Australia, to sign a declaration to respect 'Australian values'. did nothing to help us understand any better how we live, or become more conscious of how what we value is affecting our world.

Predictably, with the media's typical short attention span, the 'Australian values debate', if we were ever to have one, has been dropped like a hot potato. Or was it Beazley who dropped the hot potato?

I thought I'd let the dust settle on the debate before I added my two bits. I was also somewhat annoyed at the utter stupidity and arrogance at our so-called leaders' and opinion makers' temerity to define - and thus limit - what we value here in Australia. Attempting to define Australia values - a ridiculous and exclusive exercise if there ever was one - is also an attempt to define what are not Australian, or rather in the jargon preferred by the conservatives, 'Un-Australian'. So, I didn't want to rush in to add my values wish-list to the shopping list being bandied about in the public sphere.

Unfortunately (as far as I could see), no commentators tried to pull together some threads I'm particularly interested in in this 'debate'.

There was an overwhelming focus on immigration, xenophobia and racism - the debate on Australia values was cast in the light of how the values of those wanting to come to Australia may (or may not) be different and somehow dangerous to Australia's values, and thus to its people.

I was appalled at the glorified, soft-focus, back-slapping conversation about how great Australians are, how we value 'mateship', personal initiative ('having a go'), or that greater myth of Australia, egalitarianism.

To my great frustration, there was no attention paid to just what Australian values really are. If anything, Australia values 'bigger and better: get more money, build/buy the biggest house you can, drive the biggest car, send your kids to the best (rather the most prestigious, expensive, high-status) school, eat or cook the biggest, fanciest, hippest meals you can, buy the latest clothes, and install the biggest, latest television (sorry, plasma) or entertainment system.

To me, this preoccupation with stuff - the bigger the better - is best personified by McMansions, those gigantic cream-puff houses that are swallowing up our suburbs, our land and our children's lives. In that weird reversal of the 50s Australian quest for the quarter-acre block where kids could play cricket-chasey-footy-whatever in the big backyard, we have witnessed the explosion of the quarter-acre house.
In a feature on McMansions three years ago, Fairfax journalist Janet Hawley said:
Streetscapes are virtual walls of neat, look-alike, fridge-magnet, big-hair houses dominated by wow factors: big garage doors, big front doors with vaulted entries, feature porticos and columns, big windows with stick-on yellow fake windowpane strips, stick-on shutters, stick-on chimneys, glassy towers, gazebos and gable ornamentation galore.
This is an obsession with massive houses with display front gardens for the neighbours, and pocket-hanky backyards that barely fit the primary-coloured plastic play equipment and massive, designer barbeque. Never mind the Hills-hoist clothes line, just whack a energy hungry clothes drier in the laundry/garage. As Hawley also says,
The traditional backyard has gone, along with its trees, garden, vegie patch, often pool, washing line and shed, where children could let their bodies and imaginations run free and build tree houses, cubbyhouses, billycarts, dig in the dirt and invent games. Now it's indoor computer games, and, given there's no room for a decent run-up in most McMansion courtyards, children are driven to sport and formally organised activities most days of the week.
Is it any wonder that Australia is the biggest per capita emitter of greenhouse gasses? Is it surprising, after all, that Australia consumes so disproportionate amount of resources, compared to the rest of the world?

What is also troubling is the denial of the extent to which Australia's 'way of life' – its values – are directly resulting in the degradation of our planet and our climate. When enivornmentalists such as David Suzuki call for for our patterns of over-consumption to change, they are frequently counted with specious arguments of how cutting consumption will costs the jobs of those who make stuff for a living.

Honestly, I think we can do better than that. We need a debate on Australian values. But, lets focus on the values that are killing us.

[Image: Douglas Roesch ]



At September 18, 2006 8:48 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You make a good point - the values that are now driving Australian's choices are not all admirable. But is this a critique of Australian values, or are these now "global values" (at least for us rich folk, and the wannabes)?

The truth is that there is no such thing as "Australian", "American", or for that matter "Gambian" values. It is people who hold values, not Nations.

All a Nation can provide is the framework in which we express and negotiate our individual values.

The way I see it, we are better off debating how well our (Australia's) institutions allow the expression and negotiation of values. I therefore support the idea that we better educate Australians (particularly our children, but also new arrivals to Australia) to better understand the strengths and limitations of these institutions, and the ongoing role of the individual in shaping them.

This, I am sure, is not Howard's intention. It is so much easier to dismantle conventions of Ministerial accountability, industrial relations frameworks, land rights and media diversity, if all the punters can concentrate on is tax cuts.

So I am all for more education on the institutions that have made up Australia. Lets have better understanding of why they evolved, when we might want them to change, and what the consequences might be. Then let everyone bring their individual values, whatever they may be, to the debate.


At September 19, 2006 10:12 am, Blogger Mark Lawrence said...

David, you are right, of course. Your point on these being people or global values (of the privileged) is important, and I'm sorry I missed it. After all, the social and environmental impacts of the choices we make because of our values (as you put it), are global.

But what of these institutions, and the education you espouse to allow us to understand our relationship to them? If we mean things like ANZAC Day or Australia (Invasion) Day, even the Parliament, then they certainly aren't neutral or uncontested.

If our institutions include things such as our democracy, secularism, land rights, IR rights, and media diversity, then those institutions are certainly embattled, rather than 'contested'.

I'm all in favour of defending our media diversity; supporting free, uncensored, fully funded, public broadcasters; the neutrality of the internet; the free flow of ideas and creative content etc etc.

But, let's not be naive in thinking that our institutions are somehow separate from our values. Not that this is a bad thing per se.

Howard is certainly aware of that, and the danger is that our institutions have been captured by a conservative values debate. If we aren't careful, it won't be long before we will be called upon to "pledge allegiance to the flag of [insert name of nation here] and to the constitution for which it stands…", while we chug down our Fosters/Chardonay and chuck another shrimp on the barbie, and turn up the heat on the climate controls.


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