In the outer-urban and provincial Australia in which I live, there are hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, of people whose tenor of life has not altered to any remarkable degree since their parents’ days. They treasure their ageing V8 utes and winter dinners of fibrous roast beef served with Yorkshire pudding. They know in their hearts that Australia is God’s own country, even if they’ve never left its shores. They still fondly imagine a trade apprenticeship to be a passport to a solid 50 years of the good life, in a cosy life-niche. And they nurture the comfortable conviction that just about everybody else in the country – aside from a few mildly amusing egg-heads who drive through their towns in Audis, Saabs and Subarus – feels more or less the same.
Contrariwise, in the bustling, cosmopolitan and yet still strangely lonely and characterless neighbourhoods of our inner cities, there are tens of thousands of earnest, highly strung folks whose work-lives are their avocation; whose “politics” stem from the innermost sanctum of their souls; and for whom the private economy is not the engine of prosperity, but a moral abomination on the scale of the slave trade.
In between sits ‘Middle Australia’:
Rather, they’re in that vast, uncharted space between these extremes, a space suffused with vaguely nostalgic images of a kinder, simpler nation from a lost era, as well as with the sundry appurtenances of our imagined future – obscure Asian condiments in the kitchen, snatches of modernist decor, a TV the size of a ping-pong table that transmits the world news 24/7. In many respects, indeed, they hanker most of all to be told that these two aspects of our imagination are compatible – that we can remain tied to kith and kin, and to many of the values of our parents and ancestors, all the while cleaving to the promise of a new world that feeds on personal re-invention, endless self-adaption, and only half-glimpsed opportunities.
What’s of interest here is twofold.
First, although both portraits are caricatures, I have a sneaky feeling that they’re caricatures in the minds of politicians, press gallery aficionados, and political strategists, as well as a projection in the mind of the weary Foucauldian urbanite. In truth, neither the suburban nostalgists or the cosmopolitan liberals, to the extent that there are real sociological types corresponding to these pen portraits, think all that much more than anyone else about politics.
The missing element, the third term, in the culture wars dichotomy, is voter disinterest. Yet politicians have to assume that voters are reachable, and classifiable. And the act of naming informs political strategy. It’s only one set of possible cleavages one could imagine, and that accounts for why some issues are given much more prominence than they should be.
Secondly, though, and as Sauer-Thompson observes, this is to his credit, Burchell has put his finger on something sociologically valid. We can’t have a “little Australia” and have a globalised economy, in the manner in which a globalised economy currently operates. “Sustainability” is a deeply ambiguous word which the ALP is deploying to cover over a lot of fissures in our social landscape, as well as in our policy options. Those who take it as code for a more ecologically focused, less growth obsessed future are almost certainly falling into the trap of a very modernist ALP mind set. The tragedy of these attempts not to represent the options as they are, but wish division away, is that our future choices, are already set in stone and we will most probably not be confronting the results of our desire to wish away contradictions in the next parliamentary term.