The tyranny of affluence

Posted by Oliver Hogue on 02/06/2012

War was declared in Sydney today. A war on whinging.

“We had 20 or 21 years of uninterrupted growth prior to the GFC yet we’re whinging about electricity prices, the cost of living, the cost of commuting and about our debts,” said journalist and political commentator George Megalogenis.

He was joined in conversation by Professor Geoffrey Blainey, historian and author of The Tyranny of Distance at a discussion on The Tyranny of Affluence at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. And while the distance and isolation factors described in Professor Blainey’s landmark book may have lessened, they were still key factors for a fascinating discussion about Australia.

“It’s quite true that Australia, for the first 150 years or more of its European existence, was tied socially, culturally, in economics and politics, in the sorts of its people, to a most distant part of the world,” Professor Blainey said. “But things are quite different today.

“Australia has been turned around. Our greatest export area [Western Australia] is next to our greatest export market [Asia], which is an astonishing change,” he said. “The tyranny of distance now works in quite a different way.”

George Megalogenis agreed. “The Americans and the Europeans are now a long way from the action and previously, of course, we wished we were over there,” he said. “We are now in the right place at the right time. But we still underestimate the trouble that’s going on around the world.

“The Government gets a lot of back slapping at international forums, but when they return here they wonder what went wrong because everyone says ‘it’s terrible isn’t it’.”

Professor Blainey said, “It’s interesting that we could have been seduced, especially by economists, into thinking that we have entered a permanent era in which major financial crises no longer happen.

“There’s a feeling in economic circles that only when the Minister of Greece greets us at the airport, as tourists, and thanks us for our stimulus, then finally, the penny might drop,” George Megalogenis said.

“Despite a good run, people are still very jittery. Just ask the people at Myers or David Jones,” Professor Blainey said. “The GFC was so unexpected that there’s still an air of un-reality around. It’s a shock of such magnitude that we are still playing with it.”

George Megalogenis thinks much of what Australia is experiencing today echoes that of the past. He suggested that today’s world parallels the rise in prosperity and subsequent chaos that Australians experienced during the late 1950s through to the early 1970s.

“Do you sense the potential or risk for something like the 70s repeating itself here?” he asked Professor Blainey. “Bearing in mind the 70s are already repeating in Britain and the US.”

Professor Blainey was cautious. “The world, especially the economic world, is much more difficult to predict, incredibly more so than it was 40 or 50 years ago,” he said. “But the evidence suggests that one of the components of the Australian economy in 15 years’ time will be something we have previously dismissed.

“One of things about Australia now is that superannuation has very much become a factor in people’s heads. That adds a layer of nervousness that wasn’t there in the 60s or 70s. People didn’t worry about the share market because people didn’t expect to live as long.”

Professor Blainey put a question to George Megalogenis. “What do you think is going to happen?”

“I think society has to test mediocrity for a while,” Mr Megalogenis responded. “No-one wants to own our success. Australia is almost talking itself down to the point that it must go through whatever form of mediocrity we are testing. And it starts in politics. The absence of leadership is one of the things that is making people feel quite gloomy at the moment.”

“That for me is one of the strange things about public opinion in the last three years,” Professor Blainey said. “People say, ‘it’s terrible, we‘ve got a two-speed economy’. Well a two-speed economy is better than a no-speed economy.”

“Is there something in our character that still expects someone to look after us?” Mr Megalogenis asked.

Professor Blainey said, “I think that’s the feeling of the Western world, that the Government will protect us. It started with the welfare state and then in the 80s everyone started talking about rights.”

George Megalogenis had a final word. “In the next life, in a post media career, I’m going to come back as a one-man band and declare a war on whinging.”



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