Hugh McKay’s 2019 Australia Day address
In 1788, the First Fleet dropped anchor in what was to become known as Farm Cove (just across the park). Over forty nationalities were represented in the people on board those 11 ships – including French, German, Dutch, African, American, West Indian, as well as English, Welsh, Irish and Scots – and of course they landed on a continent where hundreds of indigenous nations were already co-existing. So I think you can safely say multiculturalism is in our DNA.
In fact, when we celebrate Australia Day and we’re casting around for things to brag about and things to feel proud of, surely that’s chief among them: our renowned ability to create a remarkably harmonious society out of such extraordinary diversity. We brought people here from 200 different birthplaces around the world. Right now about a third of Australians were born overseas, in Sydney 43 per cent of the population was born overseas.
We think of New York as the great melting pot. They can come up with a measly 35 per cent of their population born overseas. Well, we’ve brought people here from those 200 different places and made it work so well that if there are outbreaks (as there sometimes are) of ethnic tension or racial prejudice they’re reported in the media because they are so unusual, because they are not characteristic of who we are.
Of course, we’re proud of more than our harmonious diversity. We like to brag about that, don’t we? Our inventiveness, for instance – from zinc cream and the Hills Hoist to wi-fi and the Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme, plus our many breakthroughs in medical and scientific research. We can take pride in such cultural institutions as the ABC and our brilliant network of public libraries … and in our volunteer services, from surf lifesaving to bushfire-fighting. I think we can even be proud of Federation itself – that still-glorious symbol of our willingness to bring six sovereign states together to form the Commonwealth of Australia. And, of course, we go wild over any athletes, actors, artists who win gold for Australia.
Most of us are patriots, simply because it’s natural for us to love our homeland, but patriotism can easily get out of hand when, for example, we try to claim the values of any civil society as uniquely ours, or when we fail to acknowledge that the finest, noblest qualities spring from our humanity, not from our nationality.
Still I’m a staunch patriot myself, but I must say the Australia I love today – this sleep deprived, over-weight, over-medicated, anxious, smartphone-addicted society – is a very different place from the Australia I used to love.
I was born in 1938, I spent most of my childhood in the 1940s, and my adolescence in the ‘50s. I began my research career, straight out of school, in 1955 – pre-TV, pre-computers … though not quite pre-historic. Reflecting on more than 80 years of living here, and more than 60 years of studying the place professionally, I could point to many ways in which Australia has changed in that period – for the better and the worse. Here are my top three picks.
By far the greatest cultural change has been wrought by the gender revolution. I grew up in a binary world of males and females with little tolerance for ambiguity, no understanding of the gender continuum, and little argument with the proposition that women were second-class citizens when it came to education, employment, remuneration and social status.
The women’s liberation movement of the 1970s began the long haul towards gender equality – but of course that goal is still far from being realised – but that has evolved into a social revolution that is about far more than feminism. And more broadly, it’s part of our awakening to the fact that we need to take each other seriously as persons, as individuals – to respect each other in our own right, rather than as members of any group defined by its gender … or, indeed, by its ethnicity, religion or political convictions.
Wealth distribution inequality
The second big change relates to the distribution of wealth and income. I grew up, like most of my generation, with the great advantage of being a middle-class kid in a middle-class world – my family bore no burden of wealth, privilege or entitlement, but none of the hardship of poverty either. We belonged to a society that dared to dream the egalitarian dream and that saw our public education system as its most powerful symbol. Do we still dream that dream? I doubt it.
We are learning to live with a chasm of income inequality: two million of us are either unemployed or underemployed, the workforce is being increasingly casualised, three million of us live in poverty, and that includes the 16 per cent – I will just repeat that figure, the 16 per cent – of dependent children who lack reliable access to safe and nutritious food.
Meanwhile, there’s been an explosion in the number of high-income households – some enjoying executive pay packages most of us find impossible even to imagine – and last year’s ACOSS/UNSW report on inequality revealed that the top 20 per cent of Australian households are now 100 times richer than the bottom 20 per cent. This is a situation we would once have found abhorrent.
Socially fragmented society
The third big change that I want to identify is more complex but, in summary, we have become a more socially fragmented society – more individualistic, more materialistic, more competitive – and that takes us to the heart of what I think might be the biggest social challenge facing contemporary Australia: the challenge of preserving our social cohesion.
Social cohesion is the absolute fundamental prerequisite for any healthy society, but it doesn’t automatically happen. In contemporary Australia, just like many comparable countries around the world, we are facing some serious threats to our social cohesion from a series of radical shifts in the way we live – none of which incidentally are related to immigration or, indeed, to cultural diversity.
Let me remind you some of the many social changes that are putting pressure on the stability and cohesiveness of our communities and heightening the risk of social fragmentation.
Our shrinking households: When I was born, the average Australian household comprised 4 people; the average today is just over 2 people, and our fastest growing household type is the single-person household – already accounting for one household in four, and soon to become every third household. Now not everyone who lives alone feels lonely – just as not everyone who feels lonely is socially isolated – but the trend towards ever-smaller households clearly increases the risk of social isolation.
Our rate of relationship breakdown: When I was born, fewer than 10 per cent of marriages ever ended in divorce; today, between 35 and 40 per cent of marriages and other relationships are expected to end in separation or divorce, with obvious emotional and social consequences not only for the couples who are splitting, their families, their friendship circles and the neighbourhoods they are entering and leaving.
Our falling birth-rate: I was born just before the baby boom that sent our birth-rate to 3.6 babies per woman through the 1950s. Our present birth-rate (at 1.7 babies per woman) is way below replacement rate: relative to total population, we are producing the smallest generation of children Australia has ever produced, which means the social connections that were previously initiated by children when a family moves into a new neighbourhood are less easily made than they once were. In compensating of course, notice that as the birth rate falls, the rate of pet ownership rises. And the names we give our dogs suggests that they are indeed child substitutes. I know dogs called Ian and Nigella. And a man recently thought I would like to know that his dog is called Hugh.
Our increasing busyness: Here’s a fourth change. When we greeted each other, we used to say, ‘G’day’ or ‘How are you going?’ Now our standard greeting has become, ‘How are you going – busy?’, reflecting a revved-up way of life that leaves us less time and energy for the nurturing of personal relationships, especially with neighbours.
Our increasing mobility: On average, we move house once every six years and, thanks to almost universal car ownership, most of us live in drive-in/drive-out suburbs and towns where footpath traffic has declined and there are fewer opportunities for the incidental social contacts that build a sense of community trust.
Our increasing reliance on information technology at the expense of personal interaction: And then of course, there is our increasing reliance of information technology at the expense of personal interaction. The IT revolution is brilliant of course, seductive, efficient, convenient, we can’t do without it. But it’s a paradoxical revolution: on the one hand it promises, and does, connect us like never before; on the other hand it makes it easier than ever before for us to stay apart. (No wonder that, among young people, the heaviest users of social media also report the highest levels of loneliness and anxiety.)
Cumulatively changes like those, and there are many others you could add to that list I’m sure, but changes like those obviously threaten social cohesion. So we better ask ourselves, does that really matter?
Sense of belonging
And the answer to that question lies in the character of our species. We humans are, by nature, social beings: we need each other. In particular, we need the sense of belonging to communities that sustain us, nurture us, support us and protect us and even give us our sense of personal identity – you can’t make sense of who you are without a social context in which you operate.
When social cohesion is threatened, the consequences are likely to be serious for us. Just a few weeks ago, in consultation with the Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University of Technology, released The Australian Loneliness Report, revealing that one in four Australians report feeling lonely for at least half of every week; that loneliness is a greater problem for young adults than for older people; that lonely Australians have significantly worse physical and mental health than those who are more socially integrated.
Now it’s easy to imagine how feeling socially isolated, or even excluded, could lead to a state of anxiety or depression, but recent research shows that social isolation directly affects health more generally, by causing changes in the body such as inflammation, cognitive decline, hypertension and poor immune functioning. Socially isolated people are also more likely to have sleep disturbances, to smoke, and to make less use of health-care services. And they are more likely to be exposed to the health risks arising from over-reliance on information technology.
Given all this, it’s hardly surprising, isn’t it, that social isolation is now emerging as a greater potential threat to public health than obesity is.
Now I hope you find this kind of social analysis more than simply “interesting”. After all, we are not mere bystanders to these trends and their consequences. As citizens of Australia, we are active participants in the social changes that are redefining our way of life. We ourselves are shrinking our households; we ourselves are keeping the divorce rate up (I’ve made my own modest contribution to that); we ourselves are driving the birth-rate down (I wasn’t so good at that); we ourselves have embraced busyness as a way of life; we have allowed ourselves to become addicted to our smartphones and our social media.
No one could seriously expect any of these trends to be reversed. But once we have understood the hazards of social fragmentation, we have nowhere to hide: we need to own the ways we are reshaping Australia’s way of life, and then we need to own the health risks that follow.
So how might we minimise the risk of social isolation in our society and its damaging consequences?
Culture shift towards compassion
As a starting point, I believe we need a radical culture-shift in the direction of more compassion – more kindness, more tolerance, more generosity, more forgiveness, greater mutual respect – in our public and private lives. We need to abandon the relentless and fruitless quest for personal happiness and, adopt, as a way of life, a greater responsiveness to the needs of those around us. As Mahatma Gandhi put it: ‘The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.’
And yet I fear the trend is going in precisely the opposite direction. We humans are not at our best when we are trying to cope with a heightened sense of disruption, uncertainty, insecurity and anxiety, especially when we lack a vision, a sense of direction, an explanatory narrative. At such times, we tend to become less compassionate, less tolerant, less forgiving, more self-absorbed, more prejudiced, more vulnerable to fear and generally harsher in our social attitudes. That’s what feeds our obsession with security; it’s what drives our unrealistic yearning for simple certainties; it’s what encourages misplaced faith in so-called ‘strong’ leaders; it’s what pushes some of us in the direction of political and religious extremism.
But the fact that it’s natural for us to freeze up and turn inwards when we are feeling anxious and insecure, and when the future seems so uncertain and insecure, only increases the urgency of my appeal. In fact, I regard compassion as the only truly rational response to an understanding of what it means to be human. Because we are members of a social species, we thrive only when we belong to supportive communities. And if you accept that our moral sense – our moral code – derives from, and is constantly reinforced by, social interactions within a community, then it follows that the only way to ensure our social and our moral health is by nurturing and sustaining those communities.
And the only way to do that, I believe, is by committing ourselves to the deeply civilising discipline of compassion – tempered, of course, by justice and fairness.
It’s easy to wring our hands about the state of the nation (we all do it) but not so easy to acknowledge that the state of the nation actually starts in our street, with our own attitudes and our own behaviour. So this is, firstly, a plea for us all to take our role as neighbours more seriously.
Ultimately, the health of any society (especially its mental health) depends upon the health of its local neighbourhoods – the streets, apartment blocks, suburbs, towns where we actually live; the places where we need to feel as if we belong; the places where we have to learn how to get along with people we didn’t choose to live amongst (many of whom strike us as weird, exactly as we strike them); the places where feelings of loneliness and social isolation are most likely to overwhelm us; the places where homelessness begins.
To say as too many people do “We don’t know our neighbours” or, even worse, “We have no interest in getting to know our neighbours” is to say something deeply sad and deeply troubling about our lack of awareness of our responsibilities to each other as fellow citizens. The Swinburne/APS research found that almost half of all Australians do not feel they have neighbours they can call on for help – that sounds like an early warning of a serious threat to social cohesion.
We all know how to be neighbours when disaster strikes – a bushfire, a flood, a cyclone or some more personal crisis in our street. What a tragedy it would be if we became the sort of people who needed a catastrophe to galvanise us into being good neighbours.
So a call to become more compassionate is partly, perhaps mainly, a plea to do all the simple things that good neighbours routinely do: smile and say hello when you pass someone in a local street, or wait with them at a bus stop. Be especially alert to the well-being of anyone in your street, or your apartment block, who you know is at risk of social isolation particularly the frail elderly. Keep in touch with them; be ready to offer practical support – even if it’s only the gift of listening.
There’s no virtue in being kind and respectful towards your friends – people you like and mostly agree with. Social virtue demands that we treat everyone kindly and respectfully – especially those we don’t like much, and most especially those we disagree with about politics or religion, or anything else.
But this is also a plea to local governments, to urban planners, architects and designers to pay more attention to creating the spaces and places that foster local community interaction – parks, plazas, gardens, walking tracks, libraries, playgrounds, child-care centres, cafes – any community hubs that encourage personal interaction.
Social interaction builds social cohesion; social cohesion builds social capital; social capital builds strong societies. And compassion is like the high-octane fuel that drives the machinery of social cohesion.
But a culture of compassion is not only about fostering a spirit of kindness and mutual respect in our local neighbourhoods and communities. It’s also about institutions winning back our trust by restraining their lust for wealth or power in favour of a more sensitive engagement with the society that gives them their social license to operate. In the commercial marketplace, that’s as a start a commitment to fairness in the setting of prices and wages. In the boardrooms and executive suites of our banks and other big businesses, it’s about a commitment to moral integrity, as well as profit-making. In the hierarchies of organised religion, it’s about a restoration of the spirit of humility. In the media, it’s about an obsessive concern with truth-telling.
Society health as well as economic health
A culture of compassion would mean paying at least as much attention – and devoting at least as much of our public discourse – to the health of our society as to the health of our economy. In such a culture, we would think of ourselves more as citizens than consumers. We would acknowledge that people don’t thrive because they own their own house, or have a new car, or take holidays overseas: they thrive because their lives have meaning and a sense of purpose; they thrive when they feel as if they are being taken seriously and their voices are being heard; they thrive when they feel loved and supported; they thrive when they feel safe; they thrive when they feel they are part of a society that recognises and includes them.
On Australia Day, we like to acknowledge and celebrate Aussie heroes. Let me suggest that, this year, we also acknowledge the unsung heroism of all those people who are already helping to create a culture of compassion; people who are quietly devoting themselves to the wellbeing of others, especially those in their neighbourhood most at risk of social isolation; people whose lives are shaped, in the words of that great Australian, ‘Nugget’ Coombs, ‘by the thought of others’ need.’
Do you dream as I dream of a kinder, more compassionate, more generous, more equitable Australia? If enough of us are prepared to act as if we are already living in that kind of society, that’s the kind of society it will become.
Source: Australia Day Council of NSW.
• Alcaraz, Kassandra, ‘Social isolation directly affects health by causing changes in the body such as inflammation’, American Journal of Epidemiology, October 2018
• Coombs, H. C., The Fragile Pattern: Institutions and man, Boyer Lectures, Australian Broadcasting Commission, Sydney, 1970
• Holt-Lunstad, Julianne, ‘Loneliness: A growing public health threat,’ Paper delivered at the 125thAnnual Convention of the American Psychological Association, Washington Convention Center, Washington DC, August 2017
• Inequality in Australia, ACOSS and UNSW, July 2018
• Mackay, Hugh, What Makes Us Tick (3rd edition), Hachette, 2019
• Mackay, Hugh, Australia Reimagined, Macmillan, Sydney, 2018
• Mackay, Hugh, The Art of Belonging, Macmillan, Sydney, 2014
• The Australian Loneliness Report, The Australian Psychological Society and Swinburne University of Technology (Dr Michelle H. Lim), 2018