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Between the decades of landmark changes, may you live in interesting times


The Chinese curse – may you live in interesting times – looks like playing out across the world in the months and years ahead. Dennis Atkins suggests new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will have plenty to make his life interesting.

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Historians charting the ebbs and flows of time reckon we have markers spiked into the ground about once a decade, turning the world in an unexpected direction or maybe just whipping us to attention.

Expectations on the loose, hubris, too long at the free market punch bowl, a swaggering indulgence of great man theory or just street corner laziness invites a slap in the face.

We know the story. The party went on into the early morning hours with music too loud and guests way beyond the know-it-all limits. The patrol car shows up, heralded by a siren, and someone is in the drunk tank.

The late Florida son and top-shelf American song maker Tom Petty anointed the drunk tank “just a motel room to me” but for modern countries it’s not somewhere you want Google Maps talking about.

The last half century has seen its appropriate share of these historic markers. Here’s how it shapes up:

Richard Nixon junking the gold standard in August, 1971, sparking a genuine 10 year, economic shock; the collapse of Iran in 1979 setting off four unfinished decades of transnational war in the Middle East; another massive transformational regime collapse with the fall of the Berlin Wall 10 years on; the September 2001 assault on the United States mainland, lighting the fuse for an asymmetrical “war on terror”; the edge of the abyss economic calamity of 2008/09; and, now the still unfinished roiling crisis from a pandemic to existential economic fear spilling into the first war in Europe for more than 70 years.

In what’s hoped to be the final stages of the last of these epoch shakers, a new government is elected in Australia after this nation was convulsed by its own series of small screen, off Broadway dramas.

Seven prime ministers came and went in 15 years – just three first picked by the voters – and the country was consumed by twin culture wars over climate and energy and race and religion.

The first was a manifestation of manliness over mining coal while the other represented a tough guy contest of hard heartedness towards anyone seeking asylum on leaky, unsafe boats.

Such a long journey in search of meaning, carrying our shiralee.

As last week’s release of the first set of 2021 Census data emphasises, this recent election was held at a tipping point for the country when batons were passed.

First, the older, greying generation – the boomers (born 1946 to 1965) – have been passed in the quantum stakes by the young ones – the millennials (born 1981 to 1995). No so many pension bribes and superannuation tax breaks in coming years perhaps.

Second, Australia is now a fully fledged migrant nation – the first in the world according to those who analyse such data. For the first time since the 1890s (when Australia was six British colonies), our country has a majority of people either born overseas themselves or having one parent who was.

Also, these are not the usual suspects. While, throughout the last century wherever you went most migrants had a British background now it is much more of a patchwork quilt.

Using the Australian Bureau of Statistics data supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas, a weekend essay on the census records that five of Australia’s eight capitals have majority migrant populations from places other than the “mother land”.

Melbourne and Canberra have majorities sourced from India, Sydney has Chinese, Brisbane takes in majority New Zealanders and in Darwin it’s newcomers from the Philippines.

At the same time, the proportion of people with Chinese heritage has gone backwards in every capital, something not seen since federation (and the introduction of the White Australia policy) in 1901.

While anchored in the impact of the pandemic, this is not going to turn around quickly and demographers think the next big ethnic group will be those of Indian heritage.

Interestingly, in Brisbane, the Indian diaspora is settling in areas close to those populated by people who have families from eastern Asian nations with Chinese links. We won’t have this confirmed until the ABS releases more detailed data later this year and in 2023.

All this tells us more about what might have been driving some of the electoral changes we saw in May this year. Some electorates with big Chinese populations flipped from Liberal to Labor – Bennelong and Reid in Sydney and Chisholm in Melbourne.

In Brisbane the seat with the highest number of people from Chinese and East Asian heritage, Moreton on the city’s southside, Labor picked up a swing north of 7 percent while the party had more modest gains or went backwards in nearby electorates.

While this might provide plenty of fascinating fodder for the political parties as they chart opportunities and potholes, it also suggests we might be headed to some social territory with its own set of difficulties and challenges.

A more diverse nation built on genuine multiculturalism can slip into tribalism and fall into an identity trap as ethnic family groups and racial diasporas congregate in suburbs and communities, fall short of learning a second language such as English (something that stood out as a hurdle in tackling the Covid pandemic in some Sydney and Melbourne suburbs) and see their lot as superior to what’s seen as an understood common good.

Managed well in an ideal world, this kind of diversity is what we should aspire to have, a kind of happy Noah’s Ark on calm waters.

History, past and present, suggests this is not the path of least resistance. A look at the history of African and Afro-Caribbean social and political cultures in English suburbs like Handsworth in Birmingham in the mid-1980s and French muslim ethnic strife in the Paris banlieues such as Clichy-sous-Bois at the same time shine a light on where such problems can lead.

Sydney has seen a foretaste of this 15 years ago in that city’s south west. It still bubbles under the surface in criminal gangs.

This is all a backdrop to the smorgasbord of challenges faced by Anthony Albanese. He has an energy and climate crisis rolling along at a breakneck speed (just glance at the Australian Energy Market Operator’s report from last week and cancel your hair curling appointment) and a bring-inflation-under-control, whack-a-mole carnival alley game that’s being powered by cooks using recipes from Breaking Bad.

Those wonderful and enduring political axioms – never waste a good crisis, fortune favours the brave and education and health are not expenses, they’re investments – are more important right now than ever.

The future is going to be exciting and as wild a ride as we’ll see but if we can get it near right it will be worth it.

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