50 and Better Centre

50 and Better Centre – May 2008

The Hon Justice Pierre Slicer – Supreme Court of Tasmania


In the first part we were talking about inheritance, what we as a generation have inherited from the past, and what we will pass on.  I think we had collectively got to the end of the 1960s, and we remain a generation which has missed out on most State assistance programs, other than the Commonwealth scholarship schemes delivered in the late 50s into the 1960s.  A summary of where we had got to could be:

  • We have moved from the old political model of sovereign and subject, post-war social engineering and the use of political parties to effect change through the parliament to one more based on rights and issues.  Concurrently there has been a convergence between the major political parties in the field of ideas and matters of public policy.
  • We have seen deep cultural changes as a society, becoming more outward looking, self-confident and have developed a capacity to accept and process new thoughts, challenges and the like.
  • Our generation was the first to possess control of reproduction which brought about the greatest social and cultural change since World War II.  That change meant:

a) There has been the struggle for the rights of women – an advance, probably more than at any time but at least as significant as those achieved by the Suffragettes.  Australia has been lucky in that the “Women’s Movement” had absorbed portions of both the European and American models.  The European movement (and I use that term in the widest sense) contributed concepts of class, unification of people in a struggle, and a broad picture for social change affecting all persons within the community.  The American model concentrated on the slogan “The Personal is Political”.  It advocated change at a micro-level in relationships between individual men and women within families, within personal values and saw those changes affecting the community and society as a whole.  Both models had weaknesses, and Australia was able to absorb the good elements of both and minimise the weaknesses of the competing models.

b) There was greater entry by women into the workforce, surpassing those previous entries in WW I and WW II.  In most ways it was a plus, but the economic model changed in that there was greater consumerism and disposable income.  The downside of that process was that families needed two incomes, but two incomes represented probably 1.5 of the old income, not its double.  The difference was reflected in the consumer society.

c) There were some sexual changes in sexual and relationship mores and some experimentation with different models, but basically the society kept to the nuclear family plus greater acceptance of serial monogamy.

·  At the end of the 1960s Australia maintained a modest industrial base that was still significantly a service-based economy with public ownership and the maintenance of protectionism, an issue which had been thought over primarily between New South Wales and Victoria at the time of Federation.

·  As to race, we have become a more homogenous and accepting society and had probably got a handle on that diffuse term multi-culturalism, whatever that meant.  Despite the referendum, we still have not got a handle on our relationships with the Aboriginal people.

Our legacy was mixed in that we began to confuse equality with sameness and perhaps displayed a greater indulgence to our children.  But more of this later.  We had a much more developed social infrastructure with poverty programs, access to the law, a wider range of varying programs in an attempt to create a more equal and balanced society.  This phase was probably the last of the social engineering model developed post-war.  We had achieved a lessening of censorship, or the role of moral arbiters but with a later twist since we are now more censorious, and more likely to demand social controls and punishments.  We can take credit for the discourse and change in core values in the area of the environment.  Many of us remember green bans and Lake Pedder in the late 60s and early 70s.  The development of proper urban planning, pollution control, development of nature reserves and world heritage areas.  Those issues which came at a price since we became the first generation who expected to pay the cost for both remedying the past and building into the future.

Vietnam saw a change of emphasis on the central plank of our then foreign policy, namely, identification of and reliance on a great power in the world as our primary form of protection.  That process lasted at least until the 90s with greater involvement in international agencies, the United Nations and the like, and international relationships with less reliance on the United States.  That process  forced us to face race, the boat people, more “coloured” immigrants – Turks, Lebanese and now Asians.  In the mid 90s until the present time, we returned to the foreign policy plank of the relationship with the United States as being the most significant.  We are probably just commencing to move away from that change of emphasis.  We had a coup which reverberated for ten years but which led, paradoxically, to greater convergence of the political ideologies.

I wish to fast forward for a minute before seeing what we ourselves have reaped from that legacy and what changes have been made to it by the next two generations.  By the 1980s in comparison with its 19th century position, Australia had been in economic decline for a century.  The wealth accrued and the accumulation of capital through gold, mineral wealth, the development of refrigerated cargoes to Europe, our growth increase in textiles and local manufacturing, and the balance of primary production and country populations have fundamentally changed.  Since the 1880s our economy, by comparison, has declined.  In part that decline has been cushioned through having two breadwinners being more prevalent, although the sum of two incomes is less than the sum of the parts.  But nevertheless there has been improvement in a consumer-based standard of living, although with some buts, including deficit spending and an ever increasing foreign debt.  Some of the cushioning has been achieved at the cost of borrowing.

Now I wish to return to the 1970s and 1980s.  For a short period of time our children enjoyed a period of free tertiary education.  It quickly became apparent that that was too expensive to maintain but it did achieve a high level of the number of graduates and a change in our demographics.  The high cost meant the introduction of a future tax through HECS hoping to recoup the money from the future earnings over a period of free education and for the following generation.  Nevertheless the benefits were significant as the following table suggests.







Population 10.5m 10.555m 12.728m 16m 18.7m
Students 57,000 90,000 123,000 394,000 896,000
% of Population .54% .85% .96% 2.5% 4/9%


The figures themselves are significant, but, cumulative over the respective periods they are enormous.  Thus, if one takes the period of 15 years between 1987 and 2002 and assumes that each student completed a three year course, over 20% of Australians since 1987 have been or become tertiary students.  That has affected those persons born since 1970.  In my own discipline over 50% of law students are now women against a tiny proportion when I commenced studies in 1961.

But studies and our own experience show that the next generation took more for granted, had less interest in traditional social issues and perhaps were more motivated by self-interest.  History might judge our generation to be indulgent, but it represented a desire to provide greater opportunities for our descendants than our parents had enjoyed.  Some of the values of the succeeding generation, such as less interest in traditional social issues, represented time pressures and economic need since they were a generation who needed to compete to obtain employment, rather than ours which had an expectation that on the completion of school there would be a job available.  There are two other snapshots.  Our reliance on religion has changed.  Between 1933 and 1971 the number of Australians taking some form of religious affiliation was relatively stable at 90%.  By 1976 it had declined to 80%, and in 2001 to 73%.  In 1971,  7% claimed no affiliation, which had risen to 16% in 2001.  Of greater significance is that of the 74% claiming affiliation in 2001, only 23% had participated in a formal religious ceremony.  In 2001, 70% claimed Christian affiliation.  We had become more secular and more highly trained, or educated, which in turn affected an historic recourse to religious faith.  Incidentally, the mix of our religious beliefs had altered.  Between 1971 and 2001 the following faiths had increased in affiliates:

·  Buddhist, Buddhism: 70,000 – 380,000

·  Hinduism: 20,000 – 100,000

·  Islam: 20,000 – 280,000

·  Whilst Judaism stayed static at about 85,000.

Age and gender had contributed to the demographics of religion.

The second snapshot has some linkage to the first.  We rely less on an extended family unit, but divorces have produced an increase in mixed family units.  Divorces have occurred at a rate of between 2.6 and 2.8 per 1,000 persons each year from 1976 to 2001, whilst household sizes have decreased to 2.5 from 3.3 in 1975.  It is now estimated that some 40% of marriages end in separation and divorce.

I now want to revisit those children of ours.  There have been two significant generational changes.  I earlier said that the 1975 coup was in some way a paradox in that it led to a convergence in politics, at least until 1996 to 1997.  Malcolm Fraser is the last of our economic nationalist prime ministers.  The tension between free trade and protectionism which had been at the centre of our debate since Federation remained a partisan issue during the term of office of Fraser.  In 1983 a Labor government floated the Australian dollar, lifted exchange controls, deregulated the financial system and began to privatise government services, especially in the areas of transportation, power and communications.  Concurrently within the free market new management models were developed.  Universities moved from tenure to contract.  Middle-management was flattened and retrenchment was seen as cost-cutting labour as a unit cost.  A decline in relative prosperity had required competitive change.  However, for most of our history it was a given that children would have a better life than their parents.  Many Australians began to wonder if that was true.

Thus we have bequeathed or allowed political correctness rather than a consistent ideology which was reflected in the varying culture wars both on history and moral values.  We confused information with knowledge.  We adopted differing and confusing educational models which were ever changing.  Our political system developed into issue based politics.  The new political ideas of fragmentation and conglomeration whereby disparate groups who had some interest in common were targeted as a political unit.  The role of Senator Richardson in the 1993 election is a good example of this process.  We had commenced the processes of gender, environmental concern and acceptance of difference with some more work to do.  We had engendered expectations and interest based politics.

On a formal basis, Australia had enacted the 1986 Australia Act, formally severing the constitutional tie with the United Kingdom.  We had almost completed the transition from subject to citizen.  Asia became a focus, although the United States remained a big brother.  The United Nations had become more important and we have regained a focus on international relationships, especially those in Asia.  Technology began to shape the social fabric.  As industry declined the service and information components increased massively, together with information without structure or parameters.  It is primarily that change and the economic model which drove our children in the way I have earlier described.

We have commenced a transition into the future and much of what will now occur will be only in part our legacy.  Some of the changes are reactive in the sense of pendulum politics.  Some of them represent a change in values which we have initiated and some will be driven by technology and globalisation.

In 1993 Labour won an election it ought to have lost.  It had targeted particular electorates and particular interest groups and combinations of varying interests forming a profile of the targeted voter.  As it turned out it was primarily directed towards working women and single mothers in outer suburban areas, especially of Sydney.  It used the fear of GST as a primary weapon, but it was out of sync with the electoral cycle and the changes in economic returns.  In part the world economy and changing social and economic conditions produced discontent and fear of loss of jobs, jobs being taken by migrants, lessened prosperity and a more rapid method and increased demand for efficiency.  Out of that mix came Hansonism.  In 1996 Hansonism and Howard became conjoined.  Howard was a reflection of those forces of deregulation and the cultural or social rules.  He was the most ideological of all our conservative prime ministers, probably rivalled only by Deakin and Chifley in adherence to an overall ideological position.  He was a social conservative on race, migration, family values, stem cells, black arm band histories, opposed to left-leaning institutions and an economic egalitarian, although he maintained state intervention against organised labour.  He had a distaste for the welfare state.  Remember our post-war model of social engineering!  Howard reflected the ebb and flow of political life and an accurate reflection ought to have led to his election in 1993, and, with the passage of time, eventual replacement.  He could have been a respectable and respected prime minister.

Hansonism was different.  It reflected anxiety over jobs and changes in the labour market, fear of cultural or permissive social values, distrust of colour, cheap labour and the fear of globalisation and the outside world – especially Asia and the Middle East.  Hansonism reached its zenith with the Jo for Canberra push.  It had the support of 17% – 20% of those surveyed.  That figure was understandable and easily contained within our social fabric.  Had it remained as a significant but marginal force, the ordinary processes of ebb and flow movement would have accommodated it.

But it became absorbed into mainstream politics since it constituted a heartland base for Howard’s agenda.  The purging of the wets, the Hills, the Cheneys, the Victorians, Woolridge and the like, cultural wars, ABC, Windshuttle, dole fraud, permissiveness, Mabo, Wik, ATSIC, et al became central to the political processes.  The catalyst was Tampa.  Had the election in 1993 gone to the conservatives, the fire storm which was Tampa may not have occurred since it would have taken place in a different part of the election cycle.  Tampa brought those fears to the surface.  The coincidence of the 11 September act of terror in New York coincided with the election campaign and got caught up with race, Middle East, children overboard, terrorists masquerading as refugees, disregard for children and the like.  Xenophobia and fear were central to the election.  From there we commenced the fight against terrorism, entry into Iraq as invaders and a further withdrawal from the United Nations or international comity.

Concurrent with these processes there remained convergence, but convergence of method.  Lobby groups, special interests, the politics of retribution, someone must pay, victimology, compensation, greater concentration on celebrity politics, decisions made on the basis of fragmented information, the latest survey which showed that over 180% of us were doomed to provide grist for the political mill.  The golden oldies probably contributed little to the processes occurring between 1994 and 2004.  They may have had some nostalgia for the golden days of the past and possess the inherent conservatism of age, but I suspect ought not be held responsible for much of that period.

Since 2002 we have seen increased globalisation of markets, production, transfer of resources and the free movement of capital.  We have yet to see a concurrent free trafficking in labour, although the use of offshore factories, centralisation of call stations and information transfers are but part of that internationalisation of labour.  Domestically, Howard perceived the need to weaken organised labour so that the economic system would be more efficient.  We adopted that position not without reason.  The question or divide was whether organised labour is or ought to be part of the free market debate.  Howard argued that the individual was a unit of labour and should be subject as an individual to those market forces.  Opponents contended that the process was both wrong and economically incorrect.  If capital had become organised, then the balance and force needed to have greater power or influence and access to information in order to balance the dictates of capital.  The rebuttal was that organised labour sought gains for its membership rather than being a product of free market forces.  It is that debate which led the 2007 election.

As we proceed into our nursing homes with a lessened labour force to sustain us, an environment that might not be fixable, we can but watch.  But we remain the first generation in history not to be aware of who we were meant to be.  We were the first generation in history not to accept age as defining identity.  Age traditionally had a classification that a grandmother acted as a grandmother; a grandfather sat in the chair occasionally uttering words of wisdom to the younger generation.  Our generation has not accepted definition by age or expectation.  It has chosen not to act its age.  It would auger well then to finish this small romp through history with a slogan “may the grey nomads run free”.

As to the future, we might look at that at some other time.

Hon Justice Pierre Slicer

May 2008