This piece originally appeared in The Age
You probably missed it amid the rancour, as Parliament slunk towards its summer adjournment and somewhere got stuck in mutually assured distraction. Or perhaps it was eclipsed by the slush fund story that is, in many ways, a meta-story—a story about stories, about fevered pursuit and wacky inflation.
Woodward and Bernstein distinguished the slush fund as the subject of the most necessary journalism, but there’s a gulf in the AWU story between the ferocity and the evidence—a weird and brutal distinction between the story’s longevity and the absence of allegation.
As ever, it’s a question of proportion. Journalists must remain sceptical and ask questions. But that Gillard reprised her marathon press conference from August might suggest a commensurate seriousness from the gallery—a refreshed and forensic set of questions. I detected few.
It’s also strange to see some journalists engage in subjectively provocative behaviour, and then affect objectivity in reporting the results of that provocation. Is there nowhere a self-scrutiny and deftness to trace these lines of cause and effect?
So amid the cheers and jeers of our national pantomime, you can be forgiven for having missed it: the Economist Intelligence Unit’s where-to-be-born index, and further proof of Australia’s strength and fortune.
The idea of the report, wrote The Economist, was to ”earnestly attempt to measure which country will provide the best opportunities for a healthy, safe and prosperous life in the years ahead”.
Below Switzerland, at No. 2 in the world, sits Australia—still a paragon of institutional strength, economic stability and democratic freedom, despite a perversely stubborn streak to believe otherwise.
Evidence for this perverse streak abounds. Parliament is stained by filth, cynicism and intellectual infantilism. Abbott has ignored his Rhodes scholarship, instead embracing what he learnt from clinches in Oxford’s boxing rings. His party so far has been a torpedo set for the good ship Labor—singular and thoughtless in its path.
Journalists are still breathlessly chasing slush funds, but haven’t turned the blowtorch on the government for denying asylum seekers work permits, contradicting the recommendations of the Houston report. Instead it’s Ralph Blewitt—a gibbering moral pimp—who’s in the limelight.
Want more dissonance? Cost of living concerns remain clamorous, despite rising incomes happily eclipsing the rise of prices, core inflation remaining low, and Australia having the highest median wealth in the world. Public debt? Internationally negligible.
Despite this, everywhere is the language of Revelations: death, damnation and carbon pricing. Our rhetoric is doom-heavy. We are a country of embittered Chicken Littles, creating our malaise by stubbornly believing in an illusory one. Amid this, the AWU saga has become, in the words of journalist Jacqueline Maley, a Rorschach test: a reflection of entrenched political hatreds or loyalties, depending on perspective.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world remains envious.
Perhaps we could learn something from the Ryle family. They live in a modest house on the Perth coast, the same house they bought when they emigrated from northern England nine years ago. It has ocean views and is occupied by mum, dad, two sons and two dogs. There’s a pool and a coffee machine and it’s the same house they lived in when, 8½ years earlier—and just 70 metres across the road—their teenage daughter was murdered.
I’ve been fortunate enough to spend time with this remarkable family. Amid the wreckage and ineffable sorrow, the Ryles understand the cost of anger—they can map the cul de sacs of bitterness.
Consequently, they have a hard-won knowledge of the importance of optimism.
By all rights, the Ryles should be cold and reticent—but they are warm, open and generous. By all rights they might have narrowly defined themselves as victims—instead they speak eloquently about life-affirming pursuits, and pursue them. After being brutalised, they could be brutal—instead they speak with a stirring thoughtfulness about each other, all the loss and horror compressed into a sublime tenderness for their remaining children.
Why do they still live in the same house? Because they like it there. Because they love the community, the city and the country in which tragedy struck just six months after moving here. There’s the ocean, superior schools and opportunity. That was never lost on them. What’s your excuse?
It can take courage and vigilance to be optimistic—just ask the Ryles. But for most of us the demands aren’t so great. Sometimes it just requires you to look around at what we’ve got.