Fate of the nation

The report reads like a distress signal from the real Australia. On every indicator is a country in trauma. Suicide rates are up. Inequality is rising. Women feel less safe here than they do overseas.

The Community Council of Australia’s treatise, “The Australia We Want”, came out of talks with more than 60 charities and non-government organisations. Set against data from other OECD countries, it shows an Australia hidden by talk of prosperity and budget repair.

It shows an Australia where incarcerations are among the highest in the world, where imprisonment rates grow by 6 per cent a year. It shows an Australia where almost 10,000 people are in jail simply waiting for court dates.

“Incarceration rates are like the canary in the coalmine, they tell you how your most vulnerable are being treated,” said the report’s co-author, David Crosbie. “The incarceration rates are entirely a product of policy we implemented and enacted. They are not an accident.”

In Victoria, South Australia and the Northern Territory, suicide rates increased by 20 per cent last year. Almost eight people die this way every day. Crosbie rightly calls this a crisis. “If 300 extra people had been killed by terrorism we would do what it took, whatever it cost, to stop it.”

The report also shows increases in financial inequality, both in rates of pay and the distribution of wealth. It places Australian inequality above the OECD average.

Across the various indicators is a country little recognised in our politics. Rarely on these issues is there a political program. Crosbie links this to instability in our leadership.

“I think our faith in the ability of government to deliver a substantial agenda and make a difference over time has been significantly damaged,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of faith that if the government said it wanted to reduce suicide rates that it would go about it in a way that would actually reduce suicide rates.”

John Hewson, the last Australian political leader to run to an election with a comprehensive policy platform, goes further. “The politics of fear have replaced the politics of courage,” he wrote in an opinion piece this week. “With today’s politics little better than a media game, short-term, populist, opportunistic, and mostly negative, it has become more effective to try to ‘frighten’ the voter about some policy proposed, or neglected, by the other side, than to try to convince them to support a particular new policy initiative.”

And, further on in the same piece: “In the end, the electorate has been forced to select the lesser of two evils and, then, having voted, has been forced to live with the evil of two lessers.”

It is difficult to recognise the Australia of Crosbie’s report. It is difficult because it is not an Australia anyone would want. But it is the Australia where many of us live. As Malcolm Turnbull considers his lowest-ever approval ratings, he might think on that.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2016 as "Fate of the nation".

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