In the next few months, most Australians will be considering their financial affairs and the preparation of their annual tax return. It is usually a time for some questioning around how you did manage to spend all that money in the past year and what changes you can make to become thriftier in the upcoming year.
Most of us get so involved in the day to day activities that govern our lives, we have little inclination or time to think about the long term. It is also a truism that those who forget their history are bound to repeat it. Those who look at the long term can see patterns and trends that escape us mere mortals. Those long term thinkers — usually called Futurists — can give a valuable insight into our future based upon reflection and observation of what has occurred in the past. The results can be fascinating and worth thinking about.
Taking the reflection theme to heart, let’s look at where Australia has come from and where we as a society are heading. So go and prepare a beverage of your choice, click on this link
for one of the better ‘80s Australian pop songs and read on while we discuss ‘where will we be in 50 years’.
Apart from the convenient segue to a song, there is a good practical reason to choose to look 50 years into the future. There seems to be a 50 year (more or less) cycle in Australian economic and immigration history going back to the days when Australia was comprised of six (sometimes friendly) colonies. It is a cycle of boom and bust — boom when we are using the land to produce riches beyond compare and bust when the rest of the world has moved on from our particular riches, and Australia has not adapted. There is a moral overtone here as well: it appears that we as a society welcome new immigrants during the ‘lean’ years, and throw up barriers to their entry when we are booming.
In the 1880s, the city with the highest per capita income in the world was Melbourne. While the streets were not literally paved with gold, they might as well have been. Next time you are in Melbourne have a look at the expansive and quality buildings built towards the end of the 19th century (which fortunately still exist), as well as the good quality housing stock in the inner suburbs originally from the same era. The impressive thing is that the ‘working class’ could afford to live in an expensive place.
The wealth of Melbourne was based on the mining of gold in the (then) colony of Victoria that commenced in the 1850s. Ballarat
were the centres of the gold industry and also have a rich history of 19th century buildings to admire. Gold was the method of exchange in the day and extracting it from the ground increased the wealth of everybody in the colony. In 1852, it was estimated that mining comprised around 35% of the Victorian colony GDP and wages in Victoria rose by 250% between 1850 and 1853
Not that Victoria was alone. Gympie, in Queensland’s south east, boomed after the discovery of gold in the late 1850s and with some justification claims to be the ‘town that saved Queensland
’ during the early years of the new colony — as Queensland was technically bankrupt.
By the mid 1860s, the initial boom was over. Immigrants to the gold fields were not only from the same or other colonies, there was a significant immigration from overseas. While the English, Scottish and Americans that immigrated to the gold fields could blend into the cities and towns to find work, the Asians that immigrated (predominantly Chinese) could not and, once the money stopped flowing, their different appearance, customs and language made it easy for those that were suffering unemployment to single out and victimise
By the early 1890s, the six colonies that were to form the Commonwealth of Australia within a decade were feeling the effects of a long drought that caused a recession and industrial disruption (as well as the formation of the Australian Labour Party at Barcaldine in 1891 during an ongoing shearers’ strike). The South Australian premier
at the time said:
I regard as second only to the necessity of protecting our shores against actual invasion, the necessity of protecting Australia against the influx of aliens, Asiatics, criminals, paupers, and other undesirable classes
By the 1890s, the gold rushes were back, due in some part to the availability of capital (from the UK) that could not be used elsewhere due to an ongoing economic conditions in Europe and the Americas. As a result, Charters Towers in northern Queensland was a town of over 20,000 at the turn of the century and had its own stock exchange
. It was also considered necessary and economically viable to build a water pipeline from near Perth to Kalgoorlie in the last few years of the 1800s
so that the extraction of minerals — again primarily gold — could continue apace. While the Charters Towers Stock Exchange is a shopping arcade today, the water pipeline in WA is still in daily use.
In 1901, the Australian colonies federated and became Australia. In the then population, 98% of Australians were of British heritage (70% born in Australia) and one of the first pieces of legislation through the Australian Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act
— later known as the White Australia Policy
Even though 98% of Australians had some British ancestry, it didn’t stop the Australian government interning those with ‘enemy’ bloodlines during World War 1
. As various trade agreements and imports from Germany and Austria-Hungary were seen as ‘unpatriotic’ and the Australian economy benefitted from product substitution, higher output and the associated profiteering
, Australia encouraged immigration (from the ‘winning side’) post World War 1 and like most of the world was caught up in the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s. People again began to feel threatened by immigration and joined local versions of the New Guard (remember Francis de Groot who ‘unofficially’ opened the Sydney Harbour Bridge) and the Communist Party. While both groups were ideological chalk and cheese, they both wanted ‘strong’ government who would keep Australia for Australians
The economic pattern continues through World War 2, the 1950s and the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the 1960s’ ‘Credit Squeeze’; the largesse of the Whitlam years and subsequent contraction under Fraser and so on to the current day where Australia has not had a recession for over 24 years.
The immigration pattern continued from the propaganda fuelled racism in World War 2, through the ‘new Australians’ that largely supplied the labour for the Snowy Mountains scheme as Australia was rebuilding after the war — until there was a return to restrictions in the 1960s when we were booming after overcoming the ‘credit squeeze’ early in the 1960s. Malcolm Fraser to his eternal credit (with support from politicians in general) assisted a large number of South East Asian asylum seekers to come to Australia in the late 1970s (we had contributed to bombing their country almost to oblivion after all), when we were still suffering the after-effects of the oil crises and stagflation. Over the past 10 years, as our prosperity increased, the rhetoric from politicians to restrict immigration increased again to the ludicrous situation where the government of this country apparently implicated all of us as people smugglers by paying cash to those that profit from the miserable conditions endured by asylum seekers coming to Australia by fishing boat
So we as Australians have a choice. Are we going to perpetuate a pattern of history that is, if nothing else, racist and economically irrational or are we going to break the mould? There does seem to be a correlation between economic activity and immigration. At the time of writing, the official cash rate is 2%; the government is allowing immediate tax write offs of $20,000 to kick some life into the economy; and, while the US seems to be coming out of a prolonged economic downturn, there are some real and structural economic problems in the Eurozone.
Australia seems to have an economic choice. As a nation we can continue to believe that our current export markets will again expand which is highly unlikely —
China is buying less coal than previously and plans to decrease consumption of fossil fuels by at least 20% between now and 2030.
India plans to reduce significantly (or even eliminate) the importation of thermal coal within two to three years.
NASDAQ reports falling demand and prices for iron ore exports
Or Australia could look at the new economy — such as renewable energy or even computer games:
The Queensland Government and US Navy are discussing using biofuel grown and produced in Queensland.
Australian computer games producers are asking for government assistance to expand
Instead our current prime minister is more intent on appointing a wind farm commissioner because they look ugly
In the words of President Obama
But we also inherit the beauty and the joy and goodness of our forebears. And we’re on this planet a pretty short time, so that we cannot remake the world entirely during this little stretch that we have. … But I think our decisions matter. And I think America was very lucky that Abraham Lincoln was President when he was President. If he hadn’t been, the course of history would be very different. But I also think that, despite being the greatest President, in my mind, in our history, it took another hundred and fifty years before African-Americans had anything approaching formal equality, much less real equality. I think that doesn’t diminish Lincoln’s achievements, but it acknowledges that, at the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.
It seems that the first sign of a coming decline in our lifestyle is the imposition of barriers against 'unsuitable' immigrants, be they boat people now or Chinese in the 1860s.
This government (with support from the ALP) has been attempting to remove the legal rights of people to claim refuge in Australia. The previous ALP government wasn't much better.
At the same time, it seems that our major exports, minerals and other primary produce are finding greater difficulty in attracting and retaining overseas markets. The government’s tax concessions to small business as well as official interest rates indicate that Australia's economic conditions are flat at best. There is even an iron ore price war occurring in Western Australia between BHP and Rio Tinto to move product. All of this would suggest that economic times will get worse rather than better in the next few years.
When it comes time for others to judge our paragraph in Australia’s history, wouldn’t it be nice for those in 50 years time to recognise our generation as the one that observed there was a pattern and chose the sustainable alternative of assisting people in fear of their lives, value adding exports of high technology devices and supporting those in our society that need help?
What do you think?
2353 suggests that we actually first act to identify and restrict ‘unsuitable’ migrants while times are still good. Is that greed? Do we just not want to share our success? And does that blind us to changes? Do we not see our future economic opportunities because we are so caught up in our success that we inevitably slide down into the ‘lean’ years again? — and realise we need migrants to help rebuild. A cycle that 2353 hopes we can escape — once we recognise it.
For the next two weeks we will be presenting something a little different — an historical approach rather than opinion. We are taking advantage of the parliamentary winter recess to present a two-part piece by Ken on “How did we get a multi-party Westminster system?” In the first week Ken looks at how parliament developed in England and the historical creation of some written but many unwritten rules about how it operates. In week two, he will look at the Australian Constitution and how that reflects the English system by a mixture of law and the accepted unwritten rules (conventions).