By David Williamson
If Australia were a ship, where would it be headed? The easy-going assumption of aspirational Australia that the destination is unending prosperity (and more cut-price deals) will not save us from the rocks of an uncertain future. David Williamson reports.
Recently my wife Kristin and I attended a charity auction to raise money for a worthy cause. I put in a low bid for a south sea cruise to Noumea thinking that it would help escalate the bid, but to our surprise we were successful. The cruise had to be taken within weeks and in the interim we convinced ourselves it was going to be great fun – a well-needed rest. When we arrived at the huge white colossus and lined up for cabin allocation our fellow passengers gave us some misgivings. School holidays meant there were oodles of children, and the adults didn’t seem to be discussing Proust or George Eliot. But we were given a much better cabin than originally promised and all seemed set for a great holiday.
It soon became apparent, however, that all wasn’t to be plain sailing. The ship was stacked to the gunwales with John Howard’s beloved “aspirational Australians”. The dinner conversation made this plain. They aspired to all manner of things: to holidays like this, to new cars, to kitchen refits, to renovations, to private education for their children, and to practically anything made of plastic, wood or steel. The one surefire topic of conversation that connected erstwhile strangers was price comparisons.
It seems that the worst thing that can happen to an aspirational Australian is to hear that another aspirational Australian got a better price deal on their plasma TV. Value for money was the touchstone of everything, including standards of service. Any slight delay or perceived lack of utter servility by our hard-working Filipino and Indonesian cleaners or waiters was angrily pounced on and condemned. Any shore expedition that didn’t totally live up to expectations was subjected to withering criticism. Forget the fact that the rugged mountains and meandering streams of one of our ports of call were awesome; the coffee ashore was “ratshit” and the sandwiches “like cardboard”. Aspirational Australia really loves a whinge. It’s the glue of aspirational solidarity.
Not that our fellow passengers didn’t have their good points. Warmth and affection within families was genuine, and civility to other passengers was the norm. These were by and large affable people. And why wouldn’t they be? Not for them the grinding poverty of most of the world, or the devastation of tsunamis or hurricanes. The worst that seemed to have happened in most of their lives was the occasional rip-off involved in a shoddy car service.
It struck me that this cruise ship was a kind of metaphor for Australia. Cruise Ship Australia, all alone in the south seas sailing to God knows where. And in fact, like Australia, many of the passengers didn’t care where we were headed. The cruise itself was the thing. The sunbaking, the chatter, the eating, the very solid drinking, and the all-important on-board entertainment. And what entertainment: we had shuffleboard, Uno tournaments, jackpot bingo, trivia quizzes, funky jazz dance classes, quilting, scavenger hunts, and if none of these appealed you could retreat to the “legends” bar and watch replays of old rugby matches in which presumably Australia had triumphed. (They must have been old.)
At night there were island deck parties with giant conga lines shouting “Ol