A few years ago we became friends with a
Korean family who were living temporarily in Melbourne while the husband, a
professor at Seoul University, engaged in research. When their stay ended
the wife returned home a few weeks ahead of her husband, in order to arrange
new accommodation for the family.
In Melbourne, they had been living in a
large house which, like many rental properties, had not been maintained in
tip-top condition. Yet in his final week in the house Professor Kang spent
virtually his entire time cleaning it. He must have spent $50 or more on
buckets, bowls, brushes, towels and cleaning solutions. He explained to us
several times: “I do not want Australians to get a poor image of Koreans.”
(My wife told me Mrs Kang would have been furious if she had known what he
was doing; usually her husband never lifted a finger around the house.)
The large, solid wooden desk I am using
as I write this book was his. He bought it when he came to Australia, then
gave it to me when he left, refusing any payment. Indeed, so embarrassed was
he at giving me a second-hand desk with some scratches on it that he
varnished it before handing it over.
Such a sense of honour would be rare in
Australia, and my wife assures me it is far from universal in Korea, though
it is still a force there. And, of course, there is a fine line between
honour for one’s country and excess pride - or even blinkered nationalism.
By contrast, a friend spent some years
living in the beautiful British provincial city of Leeds. He recalls that a
highlight was the arrival every couple of years of the Australian cricket
team to play some big matches there.
Unfortunately for him, these games also
attracted swarms of roving young Australian fans who followed their team
around England and who seemed intent on living up to the image that many
British people have of Australians, that we are an uncultured, philistine
mob of drunken yobs for whom a can of
Foster’s is an extension of our right arms. In other words, national
honour was not at the forefront of their consciousness.
Different cultures have traditionally
cherished different virtues and values. Even in Western society we have held
different virtues more highly at different times. Thus, chivalry and
chastity are not now particularly valued
But is there a peculiarly Australian
virtue, or character trait, that is different from those found in other
It is often said that Australians possess
a spirit of mateship that transcends family or upbringing, a mateship quite
different from anything that exists elsewhere. I quoted Donald Horne’s
The Education of Young Donald at length in Chapter 11. Here he is again:
When I became a
soldier and went to a war I would find out about mateship. From the
Australian short stories we read at school we realised vaguely that mateship
was also something practised in the old pioneering days in the bush, but we
were not specifically taught anything about it at school: as a term used in
civilian life “mate” was simply a slang word and you would lose marks in an
English composition if you used it. According to the official syllabus the
virtues that were to be inculcated into us were not mateship but courage,
prudence, perseverance, self-control, self-respect, cleanliness,
orderliness, obedience, kindness, gentleness, fair-mindedness, and
truthfulness. One of the ways in which this purpose was to be achieved was
through instructing us during history lessons in the fables of “noble
persons”, such as Leonidas, Cincinnatus, Haroun-al-Raschid, Richard the Lion
Heart, St Francis, Joan of Arc, Sir Thomas More, Sir Philip Sidney, Captain
John Smith, and Helen Keller. We learned about these people and passed
examinations in their nobility, but they were all toffs and the only one of
them who cared about his mates was that proto-Anzac, the wounded Sir Philip
Sidney, who gave his water to another wounded soldier and died.
But is mateship a real Australian virtue?
Friendship is important and valued anywhere. In his book on ethics Aristotle
devoted two entire chapters to friendship.
Yes, I think there is something special
about Australian mateship. Emerging from the rugged outback life, it was
certainly a transcendent virtue. As Henry Lawson’s poem
Shearers - quoted at the head of this chapter - suggests, it allowed
even enemies or rivals to come together in what today might be termed a kind
of male bonding. It continued into wartime - enabling toffs and working
class, city and country, to join together as diggers. It is even talked
about today among sportsmen.
But with Australia essentially now an
urban and multicultural nation, with war no longer part of the equation, and
with women wanting to be bonded as well, the spirit of mateship is
weakening, even on the sporting field.
One of Australia’s most famous dramas is
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Some have viewed it as a celebration
of the traditional Australian virtue of mateship. But in fact there is an
underlying tension evident in the “matey” relationship between the two main
characters, Roo and Barney.
Some astute critics have in fact seen the
play as heralding a breakdown in mateship. Professor P.H. Davison noted in
Contemporary Australian Drama, that Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
showed a society coming to terms with the notion that success in the modern
world will increasingly depend on one’s worth, rather than on one’s mates.
“This may not be desirable, but it is so. The implication is that in this
new society the old loyalties must give way to new relationships based upon
Unfortunately, as mateship becomes less
matey we are not replacing it with what is really needed: a sense of
community. Indeed, our spirit of community, too, sometimes seems to be
The result is that we find exposed a
nation of people who may take pride in what they believe to be their
self-reliance, courage and ambition: that is, what academic
in her excellent book Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People calls the
virtues of independence. But too often this independence masks a spirit of
emptiness, of loneliness and even of despair.
Too frequently our cities have become
solitary places. There is not enough of the joy of life that we sometimes
see in cities in Asia or Europe. There seems to be a lack of shared values,
a sense that we are moving in different directions.
Part of the problem is that in our
pluralistic society we have been told so often that everything is relative
and that there is no fixed morality; we have lost confidence in being able
to know what is right and wrong. Who among us nowadays is prepared to
discipline a child whom we do not know, but whom we see behaving badly in
the street? Some adults are even nervous about helping a child in trouble.
When I go back to Korea to stay with my
wife’s family the streets around their small flat are constantly alive with
children of all ages. Adults are there too - groups of housewives sitting
and talking, old people enjoying the sun, teenagers chatting, a few young
men in a huddle around their cars - and they are all ready to intervene if a
child is in any sort of trouble, or starts to misbehave. My wife jokes that
her elder sister cannot walk by a child with a runny nose - any child at all
- without pulling out a hankie and wiping clean the kid’s face.
There is a palpable sense of community
and of intimacy that does not exist to nearly the same degree in our own
cities, where many will not venture past their letterbox unless cocooned in
Part of the problem is that we have
politicians who talk about family values yet who seem to implement policies
that work against the family and, therefore, against the community. For
example, the state of Victoria, where I live, recently changed the law so
that shops can stay open very long hours.
Now I am no fan of shopping - unless it
is at a bookshop or CD store - but I do recognise that there is a certain
thrill, a kind of a buzz, about shopping late at night. In Korea the shops
stay open until very late, and it is exhilarating to walk down brightly lit,
bustling local streets at 10 o’clock on a freezing winter’s night, bundled
up in coats, scarves and mittens, queuing at the little street stalls to buy
grilled octopus and to drink hot liquor, and stopping often to chat with
friends and relatives.
But in Korea most of the shops are small,
family-owned operations, like milk bars in Australia. The family lives
behind the shop, or upstairs.
The effect of allowing late-night (and,
in some cases, all-night) shopping in Victoria has been to put more power
into the hands of the giant, impersonal shopping-mall conglomerates, forcing
the low-wage employees of the supermarkets and department stores there to
work longer hours (which in many cases is, of course, very welcome to them).
The numerous small, family-owned stores must also stay open longer,
requiring husbands or wives to stay late, while someone has to be at home to
look after the kids.
In October 1997, management at Victoria’s
largest shopping complex, in
Chadstone, informed tenants that they would be expected to open for 32½
hours straight, from 9am, on 23 December. An article in The Age
quoted the manager of one store as saying that she had worked in retail for
eight years and had seen her leisure and family time melt away. An employee
at a small retailer was quoted as saying the “horrendous” hours decimated
family life, and she asked: “Where do the children go when Mum or Dad has to
work all the time?”
Schools used to offer a sense of
community. Virtually everyone went to the local school. But now parents shop
around, and schools have to become aggressive in attracting new pupils.
We sent our three boys to the local state
primary school, which has spent heavily on computer equipment. It has a
computer lab with a trained supervisor, and computers in each classroom,
right from the prep level. Few other primary schools in our area have
anything as elaborate. I would rather the school used some of its funds for
an orchestra, and spent more on boosting music and arts training. But it
seems that parents today want computers. (Melbourne leads the world in some
areas of computerisation in schools.) Enrolments are rising.
Recent years have seen especially strong
growth in private education. A friend advised us to send our boys to a
private school. He said they will have to spend so much time commuting, and,
in addition, will have so few school friends in the neighbourhood, that they
will be unlikely to join gangs.
They may also end up having very isolated
Sports clubs can still be an important
centre of local community activity. But again there is change. Who wants to
be loyal to a club when the star players are out-of-town mercenaries with
vociferous agents who throw a temper tantrum in the press every year at
salary-negotiation time? And when the league is controlled not by community
leaders but by an international media boss?
Unemployment is another cancer ravaging
our community. In the words of La Trobe University reader
writing in The Age: “To realise that your society, which asks you to
be a decent, law-abiding citizen, has broken its unwritten contract to give
you a reasonable opportunity of stable, long-term employment, is to feel
There is little doubt that unemployment
helps cause crime, but some surveys imply that this may be as much to do
with the loss of an important socialising experience (work) as with actual
need. Other surveys in Australia are starting to suggest that long-term
unemployment is detrimental to physical health.
There are further, less tangible, ways in
which our sense of community is being eroded. Look at the high salaries
being paid now to some executives. Why is it necessary to pay annual
salaries of millions of dollars to executives? In order to make sure we get
internationally competitive executives, is the reason given.
Is our country so unattractive, our
companies so unpleasant, that we cannot get good people any other way? Why
did AMP need to pay its managing
director a salary package that, according to press reports, could be worth
as much as $20-30 million over three years, depending on the AMP share
price? Wouldn’t he work for half a million dollars a year? Most people
Working as a business journalist in
Melbourne I found that there was a gulf in media newsrooms between finance
journalists and the rest. So, it was little surprise to me that few in the
media seemed to notice the connection between 1998’s big stock market story
- the public listing of AMP - and the year’s major political story - the
surge by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation
Party in the Queensland state election.
For much of the strength of One Nation
came from a rural reaction against the policies of economic rationalism and
globalisation that have led to huge riches for some in the cities while
hurting many country towns. Rural dwellers are now among the poor of
Australia. When AMP was being listed it was a time for the city to
demonstrate restraint, humility and a sense of solidarity with the country,
not to celebrate excess.
In October 1997, the Australian
Financial Review wrote:
Stagnant profits have failed to put a
dampener on CEO salaries. This year more managers than ever earned more than
$1 million. Yet the increases are, unlike those in the US, unrelated to how
they perform. Last year 27 Australian executives in publicly listed
companies were each paid more than $1 million as take-home pay. This year
the million-dollar club boasts nearly 70 members, not including the massive
option deals available to most corporate chiefs. Yet overall profits fell
for the second successive year.
Some of the highest salaries are paid to
bank CEOs. I spent more than seven years in Tokyo in banking, so, unlike
many Australians, I do not hold any particular grudge against banks. (After
we arrived in Australia, in 1993, I spent a year as a business reporter with
the Sunday Herald Sun, before quitting to work freelance. One day,
one of my editors asked me to do a banking story, and, knowing I was new to
Australia, he gave me some jocular advice on the angle to pursue: “In
Australia we have a long tradition of bank bashing,” he said. “And at this
paper we are happy to continue the tradition.”)
But it is hard to have loyalty to a bank
- or to any other business with which you have a continuing relationship -
when you know that the bosses have been headhunted from elsewhere, and have
come for the million-dollar package.
In Tokyo, I was working as a freelance
journalist and, despite that city’s famously high cost of living, was doing
well enough to enjoy a reasonably comfortable life. Then, in 1985, I entered
banking, after being offered a job as a securities analyst in the Tokyo
office of a big British merchant bank. The head of research, keen to recruit
me, explained that the merchant banking business was just like any other,
“except it has a lot more noughts on the end”.
He offered me a job with a lot of noughts
on the end. My income did not go up 20%, or 40%, or even 60%. It went up
five times. That was the kind of money being paid in investment banking in
Tokyo in those days. I also got an annual bonus, a rent-free luxury
apartment, an annual home-leave allowance and other perks. In
Australian-dollar terms, it was a high, six-figure package.
It would be nice to report that I started
giving big amounts to charity and generally taking steps to help the many
who were less fortunate than me. But the opposite occurred.
I understood - like many of the older
(that is, aged over about 25) executives in the bank, but unlike the younger
ones - that I was lucky. The Japanese stock market was booming and foreign
fund managers were eager participants. But they did not trust the Japanese
stockbrokers - whom they regarded as blessed with the same degree of honesty
traditionally accorded second-hand car salesmen - and they wanted to read
research reports written by foreign stockbroking houses. But few foreign
bank staff members in those days knew Japanese.
I could read the Japanese newspapers, and
I could interview a company manager in Japanese and then write a very
readable report in English on the company, and so I, along with several
other journalists, got scouted for lucrative positions, despite having no
background in accounting or finance. We were in the right place at exactly
the right time. “It’s a dirty job, but someone has to make all that money,”
became our motto.
An important goal became survival, which
meant flattering the right bosses and stabbing in the back any colleague who
looked like getting too far ahead. It also meant keeping an eye open for any
other job that might pay more. We were in the business for the money.
Loyalty to the company barely existed.
Worse, knowing that we had been lucky, we
could see that some of our bosses - who often got double or triple or
quadruple our own high earnings - had also been lucky. Some were titled
members of the British aristocracy, retired military officers or both, and
merchant banks seemed to serve as a dumping ground for them. Admittedly,
thanks to their connections they could often bring in lucrative business to
the bank. (And I should stress that, thanks to the high salaries on offer,
the banks also attracted a lot of absolutely outstanding talent.) But the
result was that, as well as sucking up to our bosses, we were enviously
trying to bring them down at the same time.
It was an unhealthy atmosphere, due to so
much money flowing around. Stockbroking may be a special subculture, ruled
by fast money. But a society dominated by the power of money, with no
concept of service to the vulnerable, is not a healthy society. A sense of
community becomes impossible.
In response, many churches are working to
restore a sense of neighbourhood community, moving out among local people
and meeting them at their point of need. A noteworthy example is the
remarkable international Alpha
programme, a course of religious teaching intended for new Christians, which
started at Holy Trinity Brompton Church,
in London, in 1977.
The course was taken over by Anglican
priest Nicky Gumbel, formerly an Oxford-educated barrister, who restructured
it to help non-Christians wishing to discuss issues of life and faith in the
modern world. The church experienced explosive growth, and released the
material to other churches. Today, it is published and used around the
In any case, for some families it is now
the local church that remains the only place where a living community heart
still beats. It is a heart that is ticking more weakly than it used to, with
church attendances down and a growing number of parishioners “shopping
around” for the pulpit they feel best meets their needs.
But, certainly, some
churches exude a vibrant sense of community that is obvious to even the
casual visitor. They perform a church’s basic tasks of preaching the gospel
and strengthening the faith of worshippers; but in addition they run
thriving Sunday Schools and youth groups, and they operate numerous
outreaches into their local area. As our community structures fragment, it
could be the local church - virtually the only institution in our society
that is involved with the entire family during each stage of its life
journey - that becomes the main instrument for healing our wounded culture.
* Next chapter
* Previous chapter
Table of contents
* Send a comment
* If you enjoy this book, please consider a donation