LAUNCH OF HUGH MACKAY, ‘AUSTRALIA REIMAGINED’
AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY, CANBERRA
TUESDAY, 1 MAY 2018
In 2004, with three co-authors, I wrote a book called Imagining Australia. It took four of us two years. By contrast, it took Hugh just a single year to write Australia Reimagined. That makes him at least eight times more productive than me. Between his non-fiction books and his novels, Hugh Mackay has now produced a total of 19 books.
However, Hugh Mackay warns on page 100 that our culture has become one of ‘endless praise’. So naturally, I should start with my criticisms!
Hugh writes about the challenge of smart phone addiction. I’ve glanced around the room this evening and I’ve seen a few of you on your smart phones. I’m worried that this evening has only worsened the smart phone addiction. He’s written about ‘nature deficit disorder’ and, indeed, not a blade of grass in the room. I fear nature deficit disorder has only gotten worse this evening. He’s written about the importance of politicians stepping down after either one term or two because people would have clearly made their substantial contribution within their first two terms. Yet here you are, being forced to listen to a politician in his third term! I apologise profusely for this. Hugh has said that he wants us to become a less anxious society. I don’t know about you, but I certainly felt at certain points this evening, I was feeling a little more anxious about Australia.
Now, back to ‘endless praise’. Australia Reimagined captures the zeitgeist, the spirit of Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital’ and Michael Sandel’s ‘What Money Can’t Buy’. I was recently in the US at a conference to mark the formal retirement of one of my former professors, Robert Putnam. He is now gathering together a number of strands of the work he’s been doing around the rise of inequality and the decline in community life. Putnam has tracked an interesting statistic, which using Google Books Ngram Viewer to estimate the number of times books mention the word ‘I’ and the number of times they mention the word ‘we’. Looking at all the books published in the 20th century, he’s able to come up with a ‘we’ to ‘I’ index. He shows that not only are we seeing a decline in equality and a decline in community life, we’re also seeing a decline in the numbers of times the word ‘we’ is mentioned compared to the number of times the word ‘I’ is mentioned. A similar theme runs through Australia Reimagined. It’s also got a subtle and thoughtful discussion of the challenging issue of diversity, making some important historical comparisons -- as only somebody who has been a substantial contributor to Australian public life for decades can do.
Australia Reimagined takes a balanced approach to nostalgia, noting that even in the 1950s people were looking back to the 1920s with a sense that life really was better back in the 1920s. It’s got some beautifully spicy writing – the QPL syndrome, the ‘Quest for the Perfect Latte’. If you read nothing else in the book, turn to page 108 and read an extraordinarily poignant story that wraps up chapter three about tuning a guitar. I won’t tell you anything more – just read it.
There’s also practical solutions. Hugh talks about the rise of park picnics in Artarmon, about Women across Generations, about Neighbour Day, about mini libraries, about plant exchange. I’m going from here straight up to Sydney, where I’ll host the 11th Reconnected forum that I’ve done as Shadow Minister for Charities and Not-for-Profits. We’re bringing together nearly 100 Parramatta charities to talk about things they can do to build civic life and I’ll be taking a number of Hugh’s ideas from here to share with them.
Hugh is a national treasure, so it’s only fitting that he and his wife Shiela recently moved to the nation’s capital. Hugh is somebody who not only encapsulates so much of what is great about Australian social research, but does so with a great generosity of spirit. Reading the book, I was reminded of that wonderful Neale Donald Walsch quote, ‘the struggle ends when gratitude begins’. Australia Reimagined entertains, it informs and it provokes. We’re fortunate to have Hugh Mackay in our city and lucky to have been able to share in his wisdom tonight.
Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra