It was with great lack of joy that I came back from five weeks in Europe to find out that the public debate in Australia remains exactly in the same place it was when I left – almost completely obsessed with the plebiscite on Same Sex Marriage. It was not exactly a startling realisation; throughout my trip I tried to keep in touch with what was happening (or not happening) in Australia through News.com.au (God help me and forgive me) and my Facebook newsfeed, so I knew it has been same old same old same sex same sex all along, but it really hit me once I got over the jet lag.
I understand how this issue is of great importance to some people. I have many gay friends who have been championing SSM for a long time and are very passionate about it. I love you all, you know that, but objectively SSM is a niche issue of direct impact on somewhere between 0.25 and 0.5 per cent of the population who would if they could. Of course more people than that are fighting for it, imagining themselves the Martin Luther King Jrs or the Germaine Greers of the 2010s, or against it, in defence of the traditional, religious-based definition of marriage. With the greatest respect to both groups, whether the Australians wake up in 2018 with or without SSM it won’t make any noticeable (i.e. more than microscopic) difference either way to how healthy, wealthy, wise, free and future-proofed Australia is.
This, in fact, is my main gripe with the seemingly never-ending debate on “marriage equality” – the debate, which by the time it is finished in a few months’ time (if it is indeed finished), would have taken about a year’s worth of oxygen from the public debate. I wish that as a nation we could walk and chew gum at the same time, but for some reason (blame the elite, blame the media, blame the people, blame the climate change) we seem unable to concentrate on more than one major debate. And while we endlessly to and fro about the pros and cons of SSM and who was nasty to whom during the plebiscite campaign, we are not talking about a number of issues that in my humble opinion are far more important for the present and the future of Australia.
Here are, arbitrarily, ten of such issues. You might agree or disagree, of course. I’m happy to hear from you in the comments about some others that you consider as or more important. While my selection is subjective, I’m unashamedly making a claim to the objectively greater importance of each one of them than the question of the definition of marriage (though not in any particular order):
1.Declining competitiveness – The World Economic Forum has just released its annual competitiveness rankings, where Australia once again fails to crack the Top 20: “Australia (21st) moves up one place in the rankings with a stable score. When considering Australia’s performance by pillar, its results are rather less static. The country posts a noticeable drop in the infrastructure pillar, more specifically its communications’ infrastructure, while several other pillars increase only marginally. Australia’s overall performance is not remarkable: in most pillars it does not rank among the top 25 countries.” It’s only the higher education and financial markets that are keeping us up.
2.Government debt – Debt-free only ten years ago, our governments have now saddled us with a half a trillion dollars’ worth of borrowing we probably will never be able to pay back but will have to service forever, all because it’s easier to screw the future generations than to cut spending or raise taxes to keep the books balanced. I say “our governments”, because both sides are equally guilty; it took Labor 6 years to get its quarter of a trillion, but it took the Liberals and the Nationals only 4 to get their quarter.
3.Falling educational performance – According to the data compiled by the Program for International Student Assessment, “The maths, reading and science skills of average Australian students are barely on par with Singapore’s most disadvantaged teenagers… Last year, the results of the 2015 PISA round were released and revealed Australian students had slipped 12 months behind where they were in maths in 2003, seven months behind in science compared with 2006, and about 10 months behind in reading since 2000, when PISA began.” Strangely, despite Kevin Rudd’s “computers in schools” and “school halls” (building the education revolution, eh? how’s that cool 20 billion worked out for our kids?), and both sides of politics trying to out-Gonski each other, as if there is a correlation between spending and outcomes. But our kids presumably know a lot about transgender sexuality and Indigenous history, so that’s something.
4.Threats to freedom of speech – Wherever you turn, one of the most basic and most important (if not the most) of all democratic, liberal and human rights is being nibbled on, poked and encroached on for the sake of “the feels”, as more and more people find being exposed to ideas they don’t like to be a deeply traumatic experience. As someone who grew up under communism, I find the present drive to shut people up both surreal and distressing.
5.”Generation Snowflake” – Connected to the above point (or two points), we are now raising a generation, or generations (Y and Millennial), which is singularly ill equipped to handle the world as it is, as opposed to how they would like it to be. A combination of indulgent parenting, substandard education, and good economic times has created a cohort with unrealistic expectations, under-developed life-skills, and poor coping mechanisms. But the real life has no safe spaces and no one thinks you’re special and deserve a medal for turning up.
6.Idiotic infrastructure spending – In an era where every government spending of the taxpayers’ monies has been redefined as “investment”, I’m all for governments helping to create infrastructure which will help the economy grow – the real investment that brings direct and indirect returns to all of us. Instead, we have idiotic spending on things that sounded cool as politicians’ brain farts but make little sense in the harsh light of day. Like the National Broadband Network, “a gigantic piece of infrastructure that will be obsolete before it’s even finished. And all at a cool price tag of $50 billion or more.” Or Snowy 2.0. Or bullet trains.
7.Immigration and population levels – Our population is approaching 25 million, growing mainly thanks to an intake of over 200,000 migrants and refugees per year. Is it too little or too much? Who should we be taking in? What is Australia’s capacity to absorb, economically and culturally?
8.Energy prices – We are one of the most resource- and energy-rich countries in the world, yet “Australian households are paying 60 per cent more for their power than those in the US and double their Canadian counterparts after enjoying the third-lowest electricity prices of any OECD nation a decade ago.” The fluctuations of international prices are a distraction and an excuse to make us overlook the stupid domestic policy settings, including the drive towards the “renewables”, before the renewables are actually economically viable and/or sufficiently available and reliable.
9.Housing affordability – “Sydney is Australia’s most unaffordable housing market and the second most expensive city in the world, second only to Hong Kong, according to research firm Demographia. For the 13th time, each of Australia’s five major housing markets have won the dubious honour of being rated “severely unaffordable” in Demographia’s annual index. Melbourne came in at six in the study, while Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth were all ranked in the top 20 most expensive cities in the world.” The Australian Dream of home ownership is slipping out of our hands. But our governments prefer to focus on bullshit pseudo solutions like tinkering with the Negative Gearing, rather than addressing the real drivers of unaffordability: restricted land supply, massive taxes and fees, and high labour costs.
10.Advance Australia Where? – This is perhaps the catch-all debate about the big picture/s: What do we want to be as a country? Where do we want to be internationally? What are our values, and how that translates into specific policies? How do we cope with the ageing population? Should we be getting closer to Asia or to the Anglosphere? Should we be multicultural or just multiethnic? The list goes on.
I don’t know whether over the next few months #LoveWins, but I know that more we obsess about SSM to the exclusion of many others, more important issues, #AustraliaLoses.