Ties that bind
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 8: People like Us
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Margaret Simons
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Margaret Simons' biography and other articles by this writer
What did we think we were doing, the day we went to Narre Warren? Research, I could say, seeing that I had this piece to write. Or perhaps it was tourism, or anthropology. I am not sure where the boundaries lie between those activities, those excuses for curiosity. They are all predicated
on a divide, with assumptions about who is studied and who studies; who is the subject and
who the audience.
We had been in the Dandenongs for a special weekend – a break from our inner-suburban lives. It was two days of plunger coffee and lying in and newspaper reading and well-cooked food. We enjoyed all the little touches retreats aimed at people like us provide – fluffy bath towels tied with ribbons. Ironed sheets. A hot tub in the garden with a view over paddocks and trees.
We were relaxed, but not at ease, it seems, because on our way back into the city we decided not to drive through the outer suburbs, but to stop and look. Food, shelter, even luxury are not enough. We want more. We want to belong. We want to know what we mean by words like "us" and "we". Our society, our country, the people we live among.
He drove and I had the newspapers spread out on the passenger's side, reading bits to him. We are people who use language all the time – who cannot imagine thinking or relating without it. Our togetherness is expressed with word games, with comments on the news born of a shared way of looking at things. Our words are a kind of stroking, confirming our belonging together.
We reached Narre Warren, on the south-eastern outskirts of Melbourne. We were in the federal electorate of Holt, which was once a safe Labor seat, home to the workers in the giant factories of GMH, International Harvester and Heinz. But in the federal election last year, Holt swung 6.4 per cent to the Liberal Party. It is now a marginal seat. There wasn't much sign of giant factories as we drove in. What were recently paddocks are now housing estates filled with little blocks and big houses. We passed a street, caught sight of the name, and laughed. Ernest Wanke Road. We speculated about whether Mr Wanke had really wanted a road named after him and whether the residents were grateful.
We drove into the quiet streets of the new suburbs. What was the difference between the people who chose to live here and ourselves? The housing estate was new and light, pastel-coloured against the remaining paddocks. There was a grab bag of borrowed architectural styles – Federation, even Tudor – brushed up and made neat. The gardens were so well kept it was clear that their maintenance, and that of the homes they surrounded, must be one of the main preoccupations of the residents. Glancing through the occasional ruffled curtain, we could see plump upholstery, thick carpet and fresh flowers. It seemed to me that in these homes the little luxuries we had just experienced – the towels, even the hot tub – would not be weekend exceptions. They would be the norm. They were a priority. I thought of our own unmown front lawn. We move the guinea-pig hutch from day to day so the rodents can eat their fill, and joke that this is an environmentally sound way of keeping the grass down, although it gives the garden a piebald appearance. How scruffy we have become.
"We don't care for ourselves in this way," I said, and wondered why not. We even take a perverse pride in our lack of concern for neatness.
We drove on, and stopped in the car park of the Fountain Gate shopping centre – the mall that is the setting for much of the action in the ABC television comedy Kath and Kim. It is huge – not only in its footprint, which must, if you count add-ons and neighbouring strips of home improvement, gardening and furniture stores, equal that of the Melbourne CBD. The facades of the hardware and furniture barns are several stories high, even if the shops themselves have only a ground floor. The scale is heroic. We and the other shoppers looked like the wrong, too-small dolls abandoned in a stucco LEGO set.
We went into the newsagent and asked for the titles of their biggest-selling magazines. Girlfriend and Dolly, I was told. The tabloid Herald-Sun was the only newspaper people bought in numbers, except on Saturday, when The Age carried jobs and car and real estate advertisements. We went to the bookshop and asked for the name of their bestseller. It was Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code – a tale of codes and secrets and hidden meanings and ancient religion. Nothing else came close to outselling it, we were told. Not even self-help books.
We seemed to be among the oldest people in the mall and one of very few couples without children tagging along. We were surrounded by bleached hair, artfully ruffled and stressed jeans and tracksuits. We stood out, partly because of our age, partly because of our dress. Both of us were wearing hemp. My partner also wore a silk shirt. But there was also, I thought, something indefinable that marked us apart. The looks on our faces, the way we carried ourselves and, of course, the way we were peering about. The couples sitting in the coffee shop spoke quickly, in brief sentences. The accents were broader than those in inner-city coffee shops. I searched for a word to describe the faces around us. Was it "closed"?
But by now I was feeling ridiculous. I was searching for things I would never seek to find in any other shopping centre, at any other time. I was making silly generalisations. I was trying too hard. I said: "I think it's clear that I should live in Ernest Wanke Road." And we left.
Just 45 minutes later we were in Lygon Street, Carlton, where two bookshops face each other across a road almost entirely devoted to conspicuous refinement and good taste. One of the bookshops is Borders, part of an international chain. I asked the staff what their bestseller was. The Da Vinci Code, I was told. "Nothing else comes close."
But over the road in Readings, the independent bookstore that is regarded as a centre of Melbourne's literary life, where book launches are held, and which has conducted a long campaign against Borders on the grounds of protecting the independent Australian against the multinational, the answer was different. Here the top-10 bestseller list was posted prominently in the store – like a flag or a status symbol. The Da Vinci Code did not appear on it. The top novel was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and in non-fiction, the bestseller was the latest in the Australian Quarterly Essay series – a piece by Raimond Gaita about trust and lies in politics.
What were the differences between here and Fountain Gate? The scale of Lygon Street is small. People like Readings because it is small – because it is not Borders – and precisely because it caters to minority taste. Watching the people in the cafes, it was immediately clear where the term "chattering classes" had come from. People were gathered here for the purposes of conversation. The dress was more various. There were stressed jeans and bleached hair here as well, but also elegant grey bobs and understated handmade jewellery and big mohawks and lots of black clothing.
We were in Carlton to see a movie. In the women's toilets at the cinema was a sticker on the cubicle door showing a caricature of John Howard and the motto "Say no to John Howard's lies". Post-election, people had made handwritten additions. "I can't believe anyone voted for this man," said one. And "If you voted Liberal you are stupid. You are selfish. You are heartless." And "I don't know anyone who voted Liberal. The election must have been rigged."
But Fountain Gate was less than an hour away. How odd it is, I thought, that sophisticated Carlton feels so parochial. So simple-minded.
IN THE LEAD-UP TO THE LAST ELECTION, I WROTE FOR the Australian Quarterly Essay series (the one that sells so well in Readings). My topic was the then opposition leader, Mark Latham. I was examining his ideas as articulated in the five books he wrote before he became leader.
Latham had written that the main divide in Australian society these days was not of wealth, but rather of access to information and public influence. He wrote: "I would argue that the political spectrum is best understood as a struggle between insiders and outsiders – the abstract values of the powerful centre, versus the pragmatic beliefs of those who feel disenfranchised by social change. This is a different framework to class-based politics. Rather than drawing their identity from the economic system, people see their place in society as a reflection of their access to information and public influence. The insiders-outsiders divide has become a reliable guide to electoral behaviour."
The divide, he said, explained the rise of Pauline Hanson. It explained why Australians voted down a republic with a politician-appointed president, even though most wanted an Australian head of state. It explained the failure of Paul Keating and the success of John Howard.
Latham also talked about the geography of the divide. Privilege and poverty could increasingly be predicted by postcode, he said. The main differences between Australians were not state-based, but rather between regions. Carlton in Melbourne had more in common with Sydney's Balmain than it did with outer Melbourne suburbs.
At times in his written work, Latham has used even more confronting terms to describe his insider-outsider divide. He speaks of "tourists" and "residents". He says the insiders – people like me – live like tourists in our own country. There is a sense in which we don't live in Australia at all. "They travel extensively, eat out and buy in domestic help. They see the challenges of globalisation as an opportunity, a chance to further develop their identity and information skills. This abstract lifestyle has produced an abstract style of politics. Symbolic and ideological campaigns are given top priority. This involves a particular methodology: adopting a predetermined position on issues and then looking for evidence to support that position."
The outsiders, on the other hand – the people who lived in the outer suburbs and the regions – were the "residents of Australia". Their values were pragmatic. They could not distance themselves from the problems of the neighbourhood, and so good behaviour and good services were all-important. There was no symbolism and no dogma in the suburbs, Latham said. It was a place of little pictures, not big ones.
When I wrote about Latham, I described his insider-outsider model as penetrating analysis, although I found the labels "residents" and tourists" deeply challenging and even offensive. I am, of course, on Latham's model, an insider – a tourist. There is no denying it, although I am tempted, like many others faced with this analysis, to protest, to talk about my outsider friends and connections.
I am an Australian, and I want to belong.
I expected Latham to play well in outsider-land. I didn't think he would win the election, since I sensed no mood for change. But I thought he would be good for the Labor Party, that he might lead a revival in its heartland, in places like Holt. I was wrong.
ALTHOUGH I HAVE NOW MOVED BACK TO THE INNER SUBURBS, I have spent most of the last 10 years living in a working-class rural community. True, it was the kind of place that insiders went when they wanted a sea change or a weekend retreat, but my children went to the local school and I was involved in the parents' association and other community groups. The locals were curious, but not hostile, about the fact that I wrote books and journalism. The venom of talkback radio, talking up the divide between the chattering classes and the rest of Australia, did not translate into reality. My education, my wordy achievements, bought me no special status, but nor did they count against me. I was judged on my contribution to the community. And yet ... there were limits.
During the Tampa crisis, I was vehemently expressing my opinion to my friend, whom I will call Ellie. She was someone I had worked alongside at dozens of fund-raising fetes and functions. She had cared for my children. I had trusted her with my secrets. Now she was avoiding my eyes.
"Well, I'm not really very interested in politics," she said. "I don't know much about it." It was clear to both of us that this was evasion, but it was effective. So we didn't talk about the Tampa, or about politics. Even if we had, I am sure neither of us would ever have changed the other's views. There was a gap and a barrier, and we both felt it. Our intimacy was limited to the things within our grasp, to our shared experience. It did not extend to the things that could be talked about, but which we had not lived. We could not use words and opinions to confirm our solidarity.
So I saved my political discussions for my trips to the city. One afternoon, I lived a cliché. Over latte in the central city, I discussed the state of the nation with a friend who had taken on the heavy task of being a regular volunteer visitor at the Villawood detention centre. I was telling her how furious Latham's circle was with the attitude of the left-wing intellectuals – particularly the idea that those who were concerned with asylum seekers were morally superior to those who were not. She was genuinely puzzled. "But we are," she said. "We are morally superior."
I thought of Ellie with a pang and felt shocked by my city friend's assumption. But I wasn't sure that I didn't agree with her.
Both before and after the election, people – my inner-suburban friends – took me on over what I had written about Latham. They reminded me of their own outsider connections to friends and families living well beyond the inner suburbs. The divide, they said, was non-existent, or not as extreme and as simple as Latham suggested. Things were more complicated, more nuanced. And who were the outsiders, after all? The chattering classes were in the minority. We were derided by every radio shock jock and by every right-wing newspaper columnist. The issues dear to us had barely featured in the election campaign. Was it not we who were alienated, disaffected and powerless?
And yet it seemed to me that my friends and I were in a kind of stew, full of pain, argument and self-righteousness.
THE BOOK OF ESSAYS US AND THEM– ANTI-ELITISM IN AUSTRALIA (API Network, 2004) seemed to me a collective bridle at the ways in which "the elite" had been derided during the Howard years. The introduction announced: "A significant new public discourse has emerged in Australian public life, one that focuses on the negative role of elites and the gap between elite values, interests and policy preferences and those of ordinary Australians."
The authors pointed out that the journalists, radio shock jocks and politicians who did most of the deriding were themselves "elite", and that the derision served as a cover that allowed the other elites – business, capital and the captains of finance – to keep on running the place.
It seemed to me that although this was a fair point, it mistook the issue. The very thing that was striking about this "new public discourse" was that not all elites were being derided, only some. It was not wealth or ownership or capital that was being objected to, but cultural power. The hostility was directed at those of us whose power comes from the use of language. There was little expression of resentment towards the rich and powerful, indeed they were celebrated.
One of the most striking contributions in the book was a study by Sean Scalmer and Murray Goot of mentions of "elites" in News Limited newspapers. The "elites" derided by these newspapers were "cultural" and "the establishment media". They were the "tertiary educated" "city based" and "inner suburban". And what was wrong with them? They were "arrogant", "politically correct", "faddish", "hypocritical", "self-serving", "powerful" and "un-Australian". They "criticised", "divided", "ruled", "exploited", "stifled" and "misled".
We are dangerous poseurs, it seems. Ernest Wankes.
Scalmer and Goot wrote that in this new "elite discourse" Australia was being depicted in a way that was binary – elites versus non-elites. This was a departure from the dominant language of Australian conservatism. Menzies' "forgotten-people" speech had imagined a tripartite structure, of workers, the rich and the civilising middle classes.
Scalmer and Goot also noted that the elites were cast, not merely as adversaries, but as enemies. "Enemies are characterised by inherent traits that make them a threat. They are evil. They possess no legitimacy. Unlike adversaries, they cannot be tolerated, only destroyed." Yet, although the non-elites were cast as "the people" or the "true Australians", their interests were not articulated. There was no call for change.
"If there are any references to the possibility of success against elites, they are constructed entirely around non-collective action: praise for a political leader who ignores the elites here; the prospect that something to counter the elites might be done there. But, for the most part, the "elites" are portrayed as so powerful, so flexible and so malicious that the chances of any successful action against them would be very low. Elite discourse is saturated in difference and inequality. However, it is not a language of change, possibility or ... hope."
But all this was based on the rantings of newspaper columnists, which, my own experience suggested, did not translate into real, on-the-ground hostility on the scale suggested.
I think the reason I went to Narre Warren was because I wanted to find out whether any of this was real. Were there really insiders and outsiders, or was the whole thing a wicked fiction? Was I a tourist? And if so, how might I come home?