A DECADE AGO the first edition of Griffith REVIEW explored the challenges and contradictions of what we were told was a 'new world order'.
September 2003 was not long after the terrorist attacks in New York and Bali, but before those in Madrid and London; not long after the collapse of Soviet communism, but before the seemingly unstoppable rise of China and its unique form of capitalist communism; not long after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but well before the fruitlessness of those wars became clear; not long after the 'tech wreck', but well before the global financial crisis's catastrophic correction left a trail of devastation in its wake; not long after the tsunami obliterated hundreds of thousands of people and countless Indian Ocean-facing communities, but well before natural disasters became the norm; not long after the SIEV X sank taking 353 refugees to a hideous watery grave, but before another thousand desperate people failed to navigate the treacherous waters between Australia and Indonesia.
The title of that first edition was Insecurity in the New World Order. It described how a time of promise – the bubble of optimism that characterised the beginning of the twenty-first century, when Australians were confident they had created 'a remarkable and unique society, the envy of the world' – had within three years been replaced by 'unprecedented rates of fear and insecurity, nervousness and uncertainty'. It has been an eventful ten years, and those words still ring true. More so than we could have reasonably anticipated.
DESPITE A DECADE of unprecedented growth, a time in which most Australians have become richer than ever, the national mood is sour and angry. To some extent this will be addressed in the September election, but if the evidence of the past is a guide to the future, the outcome of that poll is unlikely to change the fundamental insecurity that besets us.
Australia, unlike most countries, is doing okay, but we have failed to grasp the opportunities of the good times with transformative gusto. The economy continues to tick along, on most indicators most people are enjoying a quality of life that is the envy of the world. But few seem to believe it. Instead there is an odd, grumpy, complacency, a striking lack of ambition and confidence to use the good fortune that has visited the great south land to create a future that inspires.
Australians like to think of themselves as pragmatic people, unburdened by ideological baggage, ready to flick the switch to practical solutions when the evidence is presented. But that pragmatism has been held in check – caution has overwhelmed the can-do spirit. Instead special interests shout at each other in the public domain, and the cacophony of competing interests does not produce clarity, get things done or provide inspiration. Despite, or maybe because of, the proliferation of the communications revolution, it is just the noise level that has risen. There are now countless new forums for cool consideration of the big issues, writers' festivals, public lectures, debates, festivals of ideas.
Griffith REVIEW has made its own contribution to the quality of public discussion, by publishing nearly seven hundred writers who have engaged diversely, compellingly and with passion, with the issues of the day. But between the analysis and action a shrill negative timidity and lack of ambition acts as a brake on doing things. Listen to the conversations in any coffee shop there is a refrain of blame: 'they are hopeless', 'they oughta', 'it's unbelievable…' People are hungry for ideas, ambitious for their country, but sadly a grumpy complacency is the new normal.
THIS IS NOT a situation that is unique. Husbanding the good times to create a better future is not something that human beings are well equipped to do. It is hard to read the signs in advance, hard to make judgments on the basis of imperfect information, hard to take responsibility for things beyond our immediate grasp, hard to be positive when surrounded by negativity. But the first stepping stone is building a base of a sophisticated, informed and engaged public discussion which seeks to explain and inspire, that is realistic, but optimistic, ambitious and not afraid to dream.
For the first time this edition of Griffith REVIEW is not themed; instead we invited writers, most of whom have written for this publication in the past, to explore some of the subjects we have interrogated over the decade, and cast them forward. Despite the open brief, as the essays and stories came in it became clear that there was a theme in the contributions, and it was one of security – personal, economic, social, geopolitical, genetic, environmental – and how to manage the challenge of change to enhance it.
On the evidence of the past decade these are subjects that are likely to be relevant in 2023 as they are today, and true to our ambition to display a pragmatically reforming heart point to a way forward.