Purchase Edition

Edition 15

Contents
Essay

Trying to find the sunny side of life

Selected for The Best Australian Political Writing 2008

WHEN THE HISTORICAL datelines are being drawn up, the year 2005 may be marked down as the Indian summer of Australia's decade-long economic boom. Truly it seemed as if the sun might never set. Household disposable incomes, measured in dollars, were half as high again as they had been a decade earlier – a deluge of personal wealth we'd not seen since the halcyon postwar years. The dollar values of Australians' homes had more than doubled, while the interest rates they were paying on their mortgages were almost a third lower. Unemployment had fallen from almost 9 per cent in 1995 to little more than 5 per cent in 2005, and the average duration of that enforced leisure had roughly halved (from about six months to three). Housing extensions and renovations were making millionaires of builders across the major cities, while big-screen televisions and "home cinema" equipment were walking off the display floors faster than they could be ordered. "The economy" – that menacing couplet which had quickened the heartbeat of thousands of newspaper readers for decades – seemed to have become what the Romans would have called a cornucopia: a horn of plenty.

And yet the monsoon clouds were already gathering on the horizon. In Sydney – an increasingly fractious town wracked by drought, heatwaves and traffic snarls – the apparently weightless property market had begun to reacquaint itself with the force of gravity, and people were watching their real estate magic puddings unaccountably beginning to shrink. Housing affordability had already a hit a historic low, while over the decade from 1995 housing debt rose from about 40 per cent to about 70 per cent of households' disposable incomes. Almost two-thirds of private renters had fallen into a state the statisticians define as "housing stress". As if affected by the endless dry heat, a tone of rancour had crept over the city's baking streets. "Symbolic analysts" and "knowledge workers", those grand but dissatisfied beneficiaries of the boom, argued vociferously over their dinner tables about the nation's moral failings and our shrunken hearts. In the newspapers, there was increasing disputation about the city's status as the main repository for the nation's refugee and family reunion immigration programs. "Ethnic tension", that rough beast we'd associated with South Central Los Angeles or the tenements of Western Europe, seemed to be stirring. The airwaves hissed with anxieties around "home-grown" terror and Islamic extremism, while the dress habits of Arab-Australian women became matters of public notice. And, three times within the space of a year or so, young men – men with different causes, and from different backgrounds, it's true – took to the streets to throw things and words about, attack property and police alike, and generally raise the social temperature. For the first time since the days of the Rum Corps, Sydney had become a riotous place to live.

 

LATE ONE FRIDAY night, in the dying days of the long hot summer, three young men from one of the most stressed neighbourhoods of that stressed city acquired a late-model white Holden Commodore with a view to taking a joyride. Some minutes later, with an unmarked police car in hot pursuit, the car lost traction at a gentle bend on Eucalyptus Drive, Macquarie Fields, rolled several times and ploughed into a gum tree. Both passengers in the car, Matt Robertson and Dylan Raywood, died instantly. Robertson had been in jail so often his friends couldn't remember his age, but in two weeks he was due to start his first legitimate job, stall-holding at the Royal Easter Show. A year before, Raywood had been selected in the under-seventeen development squad for the Wests Tigers Rugby League Club, part of a program designed specifically to get troubled young players back on track. (The club's football manager admitted: "To be truthful, Dylan wouldn't have made the squad if it was chosen on merit. But the whole purpose of it is to keep kids off the street.") The driver, Jesse Kelly – himself a troubled young man with a precocious criminal record – survived, but he disappeared into the night. His aunt, Deborah Kelly, a formidable woman with a criminal record of her own, took charge of the situation.

According to a later police statement opposing her bail application, Deborah circulated a rival version of events according to which the police had rammed the car into the tree on purpose and then fled the scene. The Glenquarie Estate, a Housing Commission enterprise from the 1970s to accommodate troubled families and their children, is one of the toughest, most crime-wracked localities in Sydney, and relations with the police are generally fraught. Deborah Kelly's account of events sped up and down the laneways of the neighbourhood, and by the Sunday night hundreds of young people had gathered on the street, where they began launching missiles, fireworks and Molotov cocktails at police. The police responded with baton charges. For the next three nights, there were pitched battles along the broad bitumen curves of Eucalyptus Drive. The police donned helmets and shields, and deployed in lines reminiscent of the tactical doctrines of the Duke of Wellington. The local boys fought, posed for the cameras and took souvenirs of the battle. The television film-crews dodged and weaved as they strove to catch the best shots. Outsiders brought in deckchairs to watch the show. And the airwaves of Sydney radio ran fever-hot.

The so-called "law and order debate" nowadays has such a familiar, choreographed quality that it resembles those Balinese shadow-plays which are appreciated in stoic silence by Australian holiday-makers. In the aftermath of the Macquarie Fields riots, the little stick-figures had a busy time of it. The state opposition and the most popular radio personalities united in questioning how the police had allowed the riots to develop in the first place, and in calling for that hardiest of law and order slogans, "zero tolerance". (Exactly how zero tolerance was to be practised on a neighbourhood in which almost everybody seems to fall foul of the law before they reach majority was not explained.) The city's conservative-leaning tabloid, the Daily Telegraph, declared "Enough is enough". In sharp contrast, the city's liberal-minded broadsheet, the Sydney Morning Herald, offered the familiar "cry of pain" diagnosis: there were "deeper", "underlying reasons" for the riots than mere lawlessness, socio-economic disadvantage was the key.

Yet none of these responses ever seemed really to cut to the heart of the matter. Since, on the one hand, communities whose members routinely plunder and deface public property are rarely healthy places in which to grow up, the first set of responses (zero tolerance, tough love, where are the parents?) always seems inadequate and even perverse. Yet the reflexive incantation of the theme of socio-economic disadvantage – like some journalistic equivalent of a lecture out of Sociology 101 – often seems hardly more helpful. Solve disadvantage and you'll solve lawlessness and dysfunction, the slogan seems to say. And then – the tabloid-reading critic might well respond – why not go on to create world peace?

 

THE EVENTS OF Macquarie Fields, like those in Redfern before and Cronulla after, aroused such controversy in large part because rioting in suburbia seemed – at least prior to the overheated social temperature in Sydney of the last few years – to be strangely out of kilter with Australian mores. In Western Europe, public housing is almost synonymous with public disturbance. The classic tower blocks of inner south and east London, or on the outskirts of Paris – originally built as part of hopeful campaigns of slum-clearance – have defied attempts to foster civic pride. Instead, they have often become graffiti-encrusted, vandalised wind-tunnels, and have provided the cannon-fodder for tribes of neo-Nazi bovver-boys and jihadiwannabees. In Australia, by contrast, the ambitions of postwar planners turned instead towards fostering private home ownership across the vast green-brown suburban expanses, and (despite the grand dreams of social radicals) inner-city public housing was aimed chiefly at the very poor and the elderly – who generally appreciated what was seen to be their privilege. For every wind-tunnel, there are probably two or three gatherings of neat inner-city window-boxes.

Yet, seen from the historian's point of view, the story of Macquarie Fields has the kind of irresistible logic to it which is often attributed to ancient Greek tragedies. It begins with the changing public housing philosophies of the 1960s and 1970s. As the waiting lists for inner-city public residences grew (and their tenants grew older), planners sketched out miniature suburbs of public housing across the outskirts of all the major cities. Often these neighbourhoods were given pastoral-sounding names like Green Valley or Ambarvale, and it was imagined that they could be designed and laid out like little country villages. At the same time, priority was increasingly directed to providing housing for those defined by new measures of disadvantage as being in crisis – meaning, in many cases, women with kids fleeing violent partners, parents with drug and alcohol problems, or those receiving counselling for behavioural problems – or all of the above. And so, without any explicit policy directive connecting these two movements, the new semi-rural estates became the chief repositories for families in crisis. In the early 1980s, my wife (who was then working in a women's refuge) dropped off an Aboriginal woman and her kids fleeing domestic violence to the then-new Glenquarie Estate, at a house which she recalls only as seeming to be in the middle of nowhere. It felt like dropping a pebble into the ocean.

Up until the mid-1970s, Macquarie Fields was little more than a collection of hamlets loosely following the curve of the Georges River, a half dozen or so kilometres south of Liverpool on the city's south-western verge. If you strayed more than three or four blocks east of Glenfield railway station (as a friend who grew up there recalls it), you'd find yourself wandering through the virgin scrub. Out of this frontier wilderness, the Department of Housing planners carved neat rows of brick-veneer bungalows and angular semidetached "villas" for a brand-new suburb. But Macquarie Fields was to be more than an ordinary township. It was to be a public housing estate within a suburb: a little island of social experiment locked within the grand suburban sea. And when they came to draft the public housing estate on the suburb's eastern fringe, the planners called upon the ghost of William Morris. Rather than have the kids play on the streets, the architects shaped arcing drives with pastoral names like Eucalyptus, Rosewood and Cottonwood, and sculpted gum-strewn parks with wandering tracks and laneways, like the country lanes of an imagined bygone era. They called it the Glenquarie Estate.

In large measure, the experiment was still-born. Parents in crisis not infrequently reared children in crisis, and some of the children are now, a generation on, becoming crisis-ridden parents themselves. The jobless rate in the suburb is about twice the national average: on the estate it's higher again. Single-parent families are in the majority. Habits of domestic violence and substance abuse are commonly transmitted inter-generationally. It is possible to grow up on the estate nowadays and not know a single adult male who's unquestionably on the straight and narrow. For many, being burgled is a routine occurrence. In the 2564 postcode area in 2005, 114 cars were reported stolen, there were 227 reported burglaries, 457 cases of property damage, and 279 assaults. Given the prevailing relationship with police in the area, the reported figures are probably extremely conservative. Within a couple of decades of the first concrete-pours, the quaint laneways have become unsafe to walk at night, the paired semi-circular drives have turned neatly into amateur racing-tracks, and the paths through the parks make handy escape routes from the police. The neighbourhood has become a kind of monument to good planning intentions gone wrong. Building Jerusalem can hardly have begun more brightly, nor ended with so faint a whimper.

 

LIKE A NUMBER of my colleagues, I started receiving phones calls from journalists the morning after the first night of riots. My slim claim to expertise rested upon a small book on Western Sydney I'd written a couple of years before. I was inclined to be circumspect. Reporters from the Sydney Morning Herald and the ABC dutifully recorded my unremarkable views on the relations between youth, welfare dependency, dangerous driving and property theft. At the end of a Herald interview, I happened to mention that south-west Sydney was the national capital of the illicit car-rebirthing industry. Later that day it emerged that the fugitive driver on Eucalyptus Drive was believed to have taken up a career in the car-rebirthing trade. The next day I received a phone call from a television producer on 60 Minutes, who seemed convinced – on this finest thread of evidence – that I must have the last word to say on the matter.

An appearance on 60 Minutes is not something to be entertained lightly. The program distils all liberal academia's familiar loathings – low-brow entertainment masquerading as journalism, a knee-jerk conservative social agenda, and for many high-minded critics it provides an unwanted window into the regrettable cultural preferences of the working classes. Partly out of this anxiety, and partly because of a persistent sense that I was "not the right person", I proposed a series of other names, without evident effect. Eventually, with a sense of dread, I agreed to meet the crew early the following week at a house they'd decided – with true 60 Minutes chutzpah – to rent a few hundred metres from the centre of the troubles.

And so my early morning rural ride down to Macquarie Fields was an unquiet journey. I wanted to believe I'd agreed out of a desire to speak my academic mind to a wider audience – to be the "public intellectual". Yet I struggled with the niggling fear that I was simply along for the ride. My restless mind cycled through the ways in which studious responses might be wrought by the alchemy of TV editing into inflammatory tirades, or absurd overstatements. I meditated upon the hapless Paxton brothers – two teenage boys who, some years before, had ignited an unedifying public debate on dole-bludging when they were filmed by its sister program, A Current Affair, refusing to cut their hair for a prospective employer. And, rather like the drowning man, I recalled in fast-forward every impulsive error I'd made since about the age of eight.

The unfurnished house rented by 60 Minutes, 16 Cottonwood Drive, sits around the corner from Eucalyptus Drive. Except for the uncanny sense that everyone in the neighbourhood had their eyes fastened on a gap in the front curtains, it looked like a quiet backstreet. Outside Number 16, the show's star and presenter, Mike Munro, inimitably dressed in a button-down Ralph Lauren shirt, tight-legged jeans and shiny cowboy boots, was urgently pacing up and down with his mobile phone pressed to his ear. Inside, with the curtains almost drawn, the film crew sat on upturned cartons, tending to their equipment. After Munro read out his improvised questions (some rough outline of which I could see scribbled on an A4 writing-pad) I was shepherded into a Bundy-and-Coke doused Ford Falcon for the short drive around the block to the location. I felt a little like a suspect being led away by the police.

It's the stock in trade of 60 Minutes to go straight to the emotional heart of things. As with Greek stagecraft and soap opera, the goal is to evoke catharsis in the speediest and most direct manner. They are not unaware of the risks inherent in such an approach – the common criticism that you simply heighten the preconceptions of your viewers, rather than adding to their knowledge. But they see this as simply one more hazard in a risky, no-time-to-stop-and-think kind of business. From 60 Minutes' point of view, there are two worlds: the world of the participant-actor, and the world of the observer-commentator. They fell into the first category; I was there because I fell into the second. My job was to have scruples (or, if you prefer, to prevaricate); theirs was to act on raw televisual instinct. And so, of course, they conducted their interviews on Eucalyptus Drive, the interviewee posed in front of a notorious piece of graffiti that proclaimed, a tad vaingloriously, "Cops Kill Kids. We Will Kill You Cops".

The appearance of the 60 Minutes star and his attendants in any small, tight-knit neighbourhood is inevitably a matter of great moment, and so our staggering progress was interrupted every two or three minutes by the blaring horn of a passing car, or the studiously inconspicuous hum of an unmarked police vehicle. Bus and truck drivers slowed and waved like old friends. Local mums watched from the front fence. ("It's not often we get stars here," said one, appreciatively. "Oh, surely I'm not a star yet," Munro replied, with a winning show of modesty.) The presenter's stage presence was impressive. One young mum with a stroller paused to watch the show from the street corner. When she'd had enough, she told Munro that she hoped they'd get the kids to stop the fighting, as it'd be nice to have a night's sleep for a change. He gave her a serious, knitted-brow look that seemed to suggest that this, like just about anything else, was possible.

 

AS WE WERE winding up the interview, a familiar-looking pair of boys ambled up the street towards us, flashing gap-toothed smiles. Munro waved a greeting and called out brightly: "We've just been interviewing the professor here." One of the boys was Aaron Robertson, Matt's brother, the other was Matt's best mate. Each had been starring on the evening TV news. (Indeed, Aaron succeeded in getting himself arrested three nights running.) Both were about my height and build – which is to say skinny and shorter than average, as so many would-be street heroes are. Each was wearing the hip-hop uniform of baseball cap, baggy polyester tracksuit pants and runners, and an embossed polyester shirt – in the manner of an oversized ice-hockey jersey – with a different slogan. Aaron's best mate was particularly proud of his. Featuring a silver-embossed Uzi sub-machine gun in profile, it had the words "Class War" emblazoned in Gothic script at the top, and had a stirring slogan about resisting the state lettered across the bottom. "I'm against authority," he explained, rather grandly. As he told it, this was the uniform of the new neighbourhood gang, and wearing it was like an initiation rite. He was vague about the shirt's origins: I fancy some anarchist grouplet from the inner-city must have left its calling-card.

The boys seemed cheery enough and entirely at ease. They moved their shoulders jauntily back and forth and bounced up and down on their heels. As Aaron's mate put it, this was pretty much like being a Hollywood film star. They chatted about the events of the last few days, and about the details of Matt's funeral the next day. With a play of secrecy, one of them showed us some improvised firework-weapons – alarming the 60 Minutes producer, who mistook one of them for a gun. It emerged that 60 Minutes – which likes to spread money around among potential interviewees – was helping with the funeral costs. Munro asked several times who he should make the cheque payable to. Eventually Aaron angled his head and insisted the money must go directly to his mother. If it went through other family members, he hinted – with a slight movement of the eyebrow – it would probably disappear.

As the camera crew set up, so that Mike and I could be filmed casually strolling up the street, the boys intimated that they had some new business ventures on the go. Right now they had a brand-new stock of razor-scooters going for a song. "Thanks, but I don't have use for a scooter," said Munro, with a polite but firm wave of the arm. The rest of us demurred in turn. The boys smiled, waved and headed back on their way, hands in pockets, deep in conversation. It occurred to me that there was a curious synergy between the flying-by-the seat-of-one's-pants lives of these boys and the equally improvised modus operandi of the 60 Minutes crew. Each lived for the moment; each chose their moments of opportunity on pure gut instinct; each had to keep moving lest their past catch them up. It might even be that this was one element in the 60 Minutes formula for success: the show's stories of the badlands commanded conviction not because of any in-depth research or commitment to veracity, but because (unlike the ironic varsity voices of the ABC) they exude authentic street-smart themselves. "Ah, they're not bad kids," offered Mike as we watched the boys disappear up the road. "That's the worst of it." Then he reminisced, a little wistfully, upon his own youthful adventures in the suburban jungle. Accustomed by now to his talent for personal theatre, I took this meditation rather lightly. As it turned out later, however, this much at least of Mike's patter was the plain, unadorned truth.

After we'd wound up, the 60 Minutes crew politely offered to drive me back around the corner. It was a five-minute stroll, but when I said I'd walk they looked alarmed. On the way back I passed Caley Park through which the mum with the pram had wheeled off homewards. You could still see the original town planners' bright intentions in the curve of the concrete track that wound through it. The sun was shining brightly through the leaves, there was a light breeze, and some birds in the boughs of the eucalypts were chirping. It was a beautiful autumn day, and strangely I found an old show tune was playing itself inside my head.

Look for the silver lining

When e'er a cloud appears in the blue.

Remember somewhere, the sun is shining.

And so the right thing to do is make it shine for you.

And then I was crossed by a sudden thought, like a flash of sunlight through the trees. It occurred to me that Matt's mates, far from being proper objects of solicitation and sympathy, actually must feel they had life sussed. They made fast money and paid no tax; they didn't have to queue at Centrelink, or fill out endless job interview forms; they were keeping out of their mum's hair (or maybe escaping her problems); they were high on adrenaline as much as dope or alcohol. So far from resembling welfare "dependants", the mournful passive beneficiaries of academic lore, their demeanour spoke of the adaptive small businessman, the eBay Powerseller, the itinerant entrepreneur. It was tough luck that a brother and a mate were gone forever. But then life here was a dangerous business: better to live it to the hilt than be cowed by it. In a decade or so, each one of them – like their fugitive friend Jesse Kelly – might well be doing some time in jail. But on Eucalyptus Drive you live for the moment, and a decade seems like an awfully long time.

A heart, full of joy and gladness

Will always banish sadness and strife.

So always look for the silver lining

And try to find the sunny side of life.

"IT SEEMS HISTORY is to blame," the Englishman Haines blandly observes of Ireland's "Troubles" in James Joyce's novel Ulysses. One way or another, it usually is. At the 2005 New South Wales Parliamentary Inquiry into the riots, the Liberal backbencher Charlie Lynn seized upon the testimony of senior staff from the NSW Department of Housing to blame a more recent historical culprit for the Glenquarie Estate's failings – the various "failed attempts at social engineering" which he associated with the social idealism of the '60s and '70s.

The NSW Parliament's Standing Committee on Social Issues is a gathering of larger-than-life individuals, and the inquiry's transcripts are a faithful enough representation of this. There was speechifying aplenty, so much so that expert witnesses sometimes struggled to get a word in. Among the committee's members is the inimitable Charlie Lynn, a former army officer, Kokoda Track tour organiser and Christian youth group activist – a man who takes it upon himself to be the spokesman for the "silent majority" of concerned citizens, alarmed at the dangers lurking on neighbourhood streets. As of November 2006, Lynn had delivered twenty speeches over his ten-year parliamentary career – each devoted to an aspect of the "law and order debate". In 2003 he accused a state government minister of taking sexual advantage of an under-age boy – accusations he subsequently had to withdraw. The chair, Labor Upper House member Jan Burnswoods – a veteran Labor branch and community activist with a fondness for flowers – seems to see her mission as being to demonstrate that Lynn is a fraudulent fool. Treatment which provides Lynn with ample opportunity to present himself as the hapless Mr Smith come to conniving, politically correct Macquarie Street. Chief among the other members is the euphonically named Democrat Dr Arthur Chesterfield-Evans, a former surgeon and anti-smoking activist who interrupted the evidence at various points to quiz witnesses upon the finer points of social policy theory.

In the course of its proceedings, the inquiry interviewed two senior administrators from the Department of Housing, Michael Allen and Clifford Haynes, about the history of the estate. The two men attempted to tell the committee – with all the heroic reserves of patience that only a career in public administration can provide – the tangled story of the estate's genesis in the 1970s and the various attempts to remedy its deficiencies through improvements to the physical environment in the decades since. Kitchens and laundries had been renovated; houses had been reoriented to face the street; funds had been provided to help around a third of the residents purchase their homes. The longer objective, they explained, was to create greater diversity of tenure and circumstance within the estate, to create a "more balanced community" with people from a wider range of social backgrounds and more diverse sources of income. But this meant overcoming the legacy of large, relatively homogenous housing estates that had been entrenched in the planning of the New South Wales Housing Commission from the 1950s through to the 1970s. More specifically, it meant redrawing the estate to remove the numerous "access ways and cul de sacs" required by the "Radburn model" of estate in favour at the time.

At this point, the indefatigable, history-minded Charlie Lynn leapt up to attract an unsympathetic chair's attention. "I refer to the original Radburn model. When was it introduced? ... Who was the Rhodes Scholar who introduced it? ... Do you see it as a failed attempt at social engineering in the 1970s?" he asked, staccato-style, in a state of genuine agitation. And a jousting match followed between Lynn and Burnswoods as to which party had been in power when "Radburn's" experiment ("Radburn is not a person, it is a town in New Jersey," Allen patiently explained) began.

 

LYNN'S INSTINCTS WERE not altogether misplaced. There is more to the history of the Glenquarie Estate than can be gleaned from government reports alone. But he was surely a little unkind to lay responsibility for the estate's troubles on the now-bowed shoulders of the "flower children". Indeed, if you really want to nab "history" for the troubles of the present, you need to travel a good deal further back than Lynn's historical vision allows. In fact, you'd need to travel back to the late nineteenth century, to the era of the classic social investigators, to the first dreams of slum-clearance and new working-class neighbourhoods studded with oak trees and festooned with flowers. You'd need to begin with a novel like Looking Backward, the 1888 time-travelling utopia of American Victorian social visionary Edward Bellamy – the book that pioneered the belief that the psychic wounds of modern industrial society could be healed by a new kind of built community, a city in which work and leisure, culture and industry, and even town and country could be seamlessly harmonised, supposedly combining the best of each with (in the best utopian tradition) the disadvantages of neither.

Bellamy's narrator awakes one morning to find himself in a recreated Boston of the year 2000, a city in which public and private goods intermingle. Want has been abolished, incomes have been equalised, and the mundane traffic in goods has been replaced by universal stores in which the best of everything is available at cost price. It is an image which fairly shimmers even today.

Miles of broad streets, shaded by trees and lined with fine buildings, for the most part not in continuous blocks but set in larger or smaller enclosures, stretched in every direction. Every quarter contained large open squares filled with trees, among which statues glistened and fountains flashed in the late afternoon sun.

Across the Atlantic, one of Bellamy's grandest enthusiasts was a sometime parliamentary reporter, Ebenezer Howard. Drawing upon Bellamy's bright vision, the enlightened factory-town experiments of Christian industrialists such as W.H. Lever and George Cadbury, and the aesthetic principles of the "arts and crafts movement", Howard gathered a movement of professionals and philanthropists to purchase land for the Garden Cities of Letchworth and Welwyn in Hertfordshire. Letchworth was a kind of commune (part Renaissance Florence, part Nimbin): all its citizens owned shares in the civic association, which leased the town's land back to them individually. (It's worth noting that Howard lived in Letchworth from 1905 to 1921, until Welwyn was built, whereupon he moved – and later died – there.)

While the actual Garden Cities varied markedly in pattern according to location (and readiness of funds, which were sometimes tight), Howard seems to have viewed them all as epiphenomena of a Platonic ideal he'd outlined in his 1904 book Garden Cities of Tomorrow. And indeed the diagrams there are organised on Hellenic geometrical principles, as a series of concentric circles. There is a central park (derived from F.L. Omsted's massive original in Manhattan) with grand boulevards leading outwards to the city's rim, criss-crossed with concentric-circular avenues of varying designs and functions. The private dwellings are to be "excellently built" in varying individual styles, but with common gardens and "cooperative kitchens". And the churches are "of such denominations as the religious beliefs of the people may determine, to be erected and maintained out of the funds of the worshippers and their friends". The industrial districts occupy the outer rim, where they intersect with the railway lines on which the city's products are conveyed to the wider world. And outside this grand circular gemstone lays a patchwork of private allotments, dairy farms and forests, fulfilling Howard's vision of uniting city and country into a single vision (albeit that, while the city is severely geometrical, the countryside remains illimitable).

Howard's notion was that cities of this kind could be assembled as a network of free-standing social islands, each sufficient to itself for basic needs, but engaged in commerce with others for the exchange of their industrial goods. When one garden city outstripped its bounds, Howard explained, the surplus population would skip over the surrounding countryside to form a new one some miles distant – much, he believed, as Adelaide had at once retained its urban parks, and established its new development in North Adelaide. The sea-lanes connecting this glittering archipelago of progress were the same railway tracks that already carried so many of the nineteenth century's other social hopes. The cities themselves, though, were without mechanical transport: citizens could walk to the central park, or the town halls, concert halls, libraries and museums that surrounded it, or to their workplaces on the periphery as if strolling through pastureland.

Howard's egalitarian democracy, like that of so many of his colleagues and acquaintances, was that of the religiously non-conformist, public-spirited urban professional – the doctrine of the spiritually, intellectually and economically independent. A little like the middle-class Bolsheviks a generation or two later, he envisioned a workers' paradise where the soul was nourished by cheap classical concerts and shapely yet severely functional domestic furniture, where conspicuous poverty and "shoddy" were the twin scourges of humanity.

For this ideal to flourish across the Atlantic – where visions, after all, had more room to flourish, and urban allotments were easier to obtain – it had to be enlarged to cater for less high-minded products of industrialism such as the private motor-car. And so, when a group of similarly minded professionals founded the Regional Planning Association of America in the 1920s, they both drew on the Letchworth model, and reimagined its basic geometry. Clarence Stein's 1929 Radburn Estate in New Jersey, the first Garden City in the United States, resembled a complicated root-system: motorways spawned side-roads, each of which branched off in multiple rootlings towards the rear-facing garages of private villas, which looked outwards towards an encircling tree-lined footway. The car had been accommodated – as, in the new demotic era of motor-transport, it had to be – but only, as it were, through the back door. This pragmatic modification of the Garden City geometry – the harmony of the spheres reduced to a kind of inelegant maze – became the basis for some of the grandest and most fateful experiments in (private and) public housing after World
War II.

Australian planners and visionaries had been abreast of the Garden City movement from its early stages. In the interwar years, a prototype public housing Garden City was built on reclaimed land near Port Melbourne, though it failed to bear fruit. At the end of World War II, in the more propitious heyday of nation-building, Walter Bunning was assigned the task of creating a new munitions complex at St Marys, on Sydney's western fringes. Bunning – the main author of the Commonwealth Housing Commission's 1944 report into the country's impending postwar housing needs – was a modernist architect and Garden City enthusiast. Most of the munitions site's workers commuted to the factories by train, but Bunning also constructed some temporary housing across the tracks. And then – as if by way of a casual afterthought – he added a small experimental village, rigorously drawn up on the Radburn model, on the site's eastern fringe. The St Marys Permanent Cottage Area – now heritage-protected for all its few meagre blocks – still stands today, a few kilometres away from the campus on which I work. Within its slender geometric curves lies the strange seed that, thirty years later, blossomed in Macquarie Fields.

Some years earlier, a new private housing development was pegged out in a semi-rural outer western glen by a canny North Shore building firm with the then-chic name Homes De Luxe. It was called Green Valley. The site was later bought by the New South Wales Housing Commission in the wake of nation-building pride, and developed in the 1960s to become the largest public housing estate in the Sydney basin, designed especially for the poorest and most welfare-dependent families. (The Housing Commission commemorated the occasion with a promotional booklet hopefully titled "Estate of Tomorrow".) Public planners and bureaucrats ("never complain, never explain") leave few records of their governing philosophies, and so we're forced to guess at the process whereby the tidy-town blueprints of Letchworth and Radburn – carefully designed to be self-contained urban entities, each with local factories and processing works – were transmuted into Australia's grandest laboratory experiment in all-commuting-publicrental-accommodation, with no nearby employment, limited public transport and few amenities. According to 1960s researchers at Sydney University, two in five of the original settlers there had no car, while only one in ten could afford a telephone. Once you'd moved there, you were – quite literally – on your own.

Over the course of the 1960s, the phrase "Green Valley" entered Sydney's comic lexicon. The joke lay in pretending that this was indeed a pastoral paradise, as its name seemed to suggest. And, like all the geographical put-downs that litter the folklore of the most unforgiving of Australian cities, this was thought to be irresistibly funny. (In the same idiom – though less maliciously – it's become popular in recent years for Sydneysiders to wear t-shirts claiming "I climbed Mt Druitt" – another of Sydney's "struggle-towns".) By the end of the decade, the estate had already become famous enough to draw sustained comment from the otherwise slightly parochial Adelaide academic Hugh Stretton in his classic Ideas for Australian Cities(Georgian House, 1970). Contrasting the still-pristine Green Valley with the unfashionable but striving blue-collar dormitory town of Elizabeth on the northern fringes of his home city, Stretton acknowledged that, of the two:

Green Valley looks better. Its land undulates pleasantly under some mature native trees. Its street planning is more imaginative ... its school buildings are better, it has some attractive pedestrian ways and better and safer pedestrian planning ... and you can't tell its owned from its rented houses.

Here, though, Green Valley's advantages ended. A journey to the beach was a day trip, and most of the residents didn't have cars. There were few jobs in evidence, and poor access to health care. The shopping centre closed early, and the local pub was inhospitable. Unlike Howard's Letchworth, neither doctors nor politicians chose to live there, and the few stories of personal success were "not enough to shake the steady, intelligent desire of three-quarters of its residents to get out of the place". In short, the problem wasn't poor planning, still less a shortage of services (which would "wilt there, for want of paying custom"). Rather, Stretton observed:

All Green Valley's poverties spring from the poverty of its people, hand picked ... for their comparative incapacity to get on, or get tough, or get well, or get rich, or get things moving; then dumped outside the city walls all together and all alone without work, allies, entrepreneurs, exemplars or defenders.

 

SUBSTITUTE THE WORDS "Macquarie Fields" for Green Valley in Stretton's choleric judgement, and you may find that you don't need to change a single word. There are still quiet, orderly families on the estate, people who've nurtured their gardens with care, and who still cleave to the bricks and fences bequeathed by the citizenry all those years ago. Jenny Pel, who has lived on the estate since 1977, told The Age she was sick of the rioters' endless excuses for bad behaviour. "I love my street. But I'm scared they're going to bulldoze our houses now." But they are outnumbered by those whose "steady, intelligent desire" is to get out of the place. The poor transport, the social and geographic isolation, the resident-body made homogenous in their incapacities by the zany logic of humanely intended social policy – it's all there, with the single signal difference that while Green Valley was meant, in the planners' minds' eye, to be a stepping-stone to a happier and more prosperous future, the Glenquarie Estate seems to have been conceived with no coherent image of the future whatever.

It's a curious fact that, of all the antipodean imitators of the Radburn model, it's the Glenquarie Estate – the last built – which most faithfully adheres to the contours of the original. You can superimpose a projection of Radburn from the 1920s onto the central hub of the Glenquarie Estate – the hub bounded by the now-famous Eucalyptus Drive – without too much violence. The curves and the cul-de-sacs have stayed the same; only their purposes seem insensibly to have changed along the way, a little like the shrunken wings of a flightless bird. The encircling pathways which at Radburn were supposed to mark out each of the neighbourhoods as distinct, and save them from the impending tyranny of motor-transport, have on the Glenquarie Estate mutated into the encircling bitumen curve of Eucalyptus Drive – arguably the city's busiest street-racing circuit. The central "motorway" of the Radburn model, which in the original was meant to serve as an artery to the neighbourhood houses, has been stripped of its pulmonary function, and serves chiefly as a short-cut from one side of the racing-circuit to the other. And the stumpy bucolic "places", meant to provide rear exit-ways from cottages to the street, turned in Glenquarie into back-alleys, quick exit-routes for the apprentices of the neighbourhood academies of property-theft.

Brenton Banfield, the Mayor of Campbelltown City, grew up on the Glenquarie Estate, and he can still recall the optimism with which the earliest residents greeted their spick-and-span new homes: "Back then it was a place of hope and opportunity. People were living in affordable accommodation. They could save up for a deposit and move out." Over time, those who were well-resourced enough or severely disciplined enough in their family budgeting did indeed move out, creating a perverse process of unnatural selection of those who stayed behind. They were the ones without the capacity to move on, and they felt trapped. In the meantime, the priorities of public housing shifted further, so that few if any of the later arrivals had a realistic hope of escape. As the department's Michael Allen explained to the parliamentarians, when the first concrete was poured at Macquarie Fields, about one in two of the state's public tenants received rental assistance; today, the proportion is close to nine in ten. Back then, seven in every ten public renters were couples with dependent children; today only one in ten is a couple with children – most of the rest are single-parent homes, and more than half subsist on pensions of one kind or another. If you conducted this kind of experiment with laboratory rats, there would be animal activists on hand to demonstrate.

At the same time, the mere existence of 1970s-style public housing estates does not necessarily denote social disaffection. Another witness at the Parliamentary Inquiry was Gary Moore, Director of the NSW Council of Social Service (and alumnus of the tough mid-western Sydney suburb of Lakemba). Asked where he thought Macquarie Fields stood in an imaginary league-table of public housing stress, he surprised many of the committee members by rating it fairly low. After all, there are free-standing estates in parts of Sydney's outer-south west – such as at Minto, a few kilometres further south – with concentrations of public renters as high as nine in ten. Compared with those, the travails of Macquarie Fields (where almost six in ten residents of the wider suburb are home-owners) may seem relatively small. Yet there are no signs of rioting, or even of widespread lawlessness, there.

Doubtless there is no single explanation for this seeming paradox. Yet it is worth observing that, while Minto is an island of public housing, sufficient unto itself, Glenquarie Estate is effectively a public housing colony within a larger suburb. And in that wider suburb, it sometimes seems, all the good citizens take care of their front lawns, and dearly wish that the troublemakers would simply go away. On some accounts, the hardest aspect of growing up in Green Valley in the 1960s and 1970s wasn't the personal problems of the local community. Rather, it was the opprobrium you carried when you went in search of a job. To be a poor colony of a republic of growing affluence may in its own way be the cruellest fate of all.

The redoubtable Charlie Lynn is himself a social idealist of sorts. He works with Father Chris Riley's "Youth Off the Streets" program – the same program which plans to build a new youth centre on the Glenquarie Estate – and in the parliamentary recesses he leads groups of "troubled kids" up the Kokoda Track, in search of those equally intangible entities, self-discovery and national spirit. Like Mike Munro, perhaps, he seems to view this kind of activity as a street-smart, pragmatic alternative to the unworldly social visions of the welfare-sector left, which must appear to his agitated eye to be inscribed into the concrete of Glenquarie's meandering lanes. In this his instinct may not be entirely misguided. After all, while grand welfare strategies wax and wane, the humbler rituals of self-help and community food-baskets seem to go on forever. Over the march of a century, the maxims of Samuel Smiles seem to have mutated insensibly into those of Oprah Winfrey. But, when all's said and done, Lynn's combat against the mythic Mr Radburn is really a sparring match of idealists, rather than the rhetorically satisfying collision of dream and reality.

In any case, in the end the Garden City model was less unworldly than its historical legacy may suggest. Cadbury, Lever and the rest – like the pragmatic, unromantic founders of Stretton's Elizabeth – had been solid, worldly men, men who just happened, by virtue of their various minority faiths, to be gnawed at by a particular species of Christian conscience. They built their experimental estates around their own factories, and they possessed the power to provide health and retirement entitlements of a level and kind of their own choosing. (This was, after all, the golden age of the benign planner.) Howard, being a man of more modest means, had not been blessed with all these powers of beneficence, but he was still always canny enough to ensure that his new garden cities possessed an adequate complement of well-paid factory jobs, and that they were gifted with fast and effective transportation links with nearby commercial centres. Likewise, Radburn was built in a long-standing industrial area, with a solid mix of employment types, and a strong leavening of office workers with bank accounts. In this sense, the spiritual descendants of Welwyn and Radburn aren't the denizens of Green Valley or Macquarie Fields, but rather the tidy-town citizens of Glenmore and Harrington Parks in Sydney's outer west – and of all the other so-called "gated communities" that are springing up in the more upwardly mobile reaches of our outer cities. Except that nowadays the tastes of our cultural arbiters have tacked one hundred and eighty degrees, and what would once have
been celebrated verdant little private utopias are now decried in the big-city broadsheets as havens of
"white flight".

In this respect, the problem wasn't the "Radburn model" as such, but rather the application of a model, founded in the controlled-experiment utopianism of another era, to the circumstances of an entirely different mix of human subjects – not orderly factory workers and their families, but a new class of welfare beneficiaries created out of a new and different world of family chaos, social dislocation and greatly increased substance-dependency. The factory workers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a constituency in the process of acquiring serious political and industrial clout, and they had to be reckoned with (by state and employer alike) as potentially dangerous social actors in a new demotic social order. In our era, on the other hand, we've managed to fill our little would-be utopias with a new class of public beneficiaries distinguished by their almost complete dearth of political, financial and televisual leverage of any kind. Howard delighted to reside in Letchworth and Welwyn, the creations of his own mind's eye. And, as Stretton noted, sports stars and other notables were lured by various pecuniary incentives to live in Adelaide's Elizabeth. But no serving politician or planner, then or now, ever went to live in Green Valley or Macquarie Fields. The locals there can't strike or stop work, or lobby local dignitaries. Forming precinct committees would impress no one. Instead, like the urban "mob" of pre-franchise English cities, they have to throw bricks and break things to make themselves heard.

It's worth noting that, even today, Letchworth Garden City is a busy going concern, choc a bloc with earnest-minded public sector employees, organic food stores and sensible, low-fuel-consumption cars. (Heeding the siren-call of "globalisation", the local factories have mostly moved on, but the equally international tourist industry has obligingly taken their place.) And, even today, the tidy-town residents of Radburn take a proper civic pride in the history of their peculiar burg, where the autumn leaves fall on curving walkways and arrow-straight "motorways" alike. These are towns through whose veins flow money and hope, and whose hearts still tick with that instinct for "community activism" so often found in communities which are thriving, and so rarely in those which logic (and the dreams of radical historians) might suggest should need it more. If things went badly in Radburn or Letchford, you can be sure there'd be tertiary-educated folks hammering down the door of local mayors and government ministers. Neither is ever likely to need the missionary-style community activism of Father Chris Riley or the Salvation Army's food parcels. There may be a sense in which "history" is indeed to blame for failed experiments like Green Valley and Macquarie Fields. But if so, it may be less a matter of commission than omission, less a story of grand folly than of the casually lazy betrayal of good intentions, less the execution of an inexorable vision than of innumerable small-scale instances of amnesia and neglect – all because the people to whom the administrators were ministering were effectively of no political account.

 

OF ALL THE grand moral disputes of the times, of all the awesome gulfs within our political imagination, that over crime and criminality is perhaps the most primal and profound. It raises, after all, the elemental questions of justice, order, personal accountability and responsibility – the moral touchstones of personal competence and public order beloved by ordinary striving Australians. And it invokes the moral weight and grandeur of our primal human impulses towards caring and interpersonal sympathy – those ramparts of the liberal moral imagination, and the religiously and professionally driven individuals who form its garrison. Among a generation of citizens for whom the Bible is little more than a childhood echo, it pits the Old Testament against the New, Jehovah against Jesus. Should I love my neighbour as myself? Am I my brother's keeper?

And so, in the days and weeks after the riots, the Glenquarie Estate achieved a strange kind of mythic glamour. According to your allegiance, this little republic of misery became either a vessel for the discharge of elemental human sympathy or a repository for good-citizenly revulsion. Academic social scientists and earnest broadsheet journalists alike shook their heads sadly and asked how it was that boys could be reduced to such a state, and how the acute problems of the area could have been neglected by governments for so long. As it happens, they haven't. As one government minister angrily pointed out, at least forty-five million dollars has been spent on public infrastructure for an estate of four and half thousand souls in recent years, including a technology centre and a swimming pool, while policing the neighbourhood requires the organisation of a minor military campaign. Since the riots, further public money has been committed to the area, and church groups have plans for a new three million dollar youth centre. At the same time, Sydney's inimitable high-octane radio commentators asked what kind of parenting these kids could have received for them to have gone so bad so early. Where parental discipline had failed, they concluded, youngsters like Jesse Kelly would have to learn the lessons of personal discipline the hard way – through the court system.

Jesse Kelly's biography reads a little like the life-story of the estate. According to newspaper reports, Jesse's birth father disappeared early, his mother found herself incapable of caring for him, and his step-father refused to acknowledge him as a son. When he turned twelve, Jesse's grandparents took him in to their house in Macquarie Fields, but by this stage he was simply too hard to control and they were forced to send him to a special school. (They have nevertheless kept in touch with him throughout his travails.) Like many kids in the area, it's been suggested, Jesse started stealing cars as a form of borrowing; pretty soon he may have moved on to disguising and selling them. As he graduated, he offered a role-model to other young boys in the area for the imagined glamour of the outlaw existence. During the fortnight he remained on the lam after the fatal car-crash, Jesse Kelly's surname was routinely invoked in echo of the much more famous outlaw Kelly – who had of course also hailed from a semi-rural "glen". No doubt this appealed to him. Through friends, he explained cockily to journalists that he was on the run because the police, if they caught him, would show him no mercy. A few days after the fatal crash, a neighbour rather incautiously suggested to the TV news that Jesse should turn himself in. According to the police, Kelly and a group of his friends appeared at the neighbour's house after dark, took apart the man's face with a broken bottle in front of his children, and disappeared back into the night. Yet Jesse's outlaw spirit has the brittle toughness of the lifelong gang member. When, a fortnight after the car chase, he appeared in court charged with two counts of manslaughter, his shoulders dropped and he wept like a lost child.

Thus told, Jesse Kelly's life – like that of so many other boys in the area – is little more than a vessel for the discharge of human sympathy, or else a repository for revulsion. For commentators of all persuasions, he serves – like the monster of the youthful Mary Shelley's imagining – as an exemplary figure. Against his measure, we can find society's claims to inclusion wanting, or lament the waste of a precious life – or else we can use his example as a glass through which to apprehend a decline in societal and personal responsibility, self-discipline and values in parenting. Like refugees from distant lands or the victims of distant wars, his example serves either to rouse our sense of personal conscience, or else to stir our sense of indignity, either to soften our heart or cause us to close it. Such is the power of the personal case, the face with a name to it. Mary Shelley's monster passed solitary hours in the company of Goethe's Romantic tales and pondered his existential plight. It would no doubt make for excellent journalism could Jesse Kelly be persuaded to do the same.

 

WHEN WE DEBATE the fates of communities in crisis, these familiar and even ritualised responses seem to have led us into a series of policy cul-de-sacs. On the one hand, the case for a "zero-tolerance" solution can probably be summarily dismissed. Nothing less than the wholesale evacuation of the estate would be required to bring a "law and order" solution here. That may indeed be a solution – there is an argument that the remaining welfare enclaves like the Glenquarie Estate ought to have been broken up and dispersed years ago. But if it is, it will be one born of the Departments of Housing and Community Services, not the New South Wales Police Service.

On the other hand, liberal-minded sympathy often serves to provide an equally stylised range of responses. Too frequently, there seems to be an almost unbridgeable gulf between the moral imagination of sympathetic journalists and commentators and the actual life situations of those with whom they sympathise – those ingenious, inventive, sometimes malevolent, sometimes fellow-spirited young men of the back streets who make their living as best they may, given where their lives seem to have taken them. Young men who have been selling hot electronics equipment on the streets since early adolescence are soberly advised to take up a trade. Boys who have been disrupting classes for as long as their teachers can recall are earnestly enjoined to stay on longer in school. Kids for whom violence is the indispensable glue of their self-image are guided painstakingly through anger-management counselling.

Military historians have pointed out that, in many cultures, if you want to have a satisfactory battle it's necessary for both sides to agree tacitly on where and how to hold it. Likewise, many of our most bitter political controversies involve a strange kind of conceptual complicity among the warring parties. Defences and critiques of economic deregulation in the 1980s, for instance, alike turned on the assumption that a modern economy could be deregulated, and that the resultant entity would bear a resemblance to the "free market" universe imagined by nineteenth century industrialists. Supporters and opponents of the War on Terror insist upon treating it as a rerun of the Cold War, a kind of ghostly Brezhnevian Groundhog Day. Members of the so-called "welfare lobby" and their opponents too often seem determined to moralise the treatment of poor and dysfunctional communities, so that those who live within them are almost necessarily viewed (according to your preference) as helpless, demoralised and irresponsible, or simply out of control. Jesse Kelly can be enlisted with equal vigour to support any of these interpretations.

No one should under-estimate the corrosive effect on the human spirit of a cocktail of the "stress factors" identified by diligent social investigators such as Tony Vinson. All too often, to be born into an area with (in Vinson's words) "high rates of low birth-rate babies, high levels of sickness and disabilities, shorter life expectancy, lower school retention rates, low incomes" – all the usual suspects, in other words – is a debilitating experience, draining the self-confidence of those who already lack it, and undermining the life skills of those with a fragile grasp on them.

Commonly, though, people do emerge out of these circumstances with their confidence intact or even lifted by the survival instinct, and their life skills hardened into a kind of granite through long usage. Nor should we trivialise the impact of these success stories. The current Mayor of Campbell-town – which administers the Glenquarie Estate – grew up there, while Labor's "lost leader", Mark Latham, defied at least one of Hugh Stretton's predictions by emerging – with the aid of his local community – as a single "exemplar" from the unforgiving streets of Green Valley.

Sometimes the fact of these success stories is tossed back at the much more numerous non-successes as a mark of reproach: if they could get out of there, why didn't you? (The New South Wales Premier and Police Commissioner both made liberal reference to their own humble upbringings when criticising the Glenquarie rioters.) Yet the harshness of this response simply serves to mask a wider point. On the whole – contrary to some versions of pop psychology which have entrenched themselves as a kind of scientific orthodoxy in liberal opinion in recent years – humans are resilient, resourceful, adaptive, ingenious creatures. Given a chance – all else being well – they'll strive to rebuild their lives after even the most trying experiences. Nor do you have to have your life in perfect order in order to escape cycles of "welfare dependency" or personal dysfunction. Depending on how you measure these factors, tens or maybe even hundreds of thousands of Australians have alcohol and drug dependency problems or mental health issues, but mostly they still strive to raise families responsibly and hold down paying jobs. Given half a chance, they commonly succeed.

In the 1990s, American sociologists – attempting to cut through the familiar moralising debates on welfare "dependency" – strove to measure empirically the responses of welfare recipients to varying policy signals. The results were complex, but their general direction seemed clear. Given a choice, even the poorest and most troubled welfare recipients generally choose to escape their lot by the most reasonable path open to them. Provide single parents with a viable path back into the workforce and they'll take it. Remove "welfare trap" obstacles to accepting unskilled but paying jobs and most people will take those jobs instead. For all but a bohemian few, welfare isn't so much a "way of life" as a pause in life's struggles. Recently, the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute adopted a similar approach in investigating the relationship between the receipt of housing assistance – which nine in ten public tenants now get – and workforce participation. They found that those receiving rent assistance were significantly less likely to be in paid employment – mostly because it would not make sense for them to take the work. Probing further, they asked unemployed renters how much extra it would cost them to sustain a return to work once their lost entitlements were factored in. The answer was an average of $188. It turned out that the average additional income those renters would have received from taking a paid job was $189 a week. Had they taken those jobs – from their view at least, if not that of taxpayers generally – they would effectively have been donating their labour.

In short, public renters in places like the Glenquarie estate, like welfare beneficiaries more generally, may be as able as anyone else to do the sums when it comes to making life choices. Turning to petty crime in Macquarie Fields probably makes more sense as a life decision (at least in the short term) than taking a low-paid legitimate job. Only idealists and forward-thinkers would see things differently – and they tend to be in short supply in struggle-towns. Indeed, welfare recipients arguably are more able than most people to make such short-term decisions accurately, since for them the margin between success and failure is narrower, the financial calculation are immediate, predictable and small-scale – unlike the speculative projections of soon-to-be-retired Baby Boomers or mum-and-dad Telstra investors. As in the days of the Victorian social investigators, it seems very likely that "financial improvidence" is a lesser obstacle to poor people's self-advancement than the simple lack of a capital base. (This may well be why Green Valley's most famous son, in his time as opposition leader, chose to champion "micro-finance" schemes for poor families.)

 

IT'S TEMPTING TO see contemporary Sydney – like the country more widely – as an ocean of affluence studded with small islands of "disadvantage", such as Macquarie Fields, Claymore or Minto. The problem then becomes one of attending to these poor castaways, stranded in would-be garden suburbs, remote communities or regional cul de sacs. And yet, while emotionally gratifying (it appeals, after all, to that old instinct of noblesse oblige which still suffuses the outlook of the concerned professional classes), this is a deceptive vantage-point. To borrow from the terminology of medicine, "treating" disadvantage is rarely a matter of applying a cure – far more often it's the application of a therapy, the aim of which is to soothe the symptoms rather than preventing them. It's not simply that, in our rush to achieve, we've left the poor strugglers behind. The problem is more fundamental than that.

The decisions that created the welfare suburbs which stud our major cities were specific acts of policy, and many of those policies have long since been abandoned. Yet our welfare islands owe their continued existence not to those original decisions alone, but to an entire architecture of policy misdecision which continues to this day. Indeed, you could argue that, rather than having learned from the past, over the decade of our long boom we've simply been reproducing old policy errors on a much larger scale. An historically unprecedented number of those on our welfare rolls today are there not because they are incapable of working or unwilling to work, but because of a series of obstacles placed in their path – often by the same governments which claim to be trying to help them. Employers today demand of those applying for jobs of even limited skills "pieces of paper" – often of decidedly limited practical value – which too many individuals are incapable of acquiring because they fail to complete school. Young men leaving education today without some form of qualification will be condemned to a kind of workforce twilight zone for much of their adult lives. At the same time, benefits and rent assistance are still too often calibrated to taper off as people – often trying to escape from them – start to do better for themselves, so that those who fall out of the mainstream find it hard to drag themselves back in.

Sole-parent benefits and child-care costs sometimes still seem purpose-designed to discourage tens of thousands of mothers from returning to work, and have made unwilling "welfare mums" of thousands of independent-minded divorcees. Economist Bob Gregory has pointed out that female single parents – whose most common life goals are to find new jobs and new partners – don't seem able to find either nowadays, while among married women rates of full-time employment have actually been growing. Meanwhile, as Gregory has observed elsewhere, sanctioned changes to employer behaviour, labour relations and unemployment benefit provisions in recent decades have forced tens (or maybe hundreds) of thousands of older but able-bodied men to recreate themselves as perpetual state dependants and invalids. Indeed, these trends have actually worsened over the course of the ten-year boom. In 1995 the combined total of those on the sole-parent pension and the disability pension was roughly equal to the number of people on unemployment benefits. By 2005, however, the two groups outnumbered those on unemployment benefits by a factor of five to two. And while unemployment rolls have shrunk at an impressive rate (by about twenty-two thousand a year between 1995 and 2005), the sickness benefit roll has grown faster (at twenty-five thousand a year). It's possible that a majority of all those who dropped off our unemployment rolls haven't become employed, but rather have become (at least officially) sick. These are not small, isolated, pitiable fragments of the community. Put together, they add up to an absolute majority of all those on our welfare rolls, and a very considerable proportion of the entire citizen body.

Our contemporary schooling debacle accentuates these difficulties. Until relatively recently, graduates of solid local state comprehensives had a respectable chance of doing better in life than their parents. Increasingly, as ambitious and better-resourced parents defect to other parts of the system, this opportunity seems to be melting away, and with it much of a proud national tradition of self-betterment. In 2002, the Vinson Report into New South Wales state schooling quizzed principals from "low socio-economic status" areas like Macquarie Fields. One principal in outer western Sydney reported that, over the previous two years, no fewer than four-fifths of their existing teaching staff had successfully sought placements elsewhere. Out of the senior staff, the only survivor was the principal himself. Of the current staff, forty-two of the forty-six were in their first teaching appointment. In its final report to the state government, shortly after the Glenquarie riots, the New South Wales Public Education Council examined the placement of beginning teachers in schools across the state. The report noted that one-third of the new teachers who found first jobs in state schools in New South Wales in 2004 were drafted into just 3 per cent of the state's schools – each of which, on average, will have been required to digest at least seven first-time teachers each year. If these schools were the same size as that unnamed western Sydney school documented in the Vinson Report, each one of them would turn over its entire staff every six years or so. As educationist Richard Teese has observed, this is a veritable production line of social incapacity.

 

TOO MUCH OF the debate over Australia's new "age of affluence" has been moralised unhelpfully – or, perhaps more precisely, it has been moralised in the wrong way. Our key problems aren't the supposed "timepoverty" of busy knowledge-workers (in any case, as researchers at the University of New South Wales recently pointed out, the most "time-poor" are actually single parents on the workforce's fringes), or supposed enslavement to poor tastes in housing design or "conspicuous consumption" (that old reliable stand-by of disgruntled aesthetes). Those who've achieved high levels of personal and financial independence may mostly be left safely enough to exercise that independence as they see fit. (And if the exercise of that independence causes them psychic trauma, they have an historically unprecedented variety of therapies and spiritualisms of which to assuage it.)

The greater problem is that the new tide of affluence doesn't seem to have brought with it a comparable widening of this experience of personal independence. Australians have always hankered to be able to fend for themselves, but too many are still condemned to hankering. Our incomes may have doubled since the 1970s, but the numbers of those stuck on welfare has stubbornly refused to fall. Unemployment – at least as officially recorded – has halved over that time, yet the numbers of people excluded from the workforce have arguably risen, as the labour market for the unskilled has dwindled. Self-employed tradespeople and contractors nowadays may seem to live in a land of milk and honey, but too many waged employees endure fearful working existences. If we're dissatisfied with our national achievement, this may not be on account of some kind of intangible ennui. Rather, there's a promise there that lies unfulfilled, and the riots in our struggle-towns may only be the most violent indications of it.

Still our debates over work, incomes, tax and welfare continue to roll along the same well-signalled rail lines laid down for our ideological traffic thirty, forty or even fifty years ago. On the left, the size of our welfare outlays, or of our public housing stock, is still too often treated as if it were a marker of our degree of civilisation – as if tending to incapacity were an act of humanitarianism. Clearly, welfare recipients should have the right to a dignified standard of life. And in a society where most citizens aspire to own their own house in their own name, there is no particular electoral incentive for government to care too tenderly for those who cannot, unless others call them to account. Yet it's worth remembering that the advocate's outlook is a partial view. The measure of a civilised society ought not to be the size of its welfare outlays, or of its public housing sector, but rather the success of individuals and families in achieving some stable lifestyle and accommodation which can give them self-reliance and self-respect. To treat the body of public renters and welfare beneficiaries as foot-soldiers in an imagined global war between market and state provision is unfair to the hopeful, if struggling, households who inhabit that "stock" or collect those funds. They don't want to become trophies of a social vision – mostly, they just want to move on.

By contrast, conservatives have always liked to trumpet their rhetorical and ideological commitment to personal striving and independence. Yet in practice this instinct – which is no doubt sometimes sincerely felt – generally loses out to the right's more visceral revulsion against the power of state agencies, even where they can play an active and constructive role in encouraging personal independence, rather than stifling it. If the current federal government leaves behind it a single significant initiative in social policy, it will be the Job Network. In theory, the Network is supposed to "empower" jobseekers by providing with choice of job-search providers, and granting them the status of a customer rather than a supplicant to public bureaucracy. In practice, though, it serves in good measure to create and then entrench different categories of the jobless, divided by how expensive (which is to say how unprofitable) they are to help. And since few self-respecting businesses would get into an industry ordered along these peculiar lines, the experience of job-seeking under the Job Network often seems to involve less a change in customer status than a transfer of dependency, from being the supplicant of a government bureaucracy to being the recipient of Christian charity. This is hardly a monument to personal independence. Rather, it is a memorial to the ideological impasse of our times.

On the right, it's been convenient to measure the economic successes of the last decade by the flood of cash they've brought in their wake. The left – as is far too often its wont – has reacted to these claims in a negative, call-andresponse manner, either by decrying Australia's affluence as a triumph of poor taste, or seeing it as a kind of financially induced hardening of the moral arteries of the nation. Yet both of these positions, viewed from the wider historical perspective, look myopic. A century ago, Australia's quest for nationhood was measured by the extent to which the entire nation was integrated into a common public life and culture – a life and culture which had been designed, up until that point, chiefly for the enjoyment and satisfaction of the propertied classes. On this measure, the last decade has been a conspicuous historical failure in our national life – a failure made more egregious by the numerous opportunities the wealth and tranquility of the times have offered us. If full citizenship resides in possessing a secure stake in the nation and its culture, we may well have more non-citizens now than we did half a century ago. And their travails may well continue to haunt our midsummer nights.

 

IN OCTOBER 2006, after eighteen months in prison for other offences and a turbulent relationship with his warders, Jesse Kelly pleaded guilty in Sydney's Downing Street District Court to two counts of aggravated dangerous driving causing death. This time the newspaper reports made no mention of any crowd of well-wishers outside the court. In his summing-up, Justice Brian Knox SC observed that Kelly seemed to have viewed his long-running cat-and-mouse relationship with the local police as a kind of game – noting, with true judicial sententiousness, that "if it was a game, it was a particularly deadly one for his two passengers". Kelly was sentenced to a maximum jail term of seven years and nine months, with a minimum sentence of five and a half years. In handing down the sentence, Justice Knox concluded: "I do not find there are strong prospects for rehabilitation." After the verdict, Jesse's loyal grandfather, Peter Parker, spoke to reporters outside the court: "I think Jesse accepts the sentence as it stands. But who knows what lies down the road."


From Griffith Review Edition 15: Divided Nation © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review