Dear 25 millionth Australian, as the official population clock ticks over to announce you, I’m sorry, it seems you’ve arrived a little late.
Not too late. It will still be great. Odds are, you and yours will thrive and grow and help make this a better country. But I’m afraid you’ve missed the best of us.
Not by much either. Our ‘best us’ was here only five years ago, in April 2013, when I was welcoming the 23 millionth Australian – a baby who had won life’s lottery by her place of birth.
And it was still here when I wrote to the 24 millionth Australian in February 2016 – someone who was brave enough to leave everything behind, all their certainties, to start again in a new country to work for a better future.
It was an overwhelmingly positive Australia, a confident country, not afraid of what the future might bring.
It was strong enough to be welcoming, proud enough to demand decency of public policy. There was an unchallenged optimism that had carried us through genuinely hard times – terrible, tragic times – with the belief that we could handle it, that we would come through and go on to build and share a better Australia.
We tended not to take our governments too seriously, but more or less trusted them to get on with it. When we had arguments, they tended to be around the same facts, not over wildly divergent assertions.
We might never have been able to define what “Australian values” were, but that itself was something of an Australian value – we knew it when we saw it anyway.
Alas, something has happened to that ‘best us’.
We’ve lost some of our friendly fearlessness. We’ve allowed ourselves to be preyed on by scaremongers, by people who seek to personally gain by dividing us. And, worse, we’ve lowered our standards, our ‘Australian values’ about what is acceptable in the face of unprincipled populists and shameless media.
After trying to steadily evolve away from previous centuries’ prejudices and acknowledge the reality of our blood-soaked and brutal inheritance, we’ve let ourselves slip back.
Major media figures trumpet racism. A significant minority party’s single core policy is sectarianism. Federal government ministers and a recent prime minister promote race-based immigration and are not only tolerated but applauded by cheer squads.
Appalling people, people who are the antipathy of ‘Australian values’, are afforded megaphones to promote outrage.
Which brings me back to you, 25 millionth Australian. Many in this more divided and scared Australia aren’t as optimistic about becoming bigger and better as we have been for a couple of hundred years, about being willing to share our common wealth.
The arrival of the 23 millionth Australian was largely unnoticed other than by me. The 24 millionth attracted more official attention with the ABS making a bigger show of the event. The 25 millionth though has been heralded with fear and concern over weeks and months leading up to the milestone.
Beyond the prejudiced and small-minded, the ‘Smaller Australia’ push over the past couple of years has largely come from the policy shortcomings of politicians responsible for our two biggest cities.
Those two cities are large by our standards, but they still represent a minority of the country’s population. As anyone who travels this land knows, Sydney and Melbourne have congestion challenges, but Australia is not crowded.
This more timid and divided Australia is disinclined to deal with the challenges, preferring to shrink from them. They want two cities’ difficulties to restrict the whole nation’s potential.
It’s more than a quarter of a century since this country knew genuinely hard times at the national level, a severe recession with dogged double-digit unemployment. We are wealthier, healthier, better educated and better off since then, but we’ve lost perspective about our journey.
A reader complained recently about an article that tried to restore some perspective about our economic performance. She pointed to the many people who were not doing well. I replied that it’s a mistake to confuse the performance of our economy with what we collectively choose to do with it.
We can afford to have a bigger and better Australia, if we want to. We don’t need to retreat from sharing this land. We don’t have to lose our optimism and be scared into smaller lives and aspirations.
We have environmental challenges, but a braver, richer, smarter country can do more to solve those challenges than a more fearful, poorer, dumber country. Again, we can afford to do what needs to be done, if we want to do it.
That ‘best us’ can still be found. You can still catch glimpses of it in the humanity people in this country show daily.
Welcome to Australia, number 25,000,000. With your experience and talents and perspective, help us regain it.