It’s Australia Day 2016 and I am sitting in the Fly cafe at Melbourne airport waiting for my flight home to Newcastle. It has been a quick, overnight trip, but in the last 18 hours I have experienced everything that makes Australia a great country.
Mum, my son and my brother are in Melbourne to watch the Australian Open tennis. We shared breakfast this morning. We laughed at remembrances of silly moments in our family history, speculated on the outcomes of the tennis, wondered at the amazing technologies coming out, and discussed Indian economist Amartya Sen’s understanding of development as societies where people are free to pursue lives they value. Yes, that last bit of conversation was pretty nerdy, but it strikes me that, for most of us, Australia is a place where we have the opportunity to pursue lives we value, to fulfil our potential as human beings. In this we are very fortunate. There are many countries in the world where this is not possible.
I was here for work, but my family members are here for pleasure. A definitively Australian pleasure. Sport. Not everyone finds joy in sport, but I do. I love it. Tennis, cricket, football of various codes. Whatever it is, perhaps with the exception of motor-sport, I love the barracking, the soaring heights of exultation when games are won, the fall from those heights when games are lost, and the edge-of-my-seat tension as games are in the balance.
The fact that we can fly from one city to another to attend sporting events highlights the privileges prosperity has brought to Australia. For some attending the Australian Open today it will be the trip of a lifetime, something for which they have saved long and hard; for some it is an annual event; for others a gift gratefully received. But in each instance it is a reminder that we have an extraordinarily prosperous society that has lifted the vast majority of us above the struggle for survival to a place where we can soak up pleasures unimaginable to previous generations.
That prosperity has brought us incredible infrastructure, world-class education and health systems, and these are wrapped inside what is arguably the world’s most stable and effective political system.
The streets of Melbourne are filled with cafes bringing the flavours of cultures from all over the world. Last night I was at a dinner meeting in a Malaysian restaurant. Mum and Lachlan ate at a Chinese restaurant. The streets and airport are filled with people of diverse cultural heritage, all with depth and cultural riches they bring to our life together.
When we arrived at the airport yesterday we took a taxi to our hotel. The driver, who performed his job well, had a physical and intellectual disability. I love the fact that I live in a country that is inclusive of those with disabilities. It reinforces what I have experienced as my own physical disability grows.
For all these things and more I am both proud to be an Australian and immensely grateful. Yet I am also aware that our nation is a work in progress, that alongside the prosperity, the sport, the diversity, and the freedoms, there are shadows. More than 200 years after European settlement we have yet to come to grips with the fact that Europeans invaded this land, slaughtered many of its indigenous peoples, stole their country, and left the survivors on the margins. The impacts continue into our day. At times we come close to addressing this primal injustice – land rights, Mabo, the apology to the Stolen Generation – but seem to pull back just when a historic settlement is within our grasp, leaving a legacy of ongoing pain and displacement. Surely it is time we resolve this.
At the same time that I am in Melbourne free to pursue the life I value, a few thousand asylum seekers are locked up on Manus Island and Nauru, their mental health systemically attacked, their freedom denied, their hopes for a lives they value crushed. They pay the price for our refusal to be great. Confronted with the growing global refugee crisis and its manifestation in people taking risky journeys at sea to find freedom we are choosing the path of morally bankrupt expedience rather than courageous virtue. There are ways we could prevent deaths at sea and provide refugees with protection, but these are more complex and politically risky.
Those asylum seekers are witness to a world where millions don’t enjoy the freedom to pursue lives they value, a world where billions live in poverty. It strikes me as tragic that we can enjoy such prosperity while children starve, and given our status as one of the wealthiest nations on earth, shames me that our foreign aid budget is in decline.
And as I sit here typing, I am all too aware that within this airport are homeless Australians and behind some of the smiles are men who abuse their wives and wives who are abused.
So this Australia Day I am not only deeply grateful for all the blessings that come with being Australian, I am also willing to peer into the shadows and see the work that remains to be done if we are to advance Australia fair.