Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 25, 2020

Australia Fair, Listening to the Nation (2019), by Rebecca Huntley (Quarterly Essay #73)

I was a real fool not to read this essay when it first landed in my post box in March 2019.  I had a quick look at it as I usually do with Quarterly Essays, felt encouraged about the prospects of the then impending election, and put it aside for later.  And of course got distracted by other things.  Then the election came along and for reasons that even the experts aren’t too sure about, Australians didn’t vote for change. I was depressed about that, so I left the book on the shelf, where it might have stayed forever except that Rebecca Huntley is featuring in the upcoming Melbourne Writers Festival, discussing her new book* in a session called “Australia’s Response to Climate Change”. (Get your tickets here, with a change of director the MWF has an excellent program and it’s all digital this year so you can ‘attend’ wherever you are).


I remembered I had this book, and took it down off the shelf. It turns out that — whatever the result of that peculiar election — I am a lot like other Australians. I don’t really care which party wins government, I just want a government that will do things.  Huntley is a social and market researcher, and this essay is about the un-silent majority, whose views are plain to discern.  This is the blurb:

For some time, a majority of Australians have been saying they want change – on climate and energy, on housing and inequality, on corporate donations and their corrupting effect on democracy, to name just a few.

Recent attention has focused on the angry, reactionary minority. But is there a progressive centre? How does it see Australia’s future? And what is to be learned from the failures of previous governments? Was marriage reform just the beginning, or will the shock-jocks and their paymasters hold their ground?

In this vivid, grounded essay, Rebecca Huntley looks at the state of the nation and asks: what does social-democratic Australia want, and why?

She starts by stating her credentials in the much maligned field of market and social research, and then goes on to demolish the idea that our politics are poll-driven — because:

If such polls were influential on policy and politics, we would have made big investments in affordable and social housing, banned foreign donations to political parties and further curtailed corporate donations to political parties, invested much more in renewable energy, maintained and even increased funding to the ABC, and made child care cheaper. We would also have made marriage equality a reality through an act of parliament, without an expensive and hurtful postal survey (the most wasteful piece of market research in the history of Australia).  We may already have made changes to negative gearing and moved towards adopting elements of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. We would have made euthanasia legal across the country and started the process leading to a republic.  We would have put more funding into Medicare and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.  We would have taken up the first iteration of the Gonski education reforms.  We would be installing a world-class national broadband network.  (p.5)

Research surveys show that 60% of Australians want these things.  I hadn’t realised that I was part of such a majority!

Huntley also debunks the widely held view that Australians have lost faith in politics, government, even democracy itself.  This is a messier argument, muddied by the well-established lack of faith in politicians.  But apparently we’ve never trusted them at any time in our history.  But we do, as a mob, like democracy, and we vote willingly and we say that we would even if we didn’t have to.  And this is because Australians expect governments to do stuff that makes Australia a better place:

Unlike Americans, Australians want an active government that boosts equality and protects the most vulnerable.  Australians believe government can be a “productive partner”.  Australians have consistently believed essential services like health, schools, social service payments to the elderly, and economic infrastructure are under-resourced.  They value these services because of their community benefit, not because of any personal dividend.  (p.16)

(There could be no clearer picture of that than the ugly pictures coming out of America where individualism has led to the worst response to COVID_19 in the world.)

The fundamental value that underpins our democracy is our belief in fairness both for individuals and the collective.  

The essay, written in the expectation that the ALP would win the election, goes on to argue that we the people want our governments to solve the big problems:

These are the issues, naturally enough, that they feel have been left to drift too long or where there has been political gridlock: addressing the challenges of an ageing population, investing in infrastructure, transitioning to renewable energy, ensuring access to affordable housing and making sure the economy benefits everyone.  (p.18)

Huntley identifies housing as the clearest example of how successive governments and their belief in the market have let us down:

Over fifteen years of focus groups, I can’t think of a topic that has provoked more comment across generations, genders, states, city versus country, or class lines.  The decline of the great Australian dream of home ownership has taught us not only that the market can’t be trusted to deliver fairness and equality, but also that government needs to do more and not less to fulfil democracy’s promise.  (p.22)

For proof of Huntley’s assertion we only need to look at the howls of outrage that accompanied the recent announcement of a government stimulus package for the building industry.

To qualify, people need to be intending to build a new home as a principal place of residence valued up to $750,000 including the land, or planning to renovate an existing property, with the upgrade valued at between $150,000 and $750,000. (The Guardian, Renovation grants, 3/6/20).

With homelessness at crisis proportions, and the problem of people sleeping rough during a pandemic, this misdirected $688m program is a disgraceful waste of public money that could and should have gone into public housing.

Huntley has more to say in this interesting essay, with whole chapters on housing, climate policy, immigration and racism, and the need to reform politics (election funding &c).  Although in many ways the essay hasn’t aged well because of the election result, if Huntley’s research is valid, it gives some hope about the fundamentals that Australians really want.  All we need to do is get involved and demand it.  Because the last time Australians were really fed up with inequity, they formed the grass roots movements of the 1970s, which gave the ALP the courage to align itself with those demands.  And that’s how we got the reforms of the Whitlam government.

*I have ordered Huntley’s new book, it’s called How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference

Author: Rebecca Huntley
Title: Australia Fair, Listening to the Nation
Quarterly Essay #73, published by Black Inc 2019
ISBN: 9781760641399
Source: personal subscription

Available from Fishpond: Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation: Quarterly Essay 73 or better still, subscribe through the QE website.


  1. Thanks for this review, Lisa, especially for including so many quotes. The unexpected election outcome happened in time to be discussed in the correspondence in the following QE. There are some very interesting comments there about the differences between what people want and how they vote.


    • My memory is stirring, Jonathan… I didn’t read that one because I was too dispirited, and I dispatched it straight to the Op Shop. But I seem to remember commenting on your review of it?
      The thing is, this is now going to matter even more. We have a mega deficit, and we the people need to think intelligently about what comes next and we need to make sure that both sides of politics hear us. Austerity is stupid, but there will be cuts in some areas, for sure, while there will be spending to stimulate the economy in other areas. We do not want any more misdirected programs like the renovation scheme, we want programs to solve the problems which have been exposed by the pandemic. Even the most selfish people now understand that *everyone* needs good broadband, shelter, health literacy as well as general literacy and values education that encourages a sense of *community* welfare. These things now have to be put right…

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s so frustrating that our wonderful library stocks so few Quarterly Essays and they are prohibitively costly for me to buy. The last election was so disheartening my friends and I had to drive out and sit by the sea and just sit together in a huddle of misery – one friend burst into tears – we had hoped for real social change – it was horrible. If so many of us wanted these things Lisa where did that campaign by Labor/Greens go so wrong?


    • You mean that they do subscribe, but that there’s not enough copies to go round? The problem at my library is that they shelve them not with all the magazines, but in the NF collection, which until I subscribed, meant I never saw the latest one when it came out.
      Jonathan addresses the question ‘what went wrong?’ in his review, see


      • They’re shelved in the non-fiction section instead of altogether with the magazines yes – and they seem to also have very few of them. I should take it up with the head librarian while the library is still actually open… she only took over just before covid19. Perhaps I can persuade her to improve the collection!

        I will have a look at that link thanks Lisa.


        • And I confess I’m fairly despairing – I handed out how to vote leaflets for Labor at the election and most people just wanted Pauline Hanson – regional Australia can be terrifying. (Apologies to anyone here living in country Oz but it must be said..)


          • Yes, I have to confess that whenever I see country Oz people complaining about how they can’t get doctors and other professionals… I think to myself that their political culture has something to do with it.


  3. What is the saying? The more things change the more they stay the same. I also am very disillusioned by leaders all over the world.


    • Ah, there are signs of hope.
      Our Esteemed Leader said yesterday that there would be no austerity.
      Our Esteemed Leader has made some Very Stupid Mistakes, but also some good decisions like the ones on child care, money for hospitals etc. We must not forget how much it hurts a government like his to pay for the programs that they have, and we must channel that.
      I must be the only person in the country who thinks not having parliament has been a good thing. It has deprived That Wretched Woman and her ilk of air, and it has left Our Esteemed Leader free to do what he likes via the national cabinet without being harassed by the rump in his party. We should channel that too!

      Liked by 2 people

  4. More reading for me … :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t hold our Leader in such Esteem. His failures in the fields of climate change and refugees verge on criminal. But is reassuring at least that a majority of Australians still want a mixed economy. If only Labor has freed itself from neo liberalism and coal fired unions.


    • Oh Bill *shakes head in dismay* You know me well enough to know that my use of capitals is a sign of irony!


      • *I* got it Lisa! (Sorry, bill) And, like you, I think Morrison has done some good things through this pandemic. Not enough of them, but better than some nations we could name. And, like you, I think it’s worth noting that the monetary things they’ve done have been hard for their party. (What I’d like for them to do is to admit they were wrong about the ALP’s stimulus package approach during the GFC, and then suggest they all start from scratch with no more sniping on this issue!)

        I know many are cynical about the “fair go” aspect of Australian culture that Huntley seems to be suggesting is still there, but perhaps we can see it alive in what Morrison has done? What exactly is fair is always going to be debated but at least they did more than we might have expected.


        • Well, you know, it’s interesting..
          I listen to Coronacast nearly every day, and the interesting thing about our troubles in Victoria, is that of all the states and territories, research showed that Victoria had the best levels of compliance with the lockdown and this is a measure of social cohesion and concern for others. Norman Swan was making the point that Victoria was best placed to cope with an outbreak, and that it will be much worse in other states that are much less compliant. (Qld was the worst, which makes Annastacia Palaszczuk’s condescension towards Victoria all the harder to put up with.)
          I agree that we will will always argue about what a fair go is, and it might well be that what Our Esteemed Leader has done was motivated by practicalities rather then fairness, which means those supports will be withdrawn as soon as they can get away with it. There was talk early on about how it would be impossible for him to withdraw free childcare, but hey, they’ve done that already. Whatever about that, he is motivated first and foremost by political survival, so it’s really up to we the people to insist on what we want.
          I know I keep harping on about this, but I have no patience with people who can’t be bothered with politics and then bitch about how they don’t get what they want. It is a well-known fact that politicians in marginal seats respond to pressure!

          Liked by 1 person

          • And there, in what you say and political survival, really, is my concern about how right Huntley is about “fairness” in Australia THOUGH I do think we are happier with big government (so with government providing services for all) than Americans are, and that must mean some acceptance of fairness still in our national psyche.


  6. […] Future have made it so.  As Huntley demonstrated in her Quarterly Essay (#73), titled Australia Fair, Listening to the Nation, market research shows that Australians do want change.  Her book is a manual on how to achieve […]


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