Every day, ordinary men and women, climb into the driver’s seat of machines capable of high speeds where a collision with each other, an obstacle, or a living thing, can cause serious injury or death. These people, when they start their engines, could be feeling calm, stressed, angry, sad, or confused. The extent of these feelings may or may not be sufficient to impair their ability to drive safely to their destination. Even if their feelings are sufficient to affect their driving, most times they will be lucky enough not to encounter any problem and will live to drive another day. The same applies to the extent to which they may be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The viability of our cities, commerce, societies, relies on the trust that people behind the steering wheels of motor vehicles will behave themselves, will not endanger others, and they that they will not use the full potential of the engines they control.
With the best of intentions there will still be collisions most of which we term “accidents”. Most people do not want to incur damage to their vehicles do not want to be injured, themselves and do not want to injure others. In the best of all possible worlds we respect and value our fellow citizens and their property. We are not used to thinking in terms of our fellow citizens being in charge of a weapon that could be used to do us deliberate harm. As long as I have lived in Melbourne we have trusted that, although moving cars can kill us, that they will not be deliberately aimed towards us.
What social capital was it that we had and hopefully still to an extent remains that gave us the complete confidence to know that we could trust our fellow citizens to stop at pedestrian crossings to let us cross the road , that the cars on the road would not suddenly steer towards the footpath?
It is clear that the powers that be believe that things have changed as they are not treating the two episodes in one year of deliberate carnage in the centre of Melbourne as chance or one-off events. Their immediate response after the January event to was to install bollards. An expert on the ABC in recent days suggested raised footpaths at the first floor level as in Hong Kong. Another suggestion was to ban cars in the CBD of Melbourne. Obviously more of this is expected.
So what is it that has brought about this change in the level of alert in Melbourne, a level which takes the city from the comfortable and ordinary to being some sort of target?
Firstly let’s look at Melbourne as part of the country in which it is situated - Australia. Melbourne has had two bad events in one year - 2017. In Sydney a man held people hostage in the Lindt Café in 2014. As a result, three people died,including the perpetrator. So Melbourne is are not alone.
Comparing the Melbourne of 2017 to the Melbourne of 1987 - 30 years ago - what is different?
In 1988 we had emerged from the war in Vietnam, which had resulted in a wave of refugees from that country. There was a procedure for settling new arrivals: They were provided with hostel accommodation and free English classes on arrival. Australia’s population was then sixteen and a half million (16.5m). Corporatization and deregulation of the economy had not really taken hold. Jobs were fairly secure. In that year Prime Minister Bob Hawke gave his famous speech, swearing that, “By 1990, no child will live in poverty.” 1987 was the year the film Wall Street was released with its famous speech, "Greed is good.” In Melbourne you could still buy a decent house within striking distance of the city for under $100,000.
Fast forward to 2017: Australia has been at war in the Middle East, against Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Our governments have developed draconian policies and practices regarding the fallout from these ongoing conflicts, the most famous being the way we deal with asylum-seekers who try to arrive by boat. Any policy attempted has proven extremely divisive within our society.
The treatment of refugees selected from camps and settled in Australia has deteriorated. They do not receive the attention and care afforded the Vietnamese and others arriving in Australia in the 1980s. They are thrust into Australia's cut-throat job, housing and rental market with little preparation, although some of them come from quite different cultures or have grown up in the dog-eat-dog world of international refugee camps.
Australia’s population today in 2017 is teetering towards 25 million. That is 9.5m more than in 1987 and this additional population is being squeezed mainly into the two largest cities in Australia: Melbourne and Sydney.
Many government authorities have been corporatized or privatized, leaving people at the mercy of corporate greed and the profit imperative. Bob Hawke’s 'promise' that no child will live in poverty now looks just ridiculous, with ever increasing polarization of wealth in Australia. Job security has vanished and home-buyers are now expected to gamble on the unforeseeable, borrowing to buy a house but with no guarantees that they will be able to hold on to it.
Demand, supply and finances are now at a crisis point, and Australians are being urged to lower their expectations to aiming for a long-term rental apartment. The ultimate evidence of the housing crisis can be seen in Melbourne CBD and suburban streets with people, young and old, sitting on the pavements begging, holding cardboard notices that they are trying to collect enough money for a night’s accommodation. To buy a house within range of the CBD where you might work will set you back $1 million at least.
These are just some of the differences in our society that have come about over the last 30 years. Conditions have deteriorated and problems have become intractable: symptoms of what appears to be a systemic malaise.
Mental health issues have been mentioned in both car rampage instances and this is another area which does not cope as well as it used to. It is a system that operates from crisis to crisis against a background of housing and job insecurity. The states have sold off to private property developers the green, treed, public estates that were once reserved for the mentally ill. People with psychiatric problems are now given short-term beds in crowded add-ons to public general hospitals, with views of endless carparks, impermanent staff too busy to talk to them, and a 'therapeutic' drug regime with awful side-effects. If their problem involves drugs and alcohol, most will only receive short-term dry-outs and respite, before being plunged back into the poor-man's alternative world of ICE, burglaries, alcohol, prostitution and violence.
Refugees and other immigrants from the Middle East must today wonder how they can respect a country that supports continuous violent racist intervention overseas, whilst preaching multiculturalism at home.
Which of these aspects of our society explains the very different situation in which we now find ourselves? Maybe there are others I have not mentioned , but as a machine, our society is running poorly. Where there is the greatest stress, things will break down and people will be hurt - badly.
Our leaders need to look far more deeply into the Australia they are in the process of engineering, deliberately decreasing grass-roots input. Bollards, car-less areas in the city, and raised footpaths, just will not cut it, in my opinion. The problem will simply emerge anywhere else that it can, like a liquid under pressure. The time has come to reinvest in some social capital and to take advice from the whole community. Our politicians are simply not qualified or competent to operate without proper advice – and it shows.