It was a hot night and twelve of us approached an impressive spread of endangered sea-creatures at a large table under cover outside. It was Don's birthday party. We had met him a few months ago at the local squash courts, and we only recognised four of the other guests, also squash players. I looked around me carefully. Would we all get on and have a laugh, reach furious agreement on something important, or would my friend and I be silenced in the face of others’ opinions in our effort not to make waves? Worse, would my friend open his big mouth? Unlike the 'old days' when it was so exciting to meet new people, on this particular evening I was plagued with doubt because of the strong political divides that are appearing in Australian society.
You may be wondering why I would approach this seemingly ordinary and benign situation with what appeared to be almost dread, or you may, to the contrary, have experienced a similar dinner.
I have thought about why I was so uncharacteristically shy about talking to new people and here is my explanation.
Winners and losers
Some of you may remember the 1990s. This was when I noticed that the concept of “winners and “losers” came into the vernacular. I remember at the time, a teen-aged friend of a friend declaring with great assurance that the world was divided into “winners" and “losers" and nothing in between. I remembered thinking with unease that this was a very unattractive, inhumane ideology.
Twenty years later, this young lady seems to have been right in practice! Australia is no longer a country where we earn our respective livings by being useful to other people and to the society in exchange for a fair reward. Now everything is so polarised with some making a killing in the 'right' industries with others just getting the crumbs and struggling with unfriendly working hours in low paid pointless jobs which did not exist thirty years ago.
It did not take long into the dinner conversaton before I had a feeling that I was sitting down to dine with some of the 'winners' that the intervening years had produced and that I might not like how they had come to win.
The first disturbing declaration, quite early in the evening was from 'Travis'. His shaved head and bling-cufflinks reflecting the light from the charcoal patio-heater, Travis told all assembled that he made his pile by helping with websites to assist overseas buyers to purchase property in Australia. "How lovely” most murmured in appreciation of his entrepreneurship. He also added that he assisted business /entrepreneur migrants to get their visas to enter Australia. Once more there was a generally appreciative and admiring response from those present. I remained silent as I was overcome with the certainty that I was dining with the enemy. This person was helping people from overseas to exploit Australia and to make housing unaffordable for locals, I thought! To me this is a disservice to the community. This braggart was making himself a “winner" at the expense of all the poor “losers” especially young first home buyers.
Travis then got onto the subject of possums and how none of us would want to know what he had "done with some of them”. His cruel remark revolted me and I felt almost panic stricken! This opportunist was not only cheerfully assisting the overpopulation and densification which displaces urban possums, he was further (and illegally) punishing the hapless marsupials.
How did I end up at the same dinner table as this monster?
When social capital still punched above greed
I guess, thirty years ago, unimaginative and insensitive creatures like Travis would have found their own level in ordinary jobs on modest salaries. Today's system, however, is geared to making winners out of those for whom the money ingredient is everything.
A drink or two later, pleasant looking Bernice offered her opinion on the negligence of the current state Labor government in not building a particular controversial toll road. Yes, she declared , Melbourne would need this toll road as we will soon be a city of 7 million. There was not a hint of regret at all that Melbourne would lose in this transition even from the overgrown chaotic, under- serviced, dysfunctional metropolis of 4.5 million that it is now. My throat was now so constricted that I failed to chime in that if we keep going at the current rate of growth we will be 20 million in a few decades. Actually that wouldn’t have fazed others present as one of them was from London, an already a bloated megalopolis.
I prudently remained silent but was inwardly seething as I was thinking of all that would be lost with new road following new road road to accommodate ever increasing traffic in a vicious circle but never managing to do so.
This same woman further warmed to her topic. “I think Melbourne should be more like Dubai.” she declared. “In Dubai they just go ahead and build things! They get on with it and don’t get bogged down in red tape, do they Roger?” Roger joined his wife in commending the way things are done in Dubai and asking rhetorically why Melbourne could not be more like it.
Why did they care so much? I wondered, but I knew if I started an actual discussion, that we would come to blows.
I am grateful for any red tape that remains in Melbourne that gives those affected some slight chance to fight back against the destruction of their surroundings, especially from multi-storey developments and other infrastructure to cater for never-ending population growth.
I checked my phone to see the time and nudged my friend under the table. “Can we go home now!” I wailed inwardly!
These people would have been OK (apart from the possum sadist) had I met them in a different era, but now, in this era of winners and losers, I actually identify more with the losers and am out of place at a dinner party where people have done well out of the prevailing system.
We said good night and left the party, emotions churning at this near perfect demonstration of the increasing and undesirable divisions of wealth in our society. It reminded me of visiting a banking friend in Indonesia years ago, when we dined with friends of the then government. At the time it was like visiting some laughably unselfconcious members of an exotic corrupt power-elite, but the same kind of corrupt values are now reaching further and further down into Australian society and it isn't amusing close-up.