25/08/2015 8:26 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

It's Time To Trust The Young

Increasingly I find my country's past easier to explain than its present. Today's Australia confusingly lacks a coherent narrative or explanation for how we are doing things, and to what purpose. How do you describe what Australian aspiration looks like in 2015?

Cassandra Hannagan via Getty Images
BYRON BAY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 24: Festival goers pack the Amphitheatre stage for Aussie band San Cisco during Splendour in the Grass on July 24, 2015 in Byron Bay, Australia. (Photo by Cassandra Hannagan/Getty Images)

Increasingly I find my country's past easier to explain than its present. Today's Australia confusingly lacks a coherent narrative or explanation for how we are doing things, and to what purpose.

The Australia I was born into in 1955 was politically tumultuous on the surface but at street level it harboured few doubts about its direction. My parents' generation grew up with the Great Depression and the war.

Many felt they had lost a decade or more of living.  They seized the opportunity to start families, build homes in new suburbs, find steady work, and generally take advantage of the 'new normal' of peace and prosperity. The migrant story of that era rested on similar aspirations.

When I first voted in the 1970s, Australian society had changed.  The personal had become political. Feminism was redefining gender roles and power relations.  The stirrings of Indigenous political activism were reaching critical mass.

New social movements, identity politics, and environmentalism all made their mark, and Australia experienced a wave of cultural assertiveness typified by a revived film industry. The future looked exciting -- less constraint and hypocrisy, more freedom and rationality, more creativity and caring, and a stronger sense of our own story and our place in the world.

By the 1990s another wave of change had washed across us, a wave of economic reform. With the floating of the dollar, lower tariffs, and ultimately a liberalised labour market, Australia leapt towards an economy based on free competition.

As in other countries, this transition involved a trade-off, stronger economic growth but rising inequality.  Yet with Medicare, expanded higher education, universal superannuation, and judicious reform of the tax and transfer systems the Hawke and Keating governments sought both growth and equity.

Moreover, Keating articulated a visionary agenda, ambitious yet achievable. Keating like no other political leader embraced responsibility for the destruction of Aboriginal society, and committed himself to the reconciliation that this demanded.

His determination to modernise the economy was balanced by empathy for the disadvantaged and an inclusive concept of citizenship and the social contract.

He was also zealous to modernise the constitution, with a republican embodiment of the Australian state itself, unambiguously something we ourselves had created. This went hand in hand with a zest for cultural expression, and a clarity and confidence about our place in Asia and the Pacific.

But how do you describe what Australian aspiration looks like in 2015?  Sixty years ago the story was to embrace prosperity and build. Forty years ago it was to embrace personal freedom and build. Twenty years ago, embrace openness and the future, and build.

Importantly, these aspirations never lived strictly within party lines. Menzies looms large as the towering figure of the post-war years - yet many of that era's foundations were laid by his Labor predecessor Chifley, and consensus prevailed over the general national direction.

Likewise while the political impetus of the 1960s and 1970s came from the left, a new generation of progressive liberals soon emerged who embraced change and developed a new and effective political synthesis.

Keating's style infuriated his opponents, yet many felt instinctively that his aspirations were right. 20 years on, though, we have not just retreated from his ambition, but from the whole idea of having shared, coherent ambition for the future at all.

Today I hear the confusion of a country at odds with itself, still with energy and a hunger for a better future, but easily discouraged and overwhelmed by doubt and negativity.

What does encourage me is the moral clarity and purpose I keep encountering in young people. I find younger Australians more clear-sighted and optimistic than their elders. Questions that perplex and polarise many of my contemporaries, from climate change to racism to equal rights, seem no-brainers to my younger friends.

In particular I meet young people innately internationalist in their outlook, while utterly confident in their Australian identity. They harbour great personal ambition, yet are impatient to make their mark for the good. They have internalised the individualist mood of the times, but also notions of equality and justice, and a strong altruistic streak.

The young exhibit psychological resilience and cultural strength in private politics and social media, but the conversations that dominate mainstream media and our representative institutions are a million miles away. Hence the paradox that while there are some signs that the young are uninterested in democracy, other evidence shows young activists are more engaged and better mobilised than ever.

As an optimist, a believer in progress, I yearn for an Australia where the national mood is positive, is about individual futures but also about a shared destiny.  I want a national conversation that is critical but not drowned in puerile negativity, where the purpose of politics is more important than the game of politics.

As an optimist I hope our sense of shared purpose can be restored.  When the clarity and energy of the young comes to grips with our democratic machinery, perhaps we can start making more sense of the present, and start putting Australia back together again.