Cancel or Recalibrate?

In the wake (sic) of wokeness and cancel culture, it was interesting to read that Disney has decided to add a health warning of “negative depictions of cultures” to re-runs of the Muppet Show. So rather than cancel these programmes, it has chosen to (re-)contextualise the content for a contemporary audience.

I don’t have a problem with this type of labelling, or indeed on any other content, if it helps to aid understanding, generate debate, and acknowledge past lapses of taste or judgement. Especially as programmes like the Muppet Show were huge in the heyday of mass-market network television, before cable and streaming fragmented audiences into pre-defined sub-genres and segregated demographics.

Indeed, I’ve grown used to similar health warnings attached to re-runs of many BBC radio dramas, from the 1950s through to the 1980s, when “social attitudes were somewhat different to today”.

But, if we continue along those lines, should we be applying similar health warnings to Shakespeare’s plays, Greek tragedies, French farces, Norse legends, European folklore as told by the Brothers Grimm, or Roman accounts of gladiatorial victories over their hapless victims?

In which case, I look forward to the same contextualisation (and health warnings) of any programmes that quote, cite, promote or reference key religious texts, most of which were written hundreds and thousands of years ago, yet which similarly offend our current values and societal norms.

Next week – Facebook and that news ban

Transition – post-pandemic career moves

Even before the latest lock-down v3.0 in Melbourne, one of the other members of my co-working space in the CBD decided they’d already had enough of being confined to a 5km radius, working from home, and other lock-down related restrictions. Having had their interstate travel curtailed over the past 12 months, and suffering from cabin fever, they have opted to spend the next few months living in and working from various Airbnb locations around regional Victoria. Even though they are used to WFH, recent experience has shown that they don’t need to be confined to one place. And this post-COVID shift in our work/life patterns (already being disrupted and enabled by remote working) is only increasing.

Likewise, a client I spoke to in the USA last week informed me that they had just settled into a new location on the west coast, and was “living the dream” of a nomadic existence.

More extreme is the recent example of a Guardian employee who, having had to travel from Sydney to the UK for a family funeral last year, then took several months to get back home (due to flight cancellations), but managed to keep working remotely from various European locations as he moved around to stay ahead of border closures.

Prior to this past weekend, and despite the city being out of Stage 4 lock-down for 3 months, private offices in Melbourne’s CBD have only been allowed to operate at 50% of capacity – the proposed move to 75% capacity has been put back. It means, for example, that even on a really good day, my local coffee shop is still only doing 60% of its pre-COVID business.

It’s my guess that the combination of office restrictions and many retail and hospitality businesses simply not bothering to re-open at all means the CBD is barely operating at 40-50%. It’s deceptive – some activities (e.g., construction) have continued pretty much unabated (even expanding while there is less traffic on the roads); while others have been shut down altogether (e.g., entertainment). Certainly food delivery services are still in demand, while some retail has been doing a bit better as customers appreciate the novelty of shopping in-person.

Monday to Friday in the CBD is like a bell-curve distribution – Mondays and Fridays are much quieter, as people choose to WFH part of the week. Which is challenging for employers, as they try to revert to “normal”. But assuming a mix of remote and on-site working continues, it probably means less overall demand for office space. (It’s also difficult to assess the impact of the CBD exodus on suburban hubs.)

So all that construction work suggests we will have an over-supply of commercial premises (offices, shops, restaurants and hotels).

Residential property is a similar story – student accommodation is far from full, as overseas students aren’t returning; and more inner-city apartment buildings are still going up, but there is something of an exodus from the city to regional and rural locations.

The latter tree- and sea-changes are being fueled by a number of factors: a desire to leave the city (which is more prone to lock-downs); low interest rates (so, cash out the equity in your suburban home and move to the country where your money buys you more); increased opportunity to WFH (see, 5G and the NBN have their benefits!); and a broader wish for a different work/life balance.

Unfortunately, this shift is also putting pressure on local housing supply – average property prices are going up faster in some regional centres than in the capital cities; and more nomadic lifestyles are driving up demand for short-stay accommodation. The combined effect is higher rental costs and reduced supply, tending to squeeze out the locals.

Ironically, we’ve heard farmers and primary producers in rural and regional Australia complain that they can’t get seasonal workers due to COVID restrictions on international visitors (especially students, back-packers and experienced fruit pickers). Conversely, we’re told that 90% of jobs lost after March last year have now been recovered – although this apparent rebound is mainly in part-time roles, not full-time positions. It would be interesting to see a detailed breakdown by industry, as some sectors (tourism, aviation, universities) are still struggling.

The hiatus (and disruption) brought about by COVID and subsequent lock-downs has no doubt prompted many people to reassess their careers: where do I want to live/work? what type of work do I want to do? which industries or companies are hiring? and for what roles? As part of a wider re- and up-skilling initiative, the Federal and State governments are offering a range of free vocational courses (mostly Cert I to IV programmes), as well as some enhanced “pathways” to trade apprenticeships.

While this is to be applauded, I can’t help feeling the effort is at least 5-10 years too late to address the technological, demographic and societal changes that began at the end of the last century, with the advent of the internet, cheaper technology, an ageing population, increased globalisation, inefficient taxation and tariff systems, and general economic restructuring. If nothing else, COVID has demonstrated the need for more resilience in the domestic economy, (and a reduced reliance on overseas imports and supply chains) such as smart manufacturing and food security.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine recently related that a nephew of his had dropped out of college (like many of his peers in the USA and elsewhere) and decided to become a self-taught expert in DeFi, as there is more chance of financial success (and career satisfaction) than obtaining an “off the shelf” bachelor degree….

Next week: Corporate Art

The Return of Cultural Cringe

I was recently reminded of the phrase “cultural cringe”, a term which I hadn’t heard for a while, and which is often reserved for when Australian politicians resort to fawning over visiting dignitaries and royalty. (Remember Tony Abbot’s knighthood for the Duke of Edinburgh?) More usually, it reveals a misguided belief that nothing produced locally can be any good.

The latest use was in response to a discussion about Australian expats stuck overseas, who are trying to return home during the pandemic. There was a general view that the criticisms revealed in The Guardian article were “fair”; there were also some comments to the effect that the reason many Australians go overseas is to take advantage of work or other opportunities not available to them here; while another suggestion was that local cultural cringe can drive people away. Cultural cringe is part and parcel of Australia’s identity crisis and the associated tall poppy syndrome, but it’s a complex issue….

When I first came to Australia as a child in the early 1970s, I was very surprised to see how much American influence there was. From TV programmes, to consumer brands; from car makes to drive-in cinemas; from fast food chains to the local currency. While I wasn’t as crass or naïve as my schoolmates back in the UK (some of whom thought that Britain still “owned” Australia) it was nevertheless surprising how much American culture there was. Local TV content was mainly limited to sport, game shows, and a few police dramas from Crawford Productions – this was long before the heyday of Aussie soaps and the stream of pop stars they generated.

On the other hand, there was also a growing engagement with Asia Pacific (and not just a result of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war). Japanese-made electronics were available in the shops (items which were not as prevalent at the time in the UK, possibly due to the latter’s recent membership of the European Common Market). The Osaka Expo of 1970 had been a big deal in Australia, and even warranted a set of postage stamps. Then there was Gough Whitlam’s visit to China in 1971. At school, I studied South East Asia geography, and had the option to study Japanese alongside French and German.

But I was also painfully aware of being called a “Pommie bastard” (and the kids at school were equally free in their use of similar terms for anyone of Mediterranean or Eastern European heritage). In my case, the term of abuse was prompted by England winning the 1970-71 Ashes tour of Australia – as if it was my fault that Australia had lost the series, failing to win a single test match. Up to that point, I had no particular interest in cricket whatsoever – but it was a defining moment that has meant ever since, I always support England and whoever is playing Australia. Those school-yard experiences revealed a sense of parochialism, narrow-mindedness and a weird superiority complex when it comes to sport – which is still prevalent today when support for national teams leads to jingoistic flag-waving.

Anyway, when my parents took our family back to London a few years later, I never expected to return. However, I kept an interest in Australian culture, or at least the portion that found its way to the UK (pushed out by lack of domestic opportunity and/or local appreciation?). Figures such as Germaine Greer, Clive James, Barry Humphries and Robert Hughes, who were regulars on British TV; films and books by Peter Weir, Peter Carey and Bruce Beresford; music by The Saints, Nick Cave, The Go-Betweens and The Triffids – all of which seemed to find a better audience outside Australia rather than within. Maybe Australians didn’t think these cultural references represented them as well as more mainstream fare such as Cold Chisel, Midnight Oil and Crocodile Dundee? Of course, Australia also has a tendency to be quite censorious towards anything counterculture.*

The other side of the cultural cringe is the belief that everything local is “world class” (whatever that means) – that anything Aussie-made is simply the best. When I came back to live and work in Australia, I witnessed the “not made here” syndrome. Working for global brands, I would often meet with local companies, to present our products and services, most of which were developed overseas. “Is anyone already using this product in Australia?”, I’d be asked. “Er, not yet, we wanted to give you the first opportunity to try it.” “In which case, come back when you have some local customers.” (Conversely, if we introduced a new service that had been developed locally, I would sometimes be asked, “Who’s using this overseas?”. “Er, no-one – it’s specifically designed with regional customers in mind.” “OK, come back when you have some US or European clients.”)

Which brings me back to the point about Australian expats having to go overseas to get access to experience and opportunities unavailable here. The irony is that many of those expats who are trying to return home will be bringing a wealth of expertise with them, that would surely benefit the local economy.

Next week: FinTech Australia Road Show

* The “Barry McKenzie” books (created by Barry Humphries) were initially banned in Australia, while Richard Neville relocated some of his publishing operations to London after OZ magazine had been prosecuted for obscenity (ironically, OZ faced further prosecution in the UK). No doubt Daevid Allen, a mercurial figure in the beatnik and hippy counterculture, and founder member of both Soft Machine and Gong, would have struggled in the Australian music scene of the 1960s and early 1970s. As for artist and performer Leigh Bowery, his achievements in London are overlooked or unrecognsied here. But he was probably too out there for local tastes, notwithstanding the Australian appetite for mardi gras, drag and high camp (as epitomised by The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert).

The Day That Can’t Be Named…

Today’s date, January 26th, has developed a deep identity crisis, much like the Australian psyche: who are we, how did we get here, and what does this day actually mean? A celebration of colonialism – or a day of indigenous mourning?

Leading up to this year’s public holiday, there has been: a muted response to suggested changes to the current National Anthem; a bewildering comment by the Prime Minister about finding equivalence in the circumstances of people sailing on the First Fleet and the impact those arrivals had on the indigenous population; constant bickering between the State and Federal governments about pandemic-related border controls (hardly an advertisement for Federation); renewed angst about the Australian cricket team (always a measure of the public mood); and an apparent drop in public support for an Australian Republic.

And there lies the nub of the issue. For some time now, it has felt that progress on a number of constitutional and cultural reforms has been hampered by the fact that Australia still hasn’t reached the maturity of declaring itself a Republic. The impediment to moving forward is the adherence to the post-colonial model of a Federation retaining the British Crown as the Head of State. The fact that we don’t formally recognise or celebrate Federation is in itself very telling.

Lack of maturity is endemic – from the habitual need to shorten words and phrases verging at times on baby talk (why on earth do the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition choose to refer to themselves by their nicknames, “Scomo” and “Albo”?); to the suspicion of anything subtle, sophisticated or successful (the tall poppy syndrome).

Another foil to constitutional progression is the disproportionate influence (and position of privilege) that religious institutions retain in what is supposed to be a secular society.

Then there is the inability or reluctance to celebrate national success (apart from on the sporting field). Yes, Australia does “punch above its weight” in many areas, but there is so much inherent conservatism (small “c”) built into the system. The combination of 2-party politics, 3-tiers of government, cosy commercial duopolies, complex taxation, rigid regulatory frameworks, the laggardly trade union movement (not to say timid public policies on the environment, science, technology, education and the arts) inhibits innovation and experimentation. This institutional inertia (or conspiracy) all adds up to on overwhelming sense of acceptance, complacency and “she’ll be right”.

What if we had to work from the basis of some alternative histories? How would that change our views about January 26th? For example, what if either the French, Dutch, Spanish or Portuguese had colonised this land in the 17th or 18th century instead of the British arrived? What if the First Nations of Australia had developed metal tools and had fought back and won? What if Chinese fishing fleets or Indian trading vessels had established control of Australian waters and harbours long before the Europeans arrived? What if Indonesian or Malay tribes had settled here even further back than that? What if Japan had won the Pacific War?

This is not to excuse or justify the actions of the British in colonising the many nations that already existed in Australia, and all that followed from that. After all, the British Isles themselves had been invaded and conquered on many occasions over the centuries, so the First Fleet could be seen as a logical extension of that sequence of events. But perhaps this perspective can provide some additional context, helping us to reflect on the events and circumstances that have brought us to this point, and hopefully point to a way forward.

Next week: The Return of Cultural Cringe