Well-known and respected Australian researcher and social commentator, Hugh Mackay, has just released his 19th book, Australia Reimagined. In it, he paints a picture of our nation as one with some serious problems including an epidemic of anxiety and the overall malaise of a society breaking down.

But while his book covers these serious issues, the now 80-year-old commentator never falls into the stereotype of a “prophet of doom”. “I love Australia and I’m full of optimism about its future,” he says. “I’ve always thought it’s important to be completely frank but it doesn’t make me any less patriotic.”

In keeping with this optimism, as the book progresses, Mackay shares many ways we can, as individuals, change our society and move forward to a better Australia — an Australia Reimagined.

Holding a mirror up to our society
When well-known critic Phillip Adams reviewed Australia Reimagined, he wrote that Delphi had its “Oracle” and Rodin had his “naked thinker” — so too we have the “oracular, sceptical, deep-thinking … Hugh”. When this is quoted to Mackay, he laughs and says it is “high praise indeed” but he admits he loves his role as social commentator for our lives.

“I really do love and appreciate the fact there is generally a warm and positive response to my work. All I’ve done over the last 25 years is to listen very carefully to people. I’ve done The Mackay Report for 25 years and I’ve always tried to present it in easy-to-understand language. I think I’ve been very lucky to have this role.

“To be able to listen and observe really carefully — to hold that mirror up to a society. People generally feel comfortable with what I say and that’s because it rings true with them. Over the years I’ve had so many people ask me, ‘Have you been sitting under our kitchen table?’” he laughs.

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Hugh Mackay has been a prominent social commentator for decades

The very real issues we’re facing
Asked what he feels are the most important issues that we, as a society, are facing, Mackay says, “When people realise how big the epidemic of anxiety we’re currently having — once this dawns on them — they’ll realise something has to be done. When you have it on this scale, you know there’s something wrong with how we’re living. We have to connect with each other. It’s that connection that gets people through.”

Australia Reimagined states “two million Australians are affected each year” by an anxiety problem. When asked to elaborate on this, he says, “If I have a hope for this book, the big thing is to recognise that an epidemic of mental illness is the inevitable consequence of thinking more of us as individuals, and not as members of our local neighbourhood and communities.

“Compassion is the key to this — giving a bit of money to a charity is not enough. We are social animals so we better live as social animals because that’s how a society becomes healthy.”

Carbon-based energy consumption has been damaging
Parts of the country have recently experienced some of the highest temperatures ever recorded for April, and the books questions whether perhaps “we’ll need even more extended bushfire seasons and more extreme weather events to convince us that drastic measures are required to repair the damage of our carbon-based energy production”.

Mackay says, “It’s obvious we can’t go on squandering our resources using carbon-based energy and living by the cult of individualism. It’s damaging and we are going to have to do some serious rethinking.”

So, what can the average person do about climate change, especially if we’ve lost trust in politicians as he mentions in the book many of us have?

“The losing of faith in the political process I think is a very dangerous place to be in,” he answers. “When we have bushfires in April or we keep having more dramatic cyclones and weather, I think that will cause people to gradually do something. The challenge is what do we do? The upside of the loss of faith in political leaders is we might take matters into our own hands. There are groups in towns where people are going completely off the grid — Goulburn is working towards doing exactly that.”

Our treatment of asylum seekers
Another area Mackay writes about with great passion is our current treatment of asylum seekers. “There’s no other area of life where we think the best thing is to punish people. It’s an absolute stain on our national character. There are so many other things we could do. We won’t ever stop the flow of refugees — 65 million people in the world today are living in a dangerous and insecure place, and are looking to move somewhere else,” he says.

“The main thing we should be doing is putting pressure on our local Member of Parliament. If we don’t do something, eventually we’re going to have to make an apology and massive payments because we’re abusing our human rights.

“This situation will continue as long as we sweep it under the carpet. We’re being compliant with our politicians. There are demonstrations once a year or so but the Baby Boomers could dust off their protesting gear, and get in and do more. We feel we can’t take matters into our own hands, but we can and we have to let our politicians know how we feel.”

The dehumanising effect of technology
Towards the end of the book, Mackay writes, “The extent to which we are prepared to accept or resist technology that threatens to dehumanise us — will determine the kind of society we will become.”

Is he concerned about how much access very young people have to the Internet and how much we all rely on technology?

“I do think there’ll be a reaction against technology,” he says. “We had the Facebook scare recently and what we may not know is that our smartphone is sending information about what we’re saying — even if we’re not on the phone! The extent of the surveillance we’re under because of our embrace of technology is huge. I think there will definitely be a backlash. I think there’s a lot of upheaval as we rethink all these things. I think we’re going to see a return to the subject of privacy.”

He adds how important he feels it is to communicate to people and talk to them without a phone or a computer. “To lose our sense of flesh-and-blood, face-to-face social cohesion would therefore be to risk losing our sense of humanity,” he says.

Are we still 'The Lucky Country'?
So what does Mackay think about our Aussie “she’ll be right” attitude? Is it a trap where we feel we can coast on our past success forever?

“We have this mad idea that we’re the ‘lucky country’ but when Donald Horne wrote his book, The Lucky Country back in 1964, he meant that as a criticism. What he was saying is we’ve got by more by good luck than good management. Things like the mining boom were seen as a continuation of our good luck.

“People tend to think luck is good but it can be dangerous. You may not think we’re so lucky when you hear about the 16 per cent of Australian kids who don’t have access to wholesome food, and how the gap in Australia between the wealthy and the poor is growing.

“I think we will reach a point where we have to do things differently. We’re not there yet so it’s easy to turn our backs on the problems faced by others.”

Stay tuned for part two of our interview with veteran social commentator Hugh Mackay. In the next instalment, we discuss what we can do — as individuals — to make Australia a more healthy, vibrant society.

Do you still think Australia is the “lucky country”? How would you make our society more healthy?

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