A world of destinations

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The Sydney Morning Herald’s 1958 ‘Australia Unlimited’ supplement took inspiration from the words of Prime Minister Robert Menzies. ‘If I were a young man, with all the world in front of me’, Menzies told a group of businessmen in Adelaide, ‘I would want to be in Australia at the beginning of what will be its most wonderful period of development’. 1 The same sense of excitement carried through the supplement as it surveyed the nation’s current and future progress. The story of ‘Australia Unlimited’ was a ‘BIG story’, the supplement proclaimed, ‘a story to stir the pulse of all Australians’. 2 With an election nearing, Menzies and his Liberal colleagues certainly hoped the populace would be stirred by visions of continuing prosperity. 3 ‘Our slogan is “Australia Unlimited”’, Menzies declared in his campaign speech, ‘and we pronounce it with confidence’. 4

In 1999, another Liberal Prime Minister took to the lectern under the banner of ‘Australia Unlimited’. John Howard delivered a keynote address to ‘Australia Unlimited 1999’, a conference that sought to examine the ‘future of Australian politics, the economy, business and society’. 5 Howard didn’t seek to match the rhetorical vigour of his hero, Menzies, but he did seek to dispel the perception that Australia was beset by a ‘crisis of confidence’. The optimism which had ‘always characterised Australian society’ was still strong and well justified, he argued, ‘there are fewer limitations now on what Australia can achieve that at any time in the 25 years I have been in public life’. 6 ‘Australia Relatively Unlimited’ was perhaps the slogan of a less sanguine generation.

The conference was organised by the Australian newspaper, and like the previous incarnations of ‘Australia Unlimited’ was undertaken with due respect to the advertising dollar. Indeed, the large advertisements that dominated the Australian’s coverage of the conference revealed much about its themes. Ansett offered ‘a world of destinations’, Foxtel and CNN brought the news of the world to you 24 hours a day, while IBM described the ‘treasure trove of products’ available of the Web. ‘Now it really is a small world’, they explained. 7 The conquest of space remained a central preoccupation, but this space was no longer to be found within Australia’s continental boundaries. Just as they had a hundred years earlier, developments in communications and transport encouraged a growing sense of simultaneity, proximity and speed. Australia’s opportunities lay in a virtual space, a world made small through the power of technology and the promise of economic cooperation. An economy for a world, a world for an economy! Space and destiny were reunited in the latest of revolutionary trends. Globalisation was the future.

The ‘forces of globalisation could not be resisted’, the conference was told. 8 Globalisation was a ‘runaway train’, cascading change upon change at an ever-increasing rate. Taking on the role filled by progress in previous incarnations of ‘Australia Unlimited’, globalisation offered a renewed sense of dynamism and inevitability. The preoccupation with space and the unyielding sense of movement remained, however, as did the dual-edged promise of emptiness. Globalised space was free of boundaries and barriers, sustained by a lack of restrictive regulatory regimes. This emptiness offered vast opportunities for unfettered development, but raised new threats to ‘social cohesion’. Sacrifices would have to be made, jobs would be lost, fear and disappointment would flow as the pace of change quickened. If globalisation was to wreak its transformative magic, Dennis Shanahan argued, ‘the human need for security and other emotions has to be addressed’. The architects of the global economy had to consider ‘how people feel’. 9

How do people feel about the future? For Brady, progress was all about passion. Australia’s hopes rested with the spirit of its people. But the passion seems to have drained with each new incarnation of ‘Australia Unlimited’. Now, Brady’s emotive excesses seem almost comical, and there is a reluctance even to use the word ‘progress’. To modern ears there seems to be a quaint, moralistic ring to the word, unsuited to the dry, managerial discourse of global capitalism. In critical circles, of course, ‘progress’ can only be spoken with an ironic wink, identified now with the follies and deceptions of modernity. Cynicism has replaced the passion. Emptiness abounds. A sense of movement continues to pervade visions of the future, but the qualities of the journey, the experience of travelling, seem less important.



Notes:

  1. ‘A continent on the march’, in the ‘Australia unlimited’ supplement, SMH, 30 June 1958, p. 1. For an account of Menzies’ speech see ‘Australia’s progress exciting’, Australasian Engineer, 7 August 1958, pp. 93-7.
  2. ‘A continent on the march’, in the ‘Australia unlimited’ supplement, SMH, 30 June 1958, p. 1.
  3. Marian Simms, A Liberal nation: the Liberal Party and Australian politics, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1982, pp. 58-60.
  4. Robert Gordon Menzies, ‘For “Australia unlimited”‘, Australian Liberal, vol. 2, no. 1, November 1958, p. 1. See also the campaign pamphlet Australia unlimited! – a nation on the march, Liberal Party of Australia, Canberra, 1958.
  5. ‘Australia unlimited’ special liftout, Weekend Australian, 8-9 May 1999, p. 2.
  6. John Winston Howard, ‘Time to build on bold ideas’, in ‘Australia unlimited’ special liftout, Weekend Australian, 8-9 May 1999, p. 5.
  7. See the Australian’s coverage of the conference in the week beginning 1 May 1999.
  8. ‘Set policies to suit globalisation’, Australian, 5 May 1999, p. 15.
  9. Dennis Shanahan, ‘A fair and decent place’, in ‘Australia unlimited’ special liftout, Weekend Australian, 8-9 May 1999, p. 1.

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