Christopher Waters reviews Graeme Turner’s The Shrinking Nation: How we got here and what can be done about it (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2023).
In the last fifteen years several books have been published which start from the position that Australia has run off the rails as a nation over the last four decades with growing inequality, increased division by class, age and ethnicity and a significant loss of a sense of community. Graeme Turner, the cultural historian, has made a significant contribution to this growing literature with his book, The Shrinking Nation: How we got here and what can be done about. Turner’s interest in this topic arises from his long-term scholarly interest in, firstly, the changing formations of Australian nationalism and, secondly, the cultural policy settings aimed at building a national culture. The tone and format of this book is of an old style extended political pamphlet with the problems defined at length and then a short, sharp series of solutions presented to the reader. In The Shrinking Nation Turner maps out a persuasive case that over the last forty years there has been a fragmentation of the Australian nation driven, in part, by the collapse of the idea of nation-building itself and, in part, by the fracturing of the underlying national culture and the processes by which it is produced. For Turner it is the decline of a national culture, our imagined community, which is the central problem that needs to be addressed. His survey of what has gone wrong with Australia identifies, among many factors, poor political leadership, the adverse impact of neoliberalism, a form of politics focused on gaining or holding power, not governing for the greater good, the radical transformation of media and of the means through which we receive information, the attack on the idea of expert knowledge and the fading of the concept of the common good. For Turner the Australian nation has shrunk in its ambition and its capacity to build a better society for all.
One of the real strengths of this book is Turner’s critical analysis of the changing role of the media within Australian society. He traces the technological, commercial and policy changes which have created crises for traditional media outlets, but also for other institutions that produce information, knowledge and culture. He describes how people now can be simply swamped with the volume of news and information. Australians also face an unprecedented wave of disinformation and fake news which reaches them through a range of digital media, all controlled by a few technology giants. Big tech creates separate communities consuming their own news through its commercially structured algorithms. He also investigates the adverse impact of Fox News and Sky News in furthering the fragmentation of a national community. Traditional journalism too has been adversely affected by reduced resources for detailed investigations, cuts in expenditure for the national broadcasters and the loss of the young audience to other forms of media. He details how other sources of knowledge for the nation such as the CSIRO and the universities have come under sustained attack during these years. Those institutions which have been the traditional sources of national culture ranging from the Australian Broadcasting Commission to the museums to the National Library and National Archives and onto the theatres, film industry and other arts bodies, have had their budgets cut and been sidelined. All these developments have contributed to the fracturing of the nation along many lines. There are in the 2020s, Turner argues persuasively, fewer shared experiences and less of a national culture on which national purpose and projects can be built.
Having identified the many problems what are his solutions? Turner’s main solution is to rebuild a national culture on which a progressive nation could again be constructed. He proposes a whole suite of policies and actions to achieve this end. These include placing the state, not markets, back at the centre of the nation, in politics doing what is right and necessary, not just what is affordable, providing a decent social welfare safety net, challenging the idea that what is good for business is good for the nation, making national culture a first order issue, and raising taxation to fund crucial national institutions. Turner presents the idea of ‘nationing’ as part of the solution; that is the deployment of cultural policy by the government to reconstruct a national culture, somewhat along the lines followed in the 1970s and 1980s. All these measures, Turner concludes, would help to rebuild a just and equitable society.
The Shrinking Nation is a powerful polemic in the best sense of that word. It is a call for debate about the direction in which Australia is heading and for action to rebuild the foundations of a progressive nation. It does leave this reviewer with some questions. Where does power to initiate or prevent change lie in the Australian nation of the 2020s? We have seen, for example, how the huge multinational companies that dominate the Australian mining industry have successfully stopped a fairer taxation system and progress on policies designed to stop global heating. Another example is that of the broader population who own assets, especially housing, who have done very well out of the neo-liberal system and have been loath to accept policy changes for the greater good. International capital, domestic wealth holders and owners of assets will not easily accede to Turner’s new nationalist program. The question Turner needed to address in more depth is how, in the face of these powerful interests which lie both within the Australian nation and without in the world of international finance, can the changes for which he advocates be achieved? Another broader historical question inspired by this important book is whether the nation can still be the vessel by which radical reform can be achieved? In the twentieth century, which began as an age of empires and became one of decolonisation, the nation was the tool for emancipatory and progressive change. Can the nation-state in the twenty-first century still be the vehicle for achieving a just and fair society? Or do the answers lie in in other political structures, such as some combination of local and global institutions? Only time will tell us the answer. Graeme Turner’s The Shrinking Nation makes a penetrating analysis of the course Australia has taken over the last four decades. This book makes a powerful call for a major renovation of the political and social culture which underpins the Australian nation. Its great value is that it brings together so many important histories, observations, critiques, ideas and solutions in one relatively short book. Let’s hope such books fire up the political debate over the future of the Australian nation.