Australians are known for lots of things. We’re easy-going, we love the underdog, as we love tearing down tall poppies. We’ve championed the idea of a fair go. We’ve also been known as a pretty classless, egalitarian society.
I’m very pleased to acknowledge that thirty years ago this year, Nick Cater was my producer when I was the correspondent for the Channel 7 in London. His contact with a number of Aussies led him to migrate here with his family, both exhilarated and terrified in equal measure. He left behind a society, the UK, split by class, deeply divided economically and politically, with limited opportunities and lots of bad weather. He arrived in 1989 to lots of sunshine and opportunities, and has for the last 24 years, got on to hold lots of significant editorial positions in the News Limited empire.
Nick has just had published an important book, The Lucky Culture with a warning that we might no longer be as egalitarian and happy-go-lucky as we once were. He also examines what plans God has in the land down under. Nick Cater, welcome to Open House.
I want you to sketch for us the kind of place and life in which you grew up at Southhampton. You put it this way, “halfway between the oil refinery and the docks.”
It was very much a lower middle class sort of enclave. People worked at the oil refinery or they’d go into Southhampton and work in those kind of jobs. My parents were teachers, so we were some of the rare posh kids there. It was a training ground in many ways, I think, because you just learned to mix with people from very different backgrounds than yourself, and to get along with them, and to seek out the goodness and the decency in them.
What were your aspirations?
I always wanted to be an author, strangely enough. It’s taken a long time to get out of that. I wanted to be a journalist from a very early age. I used to write a newspaper. My first newspaper came out when I was almost 11, and I called it Southern Soccer. I famously plagiarized the Evening Echo with all the football results and put it on a photostamp. I’d sell it for tuppence on a Monday morning. I was always kind of into journalism.
How hard was it to break out of that world and into the world of journalism?
It is quite hard. I suppose I’d given up ambition of that. I’d become a bit socially aware, I’d read a lot of George Orwell and a magazine called New Society. It came out and told us how to correct social ills. I also developed my faith in my teenage years. As a result of that I spent a gap year working for the Birmingham City Mission. We’d try and help the people we’d now call the vulnerable in our community. We didn’t call them that then, but we’d go and do good works for the unemployed. We’d go out on these dreadful, dreadful concrete housing estates where people would live, I thought, terrible lives.
What happened with that faith?
Well, I went to university. I suppose mine was a very practical faith. It was about working out your own salvation and helping peoples’ lives. It was also about reward in heaven, of course, but for me it was very practical. I started mixing with all the Christians on campus, and they just didn’t sort of get energized about this. The final straw was when my mates at the city missioin at Birmingham said we need to get some shoes, because these down-and-out people would wear out their shoes, so we’d send them shoes. So I put an appeal up, “send us a pair of shoes, and we’ll send them up.” I didn’t get a single pair of shoes. I went berserk. I stood up at the meeting and I just yelled. I said, “You lot are just hopeless.” I might have even sworn at them. After that, I was sort of a persona non grata, and I sort of drifted away from religion a bit. But it was always in the background.
Fast forward. You got a job at the BBC, and then with the 7 Television Network in London, where we made you an honorary Aussie. I ask with some trepidation, what was it about the Aussies you encountered that you found different? How did they strike you?
Very polite. They’re just my kind of people. Very practical. A bit hard at first – they’re very tough. You can’t get away with anything half-baked. You have to deliver. My first boss, before you, was Paul Lyneham, a brilliant journalist. He’s much, much missed. A tough-minded guy when he wanted to be. You have to perform. They give you a go; getting in was the easy part. But it was whether you lived up to expectations.
Lots of can-do, which was very different from the British culture.
Yeah, definitely. I have so many examples of things in my mind that just shocked me and excited me. We went to cover Strawberry Fields, the horse race in Paris, and of course we didn’t have accreditation. We were there and couldn’t get into the race horse. Alan Dent, the camera man, said, “Come with me” We went up the fire escape and ended up on the roof of this creaky roof of this grandstand, and we just about got the shot of the end of the race. Then somebody came up and said, “What are you doing up there?” You know, friendship.
You arrived down under in 1999, exhilarated and terrified. What did you find in your new homeland?
I suppose the opportunity that I expected to find. I came without a job and ended up going to the advertiser through a mutual friend of ours, Tom Krauss sent me over to see Piers Akerman in Adelaide, and he gave me a job. I was a journalist, but I was a TV journalist, so I hadn’t written. So I felt like a fish out of water. But he took me on and gave me a go. All those things were right. It was tough – very tough, particularly on my wife at the time and the two kids. She didn’t have that working environment, and found the suburbs where we lived a very bleak place, until we got to know people. And Australians are hard to get to know, I think.
Your title, The Lucky Culture of course, echoes Donald Horn’s significant book “The Lucky Country.” It was published nearly 50 years ago. How does his Australia, and the people of Australia, that you have come to know, differ?
There’s a great sort of historical quality to Horn’s work. Of course, he’s writing about the country in ’64 when it was published. White Australia, almost entirely white people living here. Very conservative and very anti-intellectual. At that stage only about 1.7% of the population had degrees, and now it’s 25%.
His continued cries were, “We need educated people.” He was really frustrated at the end. He talked about Cornwell and the Menzies era, these grey men. I think Cornwell and Menzies was almost ’70. It was a very different Australia, but beneath it all, he draws this great hope out of the Australian character, particularly the fair go. He had no idea that we might sort of get this huge human rights industry to spring up. He says that the fair go does it. We know what it means, and we treat everybody accordingly. In that moment we didn’t need anything more complicated.
In his Australia, privilege kind of fell out of the sky to Australia. But you say the greatest resource is its people.
That’s my key quarrel with him, because he says Australia is a lucky country. It’s got these second-rate people that just happened to luck out with the country. I say that is completely wrong. Australia is not a lucky country at all. Why was it that the Dutch sailed up and down the coast for about 150 years, and then said, “No, too hard?” It was a hard place, and you had to make your own life. It’s a beautiful country, lots of resources, but I keep going back to that phrase in the national anthem. We have golden soil, but wealth for toil. You’ve got to work at it.
So we should be more grateful for what we are and what we have.
And more proud of what we are, really. After World War II, I think people got very nervous about proclaiming the superiority of their country. We had seen terrible, terrible examples of that of course. We got nervous about the idea of a super-race, that we might be a better race. But what I say in this book is that it’s nothing at all to do with race. It’s to do with culture. It’s to do with the character of the people. We know that now, because we’re a multi-ethnic country. Yet, almost every migrant who comes here comes for the same experience and inherits the same attitude.
And there’s a lot to be grateful for.
Oh, absolutely. It’s a magnificent country in so many ways. But, principally, there’s opportunity. It is what you make of it.
You’ve also found, though, this rise of a class of people who are busy sneering at the average Australian about everything from their housing and their suburbs to the way they speak.
I think that before we had this growth in higher education, nobody really felt superior to anybody else. You might feel better off, you might have a better job, you might live in a better suburb, but socially you didn’t feel superior. There’s this great habit we’ve got of riding in the front of the cab; the driver isn’t our subordinate.
Funny, only a few weeks ago an American who was over here said to me, “What is it about you guys? You thank the bus driver!” And yes we do. We do that for this reason. It doesn’t matter what you do, if you’re living honestly, then you deserve respect. That’s what we’ve always abided by. But now, increasingly, I’m nervous about this. Particularly people that have been to university think that because they’ve been there they see the world more clearly or know things better, that they have superior manners to everybody else. They keep expecting everybody to play along, and if they don’t, they’re mocked.
It’s sad, because you would have hoped for better from education.
Yeah, you would. You’d want a better education. I don’t want to despair about the way education goes, but it’s a story. It’s not unfair to come out of university and think you’re superior, because that’s what you’re paying for. University used to be this lifelong journey of learning, now it’s something you can buy. It’s a commodity.
How is this sneering playing out?
You hear it on the radio all the time. They go on about McMansions, that’s a good example. They’re mocking peoples’ houses, and then they start attacking them for being ecologically unfriendly. These are practical houses for practical people. They’ve got large families. They want large houses. And why shouldn’t they? They don’t want to live in some converted workers’ cottage in Paddington.
I kept reading what you observed about this new sneering class, and I kept thinking that it was describing not necessarily university people, but people who inhabit the media. I’ve been thinking we have a problem in the place where you and I work.
There’s absolutely no doubt about that. It’s a profession, and what sort of people go into that profession? Now, almost exclusively, it’s people with degrees. They’ve been though that higher education, particularly with arts and humanities degrees, so they’re not doing engineering or science. You immediately have a very small cohort. Then, increasingly, people are living in almost enclaves. If you live in the inner city, you meet inner city types, not like if you live out here where we are. They’re different people.
They need to get out more.
Certainly, that’s the basis of it. They need to get out more. They don’t have to go very far, just 10 kilometers will do. The test is could you go to the front bar of a pub anywhere in Australia, not knowing anybody, and determine that you’re going to come out after a couple of hours with some good mates. You can do that in just about any pub in Australia. I don’t think a lot of my younger colleagues would know how to begin. They just feel like fish out of water.
Media people spend a lot of time talking to themselves about themselves.
They end up thinking that that’s the way everybody thinks.
It’s interesting, this dumbfoundment.
They’ll say, “Well everybody knows that.” When everybody says that, then I start thinking, well do they? Do they really? You don’t think that. Probably the people you’ve been socializing with think that. But we don’t.
There’s a classic line you quote from a guy you call Ronnie the Fruit Seller, which I think is very instructive for people in the media and people in the Christian community.
This was a guy that I heard one morning on Ian McNamara’s ABC radio show, which is a great show because it does get out. This guy rang in from Mildura, I think it was, and he sells fruit. Mac says, “There’s some great people out there, aren’t there?” Ronnie said, “Yeah, but you just don’t hear their stories.” That’s right. We don’t get out and talk to these people.
There’s this overwhelming decency that characterizes Australian people, I think. There are bad people, or there are some people that sometimes behave badly, but the norm is that people are decent and they act decently to one another. And yet, we’re determined to go and find fault with them, so we have human rights commissions (and goodness knows what else) that go around and look for problems. They actually struggle to find them, if you read their report, it’s this tale of trying to find cases of racism that stand up. It’s hard to do. People actually don’t act like that. People, by and large, act very politely. When they step out of line, they’re brought back into line.
You said in the intro that you examined the place of God in Australia, which based on many of our conversations three decades ago hardly surprised me. While you don’t embrace Christian faith, you seem to be concerned about how it’s been treated over the last decade or two.
I was surprised when I met you, actually, all those years back. You did have a Christian faith.
And I was a journalist.
I’d never been to Australia, and I didn’t imagine there were any churches at all in Australia. It never seemed to me to be that sort of country. Just some shearing sheds and a few pubs, maybe. But when I started researching the book and looking at the historical role of religion, I realized why I thought that way. Religion always had sort of a secondary role here. It was always part of Australia, but it wasn’t central in the way that it was in America.
You’re uneasy about the way the new atheists in this sneering class have beaten up on the Christian community.
They have. I think this is quite ridiculous, really. Of course you can have faith or you can’t. You can have faith and that’s your business. This sort of active going around seeing religion as a threat to society, that’s new – to try to exclude them from the public square so they’re not allowed to even talk about it anymore. It’s like smoking. You have to do it in private.
You say that hostility toward religion among modern progressives requires an explanation, because it’s far more than a mere intellectual disagreement. What’s the explanation you have for this hostility, having thought it through?
I think it’s because their values are challenged. The progressive set of values, which they’d like to think is dominant, is challenged every time they meet someone who is a person of faith. You get key figures like Cardinal George Pell, who become lightning rods for their anger.
What are their values, and what’s their problem with values in the Christian community?
They have a set of values that are built on inclusiveness and rights. They’ll look and see gay marriages in terms of rights. They can’t comprehend that other people might think of it another way. We’re going to have change in this era, and it’s got to be like negotiation. We’re not going to dictate it to them this way. I’ve got my views, and I’m sure you have, but I’m just one vote. That’s the current issue, but if that one was settled there’d be another one.
There’s always some cause. Progressives have always got to have a cause. It’s not righting the wrong that matters, it’s being seen to right the wrong. So when you’ve righted the wrong, if you ever do, you have to move on and find another wrong to right. This is about moral self-worth. I think Christian people draw their moral self-worth from other things. Of course there are Christian people that are self-righteous, but mostly they contain their righteousness within them.
I think it’s a really valuable observation from the real world.
I think so much of what passes for social improvement is in fact boasting peoples’ morals. It’s not so much that we want to solve climate change, it’s that we want to be seen to be the sort of people who solve climate change. We conspicuously carry our Hessian bags, and so forth. I’ve tried to pull back and say in the book, let’s assume that people really want to do good instead of just being seen to do good. Really, privately, I think so much of this behavior is driven by desire to be seen to be one of the decent people.
Very interesting. I found the way that you finished the book compelling. You retreated to a small town in a pub in Queensland, Ravenswood. Why’d you go there? What did you find?
It was a very pretty pub. I saw it on the Net. It was built in 1904 and it’s hardly changed since. You walk in and it’s like walking back a hundred years. I picked it because I thought I had to go somewhere to spend two weeks finishing it off, and I could have gone to one of those resorts on the coast. But I thought, no, I want to go somewhere where I might actually meet some different people. So I just turned up, and asked the landlady if she had a room. She said, “Yes, would you like a key?”
I thought, that’s fantastic. I’ve never been to a pub where a key is an option. I’d work on the book all day and go down at night. There was a productive gold mine nearby, so the pub would be filled with these guys straight from the gold mine in their overalls. I’d nervously start talking to them, and they’d ask what I’d been doing. I’d tell them I was writing a book, expecting them to pounce on me as some sort of strange creature. But they just sort of take you as they find you. We’d start talking about the book and mining. The reason I did it was because my wife said to me, you’re romanticizing. You never meet these people. I thought, no, I don’t. I went there to test the theory that people are decent.
And you found pragmatic, personable, generous people.