Back in February 2008 Brendan Gleeson, then based at Griffith University in Australia, was a visiting professor at NUI Maynooth. Based on his observations he penned an opinion piece for European Voice entitled Lessons from Down Under. At the time he was criticised for being too negative and pessimistic. Three years later, it seems his prognosis was prescient. Now back in Ireland on a permanent basis, it’ll be interesting to see what he makes of the place. He’ll be joining IAN as contributor. Here’s the EV piece.
For years, Ireland was the boom baby of Europe, the golden child of economic liberalism. It grew fat on low taxes, generous friends and good fortune. Up close, the Celtic Tiger looks more ragged these days. Are these first hints of trouble also an augury that Europe is not, as the optimists suppose, going to escape scot-free from global recession? Are faultlines in the liberal model now – belatedly – being exposed?
EU expansion has always brought fresh tribute to the growth feast. But the migrant worker-ants are now moving on to new fields of opportunity. The Irish Independent recently reported that immigrant workers are being wooed on to Estonia, Hungary, the Czech Republic – even back to Poland.
And what of Ireland’s heartlands? For this is an increasingly modern European nation – that is, suburban. The drums of discontent are beating for the Tiger. Unplanned growth has pushed people into car-dependent suburban sprawl.
Dublin’s congestion is awful and dispiriting. Schools are over-full, hospital waiting-lists long and lethal, and, outside central Dublin, much of the public realm looks neglected.
What will outer suburban workers do when petrol prices go through the roof? Ireland might start to lose its grasp on the knowledge workers who have brought it success.
Australia, another precocious boom child, is newly aware of the limits of the ‘hands-free’ growth model. The ancient proverb quos Deus vult perdere prius dementat, (roughly ‘those whom God wishes to destroy, He first sends mad’) aptly describes conservative opinion in Australia in the last years of the recently departed John Howard government.
The folly of the commentariat that supported the Howard government took many forms: climate scepticism, a ‘no poverty’ mythology and faith in the infallibility of the market.
Mounting contradictory evidence included a biblical drought, surely driven by climate change, sporadic outbreaks of unrest in urban poor communities, and an economy bursting with ‘capacity constraints’, after years of under-investment in key public infrastructure. Conservative opinion-makers reassured the public that these maladies were not real, just spectres raised by a hand-wringing Left.
The edifice of denial collapsed when Australians rewrote their own history and for the first time threw out a national government at the height of an economic boom. Howard’s “Go for growth!” election mantra was spurned by an electorate tired of freewheeling boosterism.
In Australia global warming is a ‘clear and present danger’, to use the language of Hollywood. The extraordinary dryness and heat of recent years have disturbed the national mindset. Surveys confirm public belief that the strange weather of the past decade arises from climate change not natural cycles.
Australians looked with increasing alarm at a national economic growth model that cheerfully inflated greenhouse gas emissions and failed to consider or provide for the costs of adapting to a warmed climate. They also accepted as real the threat of peak oil prices. “Pain at the pump” was the media’s catch cry in recent years as petrol prices rose relentlessly. Again, denial in the commentariat: “We’ll find more oil, it’s just a temporary problem.” “No it isn’t,” said the car-dependent, mortgage-strapped voters of Australia’s heartlands, the suburbs of its great cities.
A river of interest-rate rises carried neo-liberal hopes out to sea. The dedicated inattentiveness that defines economic liberalism explains the failure of the federal government to address the many mounting stresses, especially in infrastructure capacity, which drove up inflation and thus interest rates.
The electors were not interested in the technical issues, but knew whom to blame for failing to provide sound technocratic oversight of the economy during the boom. Australia’s suburban heartlands ached with laments as the cost of money, petrol, food (the drought) and services rose relentlessly. What was the point of “near to full employment” when a wage could not cover the basics? Howard’s attempt to liberalise employment conditions infuriated voters further. Metropolitan suburbia threw the government out on its head.
What might Ireland learn from the Australian adventure? Both nations have enjoyed an economic boom conjured by the miraculous power of an unleashed market. Both had wonderful offerings for the growth feast: a well-educated citizenry, strong social capital and lots of unexploited nature. Much of this stock has been run down. In Australia, civic realisation of blight and waste ended the reign of a politics committed to hands-free growth. It surely has the capacity to do the same in Europe, especially in Ireland.