Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The Great Australian Nightmare

I don’t usually talk about my work on this blog, since I talk about it so much in the rest of my life. However, I had a curious experience recently. I’ve just taken on a bit of work around support for low income home purchasers, and to get a bit of historical context I tracked down a 1983 book called “The Great Australian Nightmare” by Jim Kemeny.

I had never read this book, or even seen a copy, before the last couple of weeks. Yet its influence on my work has been huge. In the mid to late 1980’s this book was constantly quoted in articles on housing policy, and his arguments even if not attributed were the staple of left-wing housing comment.

I was surprised, then, by a couple of things. First, how short the book is – at a little over 100 pages its volume hardly matches the weight it carries.

Second, I was intrigued by the slightness and at times the confusion of its arguments. There was little data, a lot of assertion, and plenty of missing logical steps.

His argument is really quite simple. After a promising beginning, Australian housing policy after the second world war came to be dominated by the aim of promoting home ownership, to the neglect of other tenures including particularly public rental. This one-track housing policy leads to overpriced housing, over-investment in housing at the expense of “productive” investment, and leads to the exclusion of significant numbers of low income households from secure, affordable housing. Yet it also becomes self-fulfilling – because home ownership is the only viable alternative for households it comes to be seen as “natural”, so that it becomes what every household wants and governments become tied to it by popular will.

His argument (even in the full form rather than this one-paragraph summary) begs as many questions as it answers. By what criteria does he decide that housing is not “productive” investment? Is the mentality of home ownership created by the policy, or the policy by the mentality in a liberal individualistic society?

For all this, 26 years and two boom and bust housing cycles later, his argument is still powerful and prescient. Housing prices, despite the busts, have steadily ratcheted up, excluding more and more households. The alternatives remain as undeveloped as ever – public housing is now more a “welfare” measure and less a genuine alternative than it was in 1983, private rental is still a temporary form of housing dominated by small-scale landlords and unable to attract significant investment. And governments unhesitatingly pour money into home ownership to prop up this sector and prevent prices from falling despite the fact that anyone can see they are too high – because the banking system is geared around sustaining the value of housing, and no-one benefits if the banks collapse.

I don’t know where Jim Kemeny is now. I assume he is retired. Unlike other Australian housing academics from the 1980s like Judy Yates, Terry Bourke, Tony Dalton or Vivienne Milligan, who have stayed active in the field and made deep and lasting contributions to housing research, he was largely invisible in the field after the publication of this book. Yet his influence is still there, in me and many others like me who caught the passion for a fairer housing system, and the role of a good public housing system in creating that fairness.

Sunday, 17 May 2009

The Saints of Fromelles

A bit of a post-script on the popular religion thing. Not long after Anzac Day, Australian news reports featured the exhumation of the remains of 400 Australian and British soldiers killed in the Battle of Fromelles, in the north of France. This engagement in 1916 resulted in thousands of deaths, and many soldiers were buried in mass graves. Recent historical research has led to the location of one of these graves, and the Defence Departments of Britain and Australia are sponsoring the DNA testing of the remains to identify the soldiers. Afterwards they’ll be re-buried in individual graves.

Three reasons are given for doing this.
  • it will allow the living relatives of lost soldiers to finally know what happened to their ancestors
  • it will honour the men themselves who gave their lives to “save” the people of France
  • it will “help the people of Fromelles to erase the wounds of the war”.
Given that these young men died over 90 years ago, they are unlikely to have any living relatives who actually knew them. Any interest is likely to be academic rather than deeply personal. Furthermore, if the wounds of a 90-year-old war have not healed yet, the identification of a few foreign soldiers is unlikely to do the trick!

There are interesting parallels here with two forms of religious expression which most of us would say, if directly asked, that we believe outmoded.

The first of these is the notion of ancestor worship. While a serious religious practice in Chinese culture and in a different way in Australian Aboriginal culture, this has never been strong in European cultures. Yet here we wish to support the descendents of worthy but ordinary people to honour their ancestors and give them what we see in our culture as a “proper” burial.

The other parallel is with the worship of saints’ relics which was a popular form of medieval piety, and which still survives in Roman Catholicism. Here the remains of modern-day “saints” (people who, indeed, died to save us) will be interred, labelled and made available for pilgrimage. Already there has been blessing of the remains, and no doubt when they are identified there will be further religious ceremonies.

These young men would have felt it was ludicrous to be seen as “saints” and although they were all volunteers they were not necessarily more courageous than the average. Yet their ordinariness is a huge part of their appeal – we could be like them, with a little fortitude and the right circumstances. Just like the Christian saints, they give us something to aspire to.

In one respect at least we have an advance on the middle ages. Advances in DNA testing ensure that no-one will foist false relics on us, and pilgrims to Fromelles will at least be able to be sure that actual remains of the named soldier lie beneath.