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Australia then and now

Indian students play cricket in a laneway in Melbourne AFP

Note: This piece was originally published in January 2015

On January 26, Australia Day 1992, international teams were arriving for the first World Cup in the antipodes, and the country had a new prime minister.

Just before Christmas, Paul Keating had unseated his former boss, Bob Hawke, the Labour Party prime minister who had won four federal elections since 1983. Keating took the opportunity of his Australia Day speech to chart a new course for the country. Australia's future prosperity and security, he said, lay in Asia. Our time under the American umbrella would pass, just as it had under the British empire. In trade and immigration, Australia must not be the Asian community's standoffish neighbour but one of its members.

The idea seemed daring. Australia was accepting 121,000 migrants a year, but one in three came from Britain and New Zealand. Just 5% were from Hong Kong, a negligible number from mainland China, 2% from India. The corpse of the White Australia Policy, which had discriminated against non-European immigrants for seven decades, was still cooling in the earth, only 19 years buried. Japan was Australia's biggest trading partner, as it had been since its post-war re-industrialisation, but the other mainstays of Australia's international relations were North America, Britain and Europe.

The World Cup started, on February 22, with a shock. Australia, led by Allan Border and boasting several veterans of his champion team from the 1987 cup, including David Boon, Dean Jones, Steve Waugh and Craig McDermott, were hot favourites. But on the first day of the tournament, at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand captain Martin Crowe threw the new ball to offspinner Dipak Patel - who, in previous encounters with Australia, had not only not been a new-ball bowler but had not been a bowler at all. The Kenya-born spinner with Indian heritage confused and constrained the Australian batsmen, dismissed Border, and set off a chain reaction that soon sent the big brother of the two co-hosts tumbling out of the cup, which would be won by Pakistan. The Asian century indeed!

Australia, we now know, was on the cusp of historic change, though not in every respect. Queen Elizabeth arrived for a tour that coincided with the beginning of the 1992 World Cup, and Keating made speeches about taking the Union Jack off the flag and creating a republic. The Queen's annus horribilis began with the prime minister putting his hand on the small of her back to guide her into a function. The shift to Asia was ineluctable, but Keating's attempts to alter Australian symbolism would fail, and the monarchy would prevail. For Australians, enough radical change was enough.

"Since 1992, the Chinese-born population of Australia has increased fourfold; the Indian-born component has gone up by a factor of six. One in eight Australians is born in China or India"

Twenty-three years later, with the World Cup returning to Australia and New Zealand, Asia has arrived. Australia's population has increased from 17 to 22 million in that time, but is much more colourful. Net migration is now about 170,000, and the leading countries of origin are India and China. Since 1992, the Chinese-born population of Australia has increased fourfold; the Indian-born component has gone up by a factor of six. One in eight Australians is born in China or India. Some six million of today's Australians, more than a quarter of the population, were born overseas, compared with fewer than three million in 1992.

Back then, such transformation would have been as inconceivable as an Indian 20-over competition becoming the cricket world's centre of financial gravity. The change in Australia's geographic and ethnic orientation would happen gradually, and it is more noticeable now than 23 years ago, when, in any case, there were more urgent problems facing the new prime minister.

Keating was taking over the leadership of a country with unemployment, inflation and interest rates all in double figures. Australia's economic disposition - which many attributed to Keating's stewardship as treasurer under Hawke - was its weakest since the Great Depression. The unemployment rate was to climb later in 1992 to 11.4%, the highest since the misery of the 1930s. The Australian Bureau of Statistics registered just 25,000 job vacancies in 1991, the lowest ever recorded. (In 2012, the most recently recorded year, at a time of technical full employment, there were 181,000 jobs advertised.) For those of us who can remember searching for work in the early 1990s, it was a grim and anxious time. Secure employment, if it could be found, was a national obsession. The week the World Cup started, Keating launched a program called "One Nation", aiming to create 800,000 new jobs in four years.

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Looking back, that recession would turn out to be the dying gasp of what had been a predominantly male, full-time, unionised Australian workforce. Of those who still had jobs, 77% were traditional full-time wage earners and 41% were members of trade unions. Seventy-five per cent of men and 49% of women were in the workforce or looking for employment. When Australians got back to the expanding workplaces of the mid-1990s, the landscape had changed. Women were on the march.

Today, close to 60% of women are in the labour force, whereas the male participation rate has drifted down to 70%. Union membership has plummeted to 18%. More flexible working arrangements have mushroomed, with nearly half of Australian workers now self-employed, part-time or casual. And the aged have made a comeback: in the 1991-92 recession, only two in five workers between 55 and 64 years old were participating; now, nearly three-quarters are.

To live in Australia at that time was to be troubled by a feeling that the nation was spent. A common complaint was that our standard of living, which had been the highest in the world for much of the 20th century, was slipping to the bottom of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) list. Past resources booms were over, presumably forever. The post-war manufacturing workers' paradise had been dismantled. Prices had doubled in a decade, and old-economy jobs were vanishing. The internet, and its allied technology boom, was yet a figment of scientists' imagination.

On the cricket field, Border's Australia were fading. Shane Warne had played his first Test match a month before the World Cup, but, pummelled by Ravi Shastri and Sachin Tendulkar, the chubby blond boy looked like he might not be worth persisting with. He was never under serious consideration for the World Cup.

If Australia sounds like a depressed place in 1992, it was. Keating's embrace of Asia had a sombre undercurrent; if we were not to become a full partner in the rise of Asia, we would be its white trash.

The World Cup will return in 2015 to find an Australia that is appreciably older, wealthier, browner and fatter than in 1992. The median age of an Australian is now 36, a big change from the 31 years it was in 1992. One in every three Australians was under 14; now, fewer than one in five are. Life expectancy in that period has risen from 77 years (74 for men, 80 for women) to nearly 82 (80 for men, 84 for women). Australians live longer than anyone except for Japanese and Swiss, a sure sign of the astonishing economic surge that has taken place in the past two decades. Weekly earnings have doubled in those 23 years, but unfettered by high inflation. Gross domestic product has doubled, from $21,700 to $43,000 per person, and the currency is worth 30% more. Australians' buying power, in terms of what their wages can purchase in imports, has quadrupled.

"The World Cup will return in 2015 to find an Australia that is appreciably older, wealthier, browner and fatter than in 1992"

The economic miracle began after significant internal restructure in the 1990s, but took off midway between the last World Cup and this one, when China liberalised its economy and became Australia's No. 1 customer. An insignificant player in 1992, China is now by far Australia's leading trading partner, buying $65 billion worth annually of Australian goods and services (a large chunk of it being iron ore for steel production). Australia has a $24 billion trade surplus with China. Our other top trading partners are, in order, Japan, India, Korea and Taiwan, who together account for two-thirds of Australian international commerce. Since 1992, exports have risen from 16 to 22% of Australia's GDP. Australia's prosperity, through trade with Asia, has been precisely as Keating foresaw on Australia Day 1992.

The Asianisation of Australia has not been uncontroversial. Reactionary political movements, such as Pauline Hanson's One Nation party and Clive Palmer's Palmer United Party, have expressed unease with the changing face of Australia. While One Nation, in the late 1990s, and the PUP today seized a balance-of-power position in the Australian parliament, they have always been fringe elements: more than 90% of Australians vote for parties that support high immigration from and increasing trade with Asia. (And the PUP, while its voter constituency is similar, does not have the overt anti-immigration position of Hanson's movement.) Anti-Asian remnants linger in many parts of Australian society, but the middle ground has moved a considerable distance since the end of White Australia in 1973.

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The end of institutionalised racism was a keynote of the 1992 World Cup, which welcomed South Africa for the first time. The Proteas - no longer the Springboks - had not toured Australia since 1964. Their previous planned tour, in 1971-72, had been cancelled under a cloud of anti-apartheid protest, and they had been outlawed from international competition until 1991. The return of South Africa made the 1992 World Cup significant for that reason alone. Led by Kepler Wessels, who had moved to Australia in 1978 and played Test cricket for half a decade before returning home, the remarkable South African team made the semi-finals, only to fall to England in Sydney when a pre-Duckworth-Lewis wet-weather recalculation left them needing 22 runs to win off one ball.

England would face Pakistan at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in the final. Earlier in the tournament, England had dismissed Imran Khan's team for 74 in Adelaide but were denied a win by rain. Nonetheless both had emerged as the form teams of the cup's second half, each defeating a now demoralised and bewildered Australia. Pakistan travelled to New Zealand for their semi-final, and a young Inzamam-ul-Haq's 60 off 37 balls carried them past the hosts' 262.

In the cricket world, the 50-over game was still the mainspring of innovation, the most exciting format of the international game and, at that point, the biggest threat to the popularity of Test cricket. This was the first World Cup to be played at night, with coloured clothing and white balls. As well as using Patel as an opening bowler, Crowe introduced Mark Greatbatch as a pinch-hitting opening batsman, a tactic that Sri Lanka would refine to perfection in the next World Cup. In field placings and bowling changes, Crowe managed to unnerve everyone except Pakistan. And yet, as we can see in the composition of the teams and the way the final played out, the format was still very much grounded in cricket's conservative past.

Each country's one-day side was more or less identical to its Test outfit. England used Ian Botham as a pinch-hitting opener, but aside from the bits-and-pieces allrounder Dermot Reeve, it was fielding close to a Test team.

Pakistan's one-day team was its Test team, and they batted in the final the old-fashioned 50-over way, like a Test match but with some slogging at the end. After losing Rameez Raja and Aamer Sohail cheaply, the veterans Imran and Javed Miandad took patience to its utmost degree, occupying the crease for two dour hours before setting up an onslaught from Inzamam and Wasim Akram. Their score of 249, which all seemed to come in a rush in the last five overs, was 22 too many for England.

Australia was loving its cricket, notwithstanding the home side's failure, but on the fields and the streets Australians were drifting away from organised sport. In 1992, two-fifths of Australians participated in regular sport, and their top choice was golf, followed by tennis. A massive change was sweeping through Australians' relationship with health and recreation. That they were more concerned with physical well-being was shown in the swift fall of tobacco smoking. In 1992, 28% Australians were regular smokers and another 23% were ex-smokers. Today, only 18% are smoking and more than half the adult population has never smoked.

"A less masculine, less Anglophone, less white, less unionised, less 40-hour-week national working culture has entailed a less cricket-focused sports culture"

Obesity is on the rise - another product of increased wealth - but so is self-reported well-being. And participation in physical activity is booming, but not in organised team sports. In the two decades to 2012, the percentage of Australians who participate in sporting pursuits had risen from 41% to 63%. Women and older people were exercising as never before: but the balance of what they were doing was quite different from 1992. The top sporting activities are now walking for exercise, gym and aerobics, cycling and swimming. Golf and tennis have fallen off the radar and regular outdoor cricket is played by 2.8% of the population.

Cricket in the years since 1992 has suffered from a combination of changes in family life - men are less likely to spend their Saturdays away from their families at the cricket club - and at youth level from competition from the football codes. Soccer, Australian football and rugby league outstrip cricket for both playing and spectating popularity.

The Australia that hosts the 2015 World Cup is one where cricket is in a constant battle to maintain its relevance and appeal. A less masculine, less Anglophone, less white, less unionised, less 40-hour-week national working culture has entailed a less cricket-focused sports culture. It's fair to say that whereas the 1992 World Cup had Australia's full attention, the 2015 World Cup will be one event jostling with the climax of the A-League soccer season (another competition that was a pipe dream in 1992) and the start of the Australian Rules and rugby codes' seasons. Cricket, rather than being a defining national sport, will be just one alternative on weekends that many Australians prefer to spend on their bikes, out walking or swimming in pools and oceans.

As prime minister, Keating personified this shift. His predecessor Hawke loved and played cricket and restarted the annual Prime Minister's XI fixture. Keating had no interest in cricket, or sport generally, preferring classical music, architecture and decorative arts. He would win one more election before being turfed out in 1996 (for the cricket-loving John Howard). But Keating's legacy would include profound legislative reforms from that year of 1992: a law that prohibited employers from discriminating against disabled people; Australia's first legislation recognising Aboriginal title over land that they had occupied; and a compulsion on employers to fund their workers' superannuation savings, the underpinning of Australia's future wealth, a mass that now exceeds $1.8 trillion.

Asia remained his focus, with an expansion of regional trade agreements. His first overseas visit as prime minister, taking place a week after the World Cup final, was to Indonesia.

Keating would outlast Nirvana, who headlined the Big Day Out rock festival during the 1991-1992 summer. The Big Day Out itself went on for two decades, but will not happen in 2015. Young Australians are now music downloaders.

Two days after the 1992 World Cup final, the West Australian mining magnate Lang Hancock died. He left a debt-stricken empire and some pieces of paper that would be fought over by his daughter, Gina Rinehart, and his widow, Rose Hancock, in a soap-opera quarrel made public in the courts. Rinehart would win control over the key asset, which was a 1960 agreement with the mining company Rio Tinto to pay the Hancock company 2.5% of the value of the iron ore it shipped out of the Hamersley Ranges in the remote north of Western Australia. In 1992, the ore, and the documents, were of limited value.

Twenty years later, China's demand for that ore would have made Australia prosperous beyond even Keating's dreams, and Rinehart would be the world's richest woman. Compared with 1992, Australia would be a feminised culture with an Asian face; its wealthiest individual would be a woman who lived in Singapore and clipped tickets on dirt sold to China. The World Cup would take a long time to come back, but it will be visiting Australia as if for the first time.