As Australians crawl to the end of this second, though by no certainty final, year of the global pandemic, two discrete and sometimes contradictory tellings of 2021 are taking form: the story of “me” and the story of “us”.
Like 2020 before it, this has been a year of intense disruption, all of us challenged not only adjust to new norms but, critically, to accept constraints on our individual freedoms in the name of our collective health. From lockdowns, to vaccines, to border restrictions, “me” has been asked to play second fiddle to “us”.
Along the way the project of government has taken on a heightened significance, not just in organising our response to the pandemic but in dealing with a wave of historic reckonings on gender, climate and technology that will have profound impact on the futures of us all.
In our final Guardian Essential Report of the year, Australians look back on 2021 with some revealing self-reflections giving texture to these competing frames of reference. In short: it’s been a better year for “me” than it has been for “us”.
Almost counterintuitively, Australians say that for all the disruptions it has been a net positive year for them and their families. Indeed, “me” has the strongest positive rating in this series of benchmarks that we have been asking at the end of each year since 2013. There is a shared resilience embedded in these figures, suggesting that for many the forced limits have also carried unexpected upsides to their health, wealth and happiness.
For nearly a third of Australians, it has also been a good year financially, the first time we’ve seen a net positive response to this question. The housing boom has seen a significant increase in personal wealth for those in the market; a growing inequality between classes and generations that is the inevitable end-point of government economic policy: a transfer from “us” to the property-owning “me” driven by close to zero interest rates and tax privileges.
On first blush these are heartening figures for an incumbent – a voting public feeling good about their personal situation are less likely to seek a change to their national leadership.
Over the coming months the PM will do his everything in his power to reinforce that this is a boat that should not be rocked, all the while whipping up fear of change, pitching a safety proposition that draws a rhetorical line from the threat of Covid to that of China to social media’s abrogation of responsibility on creating safe online spaces.
The PM will go about his business with all the righteous zeal of a Willy Loman, desperate for that last big sale. But there is a sense the magician of the 2019 campaign may have given up his tricks, his tendency to appear to be doing things while actually doing nothing now a character trait, his lack of any real commitment to leadership embossed in his own words: “I don’t hold a hose, mate.”
He will approach next year’s election employing the same techniques of micro-targeting as the digital platforms he purports to tame, banking on the belief that if the right voters are thrown the right goodies then it will be proof enough the government cares about the “me” he needs to convince to survive. But he will do so facing multiple headwinds, on one flank the movement of community independents who articulate a more ambitious vision of government; on the other Clive Palmer’s latest yellow campaign demanding nothing from government at all.
He will attempt to please all, sending out carefully coded messages of comfort to the small minority who have demanded to put “me” first when it came to vaccines. His risk is the more than 90% of us who rolled up our sleeves, positioning Australia at the front of global take-up despite spending much of the year lagging in a botched stroll-out from a leader who tried to convince us it wasn’t a race until the Delta variant determined that it was.
The parallel universe that the anti-vaxxers inhabit has been individually curated for them by the big tech platforms whose toxic trade in personal behavioural data distorts reality and amplifies anger. After starting the year withdrawing services in Australia to protect its commercial interests from government regulation, Facebook was shamed by whistleblower revelations that it was fully aware its trade in micro-targeting “me” is doing irreparable damage to “us”.
What is also striking in these figures is the sense that while we are doing OK individually, the plight of other people – the hypothetical “average Australian” – is not so great. I’m not sure what drives this divergence, perhaps the general outbreak of empathy through the pandemic, but for once we appear to be looking outside our own personal cocoon and seeing the world through each other’s eyes.
After what now appears a false dawn in 2020 that trust in our institutions was on the rise, our regard for government and politics deteriorated in 2021. In February #MeToo came to Canberra when Brittany Higgins’ claims put the culture of Parliament House under scrutiny. It triggered the Jenkins inquiry into parliament’s workplace culture and culminated in a landmark report. National Audit Office revelations of the breadth of government spending rorts in grants programs and the PM’s steadfast refusal to make good his promise to create an integrity commission are likely to have contributed to this decline.
So too the deterioration in relations between the federal government and the states. After 2020’s year of collaboration, 2021 was a reversion to type. By mid-year New South Wales and Victoria entered a second round of lockdowns, the federation fractured with the PM playing states off against each other, his dream of a late 2021 coronation turning to dust, with public confidence in his government’s handling of the pandemic plunging from the high 70s to less than a majority.
Globally, the looming spectre of catastrophic global heating injected another factor, the wellbeing of future generations, into our considerations. Australians judged 2021 the worst year for the planet since we started asking these questions, with the incrementalism of Glasgow and our own government’s ongoing obstruction of climate ambition a dark cloud on horizon.
Now an election showdown approaches and the party that has always defined itself by “us” has an opportunity to end three terms of transactional, opportunistic, me-centric government.
Labor’s year has been one of relative stability; steady lines of approval and primary support a contrast to the PM’s rollercoaster. Determined not to fall into the traps of 2019, the party has ducked and weaved away from showdowns on climate and tax that could be easily weaponised. With a commitment to a more expansive role for the state in economic reconstruction, Labor has an opportunity to tap into the rising concerns about “us”.
In job security, enhanced wages and a commitment to Australia’s industry, the building blocks of a national economic agenda are taking place. Likewise, a commitment to early learning, Tafe and the ailing universities follow the global move to build national wealth by tapping our social capital. Labor’s challenge for 2022 will be to articulate a politics of “us” that talks to the individual “me”.
The “me” and the “us”. Of course, the choice is never binary but the emphasis in 2022 will matter. Will the contented “me” feel secure enough to vote for a stronger “us” or will the majority of “us” be content to just keep the focus on “me”?
All this lies ahead of us.