Beyond the picket fence

'Picket Fences', by Chris JohnstonIn the past dozen years, we have come to value our houses more highly than in our nation's history. House prices in Melbourne, for example, have risen 18 per cent in the past year and the cost of entering the market is beyond the budget of many first home buyers. Investors have muscled in as a dwindling rental market ensures high demand and elevated prices and the bizarre notion of negative gearing continues to attract investors.

Yet as interest rate hikes quash dreams and eat up disposable income for mortgage holders, it's timely to ask why we have come to value our houses beyond what seems their true worth.

The 11-year stint of the previous government was characterised by great diligence about the boundaries of our nation, at least as far as excluding undesirable entrants was concerned. We considered ourselves a gated community, allowing in only those who knew the password or had the cash. It remains to be seen whether this government relinquishes 'me-tooism' on that front.

We certainly continued to welcome a stream of refugees provided they passed through the proper channels and could prove familiarity with mid-20th century cricket. If not, we refused them entry or shifted them offshore. We also found it impossible to apologise to Australia's original inhabitants for the misguided policies of our antecedents. This was despite the urgings of the 'Bringing them Home' report. (It was our home after all and you can never be too careful about who you bring home.)

We have laughed about Howard's apparent desire to return the nation to a pristine '50s version complete with white picket fences. Yet many of us have spent the past dozen years erecting picket fences and painting feature walls in shades of aubergine and taupe. We frequently describe our renovations in the context of 'adding value' to our investment rather than creating an environment in which we enjoy living. Many renovate not for their own enjoyment, but to increase the price at auction.

Hugh Mackay recently saw a shift away from the blinkered and introspective vision of the 'dreamy' period which seemed to entrance many of us during the Howard years. Although there was much talk of 'values' the only values which seemed to increase regularly during those times were house prices. The promulgation of a culture of fear saw us closeted within our houses. We seemed reluctant to engage with a community grown somehow more threatening. It may be that we were intoxicated by the fumes of too much fresh paint to consider the world beyond.

Maybe now that Kevin Rudd has apologised to our fellow inhabitants for the ill-considered behaviour of our great-great aunts and uncles and reached across the dispatch boxes to include his opponent, then things can change. These symbolic events may have shattered a few boundaries and walls, collapsed a few fences or at least left a few palings loose so that messages can pass back and forth.

Maybe they will open up new paths for us to tread. Now that we have felt the impact of this recent ritual and the move towards more collaborative practice has begun, our houses may become the places where we live and welcome our friends and neighbours. In this new decade we may see a return to our houses having a more modest and enjoyable role in our lives.

Let us hope we may truly enter the 'new chapter' to which Rudd referred in his apology speech. We may then give ourselves permission to start caring beyond our own four walls, beyond our national boundaries, beyond party lines and past mistakes. It might be time to drop the picket fence or loosen the palings and discover what we truly value.

Clare CoburnClare Coburn is an educator, writer and mediator. Currently she is working on a doctorate on listening in mediation as well as teaching mediation and dispute resolution in the School of Law at La Trobe University.




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Existing comments

There appears to be little or no discussion about those who will never be able to afford a 'home of their own', because of inadequate income, health issues, unemployment etc.
More finance needs to be invested by Government to house these people, who include those who are living below the poverty line.
Kath Baldini | 25 February 2008

Thank you,Clare. I guess every aberration has its industry, and so our crude promoters of "property-porn" are lauded as "developers".

Clyde Cameron,in his "Confessions" makes mention of the once great Labor Party being based on the principals of Henry George. Apparently,the plank of Land Tax reform was removed from the Party platform in the early 1960s even without discussion by the Caucus!
Speculation and carpet-bagging have been encouraged by successive Governments.

I can only wonder if we will ever see serious discussion on such an important topic.
Ray Franzini | 02 March 2008


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