‘Australian Social Attitudes: the First Report’ edited by Shaun Wilson, Gabrielle Meagher, Rachel Gibson, David Denmark and Mark Western.

Reviewed by Elspeth Probyn

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Questions focused on in this response:

  1. What makes an Australian family? by Ann Evans and Edith Gray
  2. Is there a crisis of trust in Australia? by Clive Bean

Who or what is an ordinary Australian? The question is beloved by neo-conservative politicians and left-wing academics alike. The very preoccupation with the ordinary Australian marks out a distinctive Australian terrain of identity formation. In Meaghan Morris’ words, ‘the Ordinary’ [in Australia is a] sacred, secular value.’ (1998: 107).

Of course the ordinary gets intensely ideological, often fuelled by different sets of evidence. Social scientists now provide access to very diverse accountings of individual and national states of being. From international leagues of economic prosperity to the more difficult to evaluate scales of national happiness (where we don’t do so well mainly because the ratings are self-evaluatory, see Gruen 2005), citizens are now scrutinised closely.

The latest and perhaps most ambitious is the subject of Australian Social Attitudes: The First Report. Of the 14 chapters, I was drawn to ‘What Makes an Australian Family?’ by Ann Evans and Edith Gray and ‘Is there a Crisis of Trust in Australia?’ by Clive Bean. The question of what is seen as constituting a family in Australia is at the heart of several other debates – from the challenges that same-sex families provoke for the current government and other key institutions to the issue of abortion which the current Minister of Health, Tony Abbott, keeps trying to include within a national debate about (family) values.

The report finds that children more than marriage is the key to many Australian’s ideas about family. This is hardly surprising given 70% of the population cohabit before they get married, and that for many marriage is never entered into. In 2002, 26% had divorced within five years of marriage. In 2003, 92% of 18-34 year-olds considered single-parent households as family. The attention to children featured in how same-sex households were envisioned, with 65% of the same demographic reporting that gays with children are a family. However only a quarter of them thought that same-sex couples without children form a family.

In terms of the right to choose whether to have an abortion it’s clear that Abbott doesn’t really have a chance of resuscitating a debate on abortion: 81% of all male and 84% of all women respondents either agreed or strongly agreed about the right to choose abortion.

The question of trust is an interesting one. As Clive Bean notes, the right and the left have bandied about the concept of social capital. As David Putnam, the guru of social capital, argues: social capital refers to ‘the features of social organization, such as networks, norms, and social trust’ (cited in Bean, 123). The report distinguishes between interpersonal and political trust. On the former, the more educated you are the more trusting you are (61% with a university degree), and the middle-class tend to trust more than working-class (50% versus 30%). However political trust, defined as ‘Federal government run for the benefit of all’ reverses that order with those with no university qualifications at 61% compared to 55%. Those who identify as working-class had a 69% trust rating versus 52% for the middle-class.

So on one reading, the ordinary Australian thinks that children are necessary to be considered a family regardless of sexual choice, and that women have the right to chose to abort. They/we also think that more education will make you more trusting of others and less of government.

Perhaps it’s not so strange that the Government wants to limit access to higher education, and that Abbott has been muzzled on abortion.


Australian Social Attitudes: the First Report was published by UNSW Press, Sydney in 2005. ISBN 0 86840 671 6.

Elspeth Probyn is Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney. Her latest book,
Blush: Faces of Shame (University of Minnesota Press, and UNSW Press, 2005) focuses on shame as a positive force in society.



Bean, Clive. (2005) ‘Is there a crisis of trust in Australia?’,in S. Wilson, G. Meagher, R. Gibson, D. Danemark, and M. Western (eds) Australian Social Attitudes: The First Report. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Ann Evans and Edith Gray. (2005) ‘What Makes an Australian Family?’ in S. Wilson, G. Meagher, R. Gibson, D. Danemark, and M. Western (eds) Australian Social Attitudes: The First Report. Sydney: UNSW Press.

Gruen, Nicholas. (2005) ‘How are we going? Are we happy?’ www.onlineopinion.com.au 6/10/2005 Accessed 5/12/2005

Morris, Meaghan. (1988) Too soon, too late: History in Popular Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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