The light on the sand dune

The classic Aussie beach holiday could serve as a model for a more egalitarian, tolerant and joyful society, writes Nigel Bowen.

Granted, it’s easy to start entertaining fanciful notions after spending too much time in the midday sun, but I’ve begun wondering if serious consideration should be given to the question millions of Australians have latterly pondered while in repose on a beach towel: why can’t life be like this all the time?

Really, why not? The classic Aussie beach holiday has much to recommend it. In an increasingly stratified society, it’s one of the few extant opportunities for Australians from across the socioeconomic spectrum to rub shoulders with each other.

In an ever more consumerist, status-conscious world, it’s a refreshingly egalitarian interlude in which almost everyone dresses in T-shirts and thongs, patronises the same fish and chip shop, and joins in the same game of beach cricket.

In an era of widening generational cleavages, it marks a brief armistice in which self-satisfied boomers, grumpy Gen Xers and narcissistic Gen Ys can bodysurf the same waves without getting into fights over the state of the property market and which age cohort has done it hardest.

And if this writer’s recent trip to NSW’s south coast is anything to go by, it’s also an impressive expression of vibrant multiculturalism, with second-generation Greek- and Italian-Australians, first-generation Vietnamese ones and burkini-rocking Muslims splashing about together in good-humoured harmony.

While the yearly mass pilgrimage to the seaside is now regarded as an entirely bipartisan event, it’s an outgrowth of gains hard won by the labour movement. The Australian beach holiday, as a mass phenomenon anyway, emerged in the middle of last century when the working class got the right to annual leave as well as a wage sufficient to finance a seaside sojourn.

While it’s shown remarkable resilience, this product of a more protected and provincial Australia has not remained unaffected by the last three decades of neo-liberalism and globalisation. The downside of these forces is that growing numbers of casualised workers lack the disposable income for such a break, while white-collar professionals either lack the time or, if they do manage to make it, the capacity to wean themselves off their work mobile during what should be restorative downtime.

The upside is that even those on modest incomes can now experience a luxurious getaway in destinations such as Bali, Fiji or Thailand. Unquestionably, living it up at a foreign beach resort also has much to recommend it, especially for the person who’d otherwise end up doing the cooking and cleaning in a domestic holiday rental. Unfortunately, as anyone who’s even spent an evening in Kuta or Pattaya can attest, being endlessly indulged by the impecunious citizens of a developing country doesn’t typically bring out the better angels in the natures of Australian tourists. Holidaying locally has, by and large, a civilising effect on Australians. Holidaying overseas, all too often, has precisely the opposite result.

Staring down the barrel of the Howard era 2.0, maybe it’s time for the ALP to start painting a beguiling picture of the kind of relaxed and comfortable Australia they’d like to create, given the opportunity. A promised land based not on rose-tinted memories of the monocultural longueur of the 1950s but exactly the kind of cosmopolitan but cohesive place 21st century Australia already transforms into at the height of every summer.

The kind of place, for example, where room can always be found for an unexpected and even uninvited visitor. The kind of place where the man who walks to the bottle shop from his million-dollar, Glen Murcutt-designed beachfront palace doesn’t expect or receive better service than the one who arrives fresh from his tent at the local caravan park. The kind of place where there is time for both old and new friends and where everyone is agreed there’s more to life than participating in the work-consume-die rat race.

For all the romanticisation of the bush, it’s the beach that looms largest in the popular consciousness of contemporary Australians. That’s due to both their unmediated experiences and a king tide’s worth of popular culture ranging from Tim Winton’s novels, to Max Dupain’s photos, to plays such as Michael Gow’s Away, to television programs such as Seachange and to films such as PJ Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding. The left faces an uphill battle convincing voters that Australia should more closely resemble a Nordic social democracy but it might just tap into a politically potent national yearning if it starts suggesting to a harried, anxious electorate that rather than being an escape from the real world, the end of year beach holiday can be a model for it.