Francesco di Petracco, better known as ‘Petrarch’, is rightly recognised as an artistic genius, the greatest scholar of his age, and one of the fathers of the Italian Renaissance. Both he and his work should be better known, especially in the English-speaking world. But perhaps his most enduring cultural legacy and one which continues to have ramifications today was his creation of the ‘Dark Ages’.

In fairness, the Tuscan-born bard did not actually mean this term in precisely the way it ended up being employed – the target of his complaint, it appears, was more the narrow-mindedness of some of his contemporaries. However, his idea took hold, and it soon became common to refer to the entire period from the fall of the Western Roman Empire in AD 476 until around the 14th Century as a time of economic, scientific, and cultural backwardness.

The ’Dark Ages’ remains deeply embedded in the popular imagination today. Serious historians now recognise it as bunk, or at least a gross simplification. Most of the great universities of Europe were, after all, well in existence well before Petrarch came on the scene. Medieval developments in industry, architecture, agriculture, and warfare far exceeded what the Romans or Greeks had been able to achieve. Great works of literature, art, music, and architecture were created. There were also great legal moral achievements. Under the influence of Christianity, slavery, which had existed in Europe since ancient times, was largely abolished from that continent – although it would, of course, continue elsewhere.

Australia also had its Dark Ages, or at least that is how our history before the 1980s is often portrayed.

Our own self-styled renaissance man, Paul Keating, famously used to refer to anyone before his time as engaged in ‘pre-Copernican obscurantism’. John Howard was admittedly more circumspect and used lines like ‘a conservative is someone who does not think he is morally superior to his grandfather’. Yet when it comes to economic policy, his attitude was in many ways similar to Keating’s. Anything prior to their time was a benighted age. Can you believe they used to have things like tariffs?! No cheap imported Chinese T-shirts and electronic goods? No credit cards? No highly leveraged property market? My goodness, how on earth did our ancestors survive in a world of such witchcraft and alchemy?

And yet somehow during this supposedly unenlightened time over 70 per cent of Australians owned their own home – a figure we can only dream about today. Amazingly it was not uncommon for a family with a single breadwinner to be able to afford not only a place to live (many on a famous quarter-acre block) but also a car and other middle-class comforts. Many were able to support large numbers of children. All this seems far beyond the wildest imaginings for most young people today.

It gets worse. Australia was at the time one of few nations in the world that could produce almost anything we needed in the way of manufactured goods. Our fresh meat and vegetables were some of the cheapest in the world. So were our electricity prices. Social cohesion and well-being were strong. Marriage rates were far higher. Family breakdown and out-of-wedlock births far lower. There were no fears of jihadi outbreaks in the suburbs. No antisemitic protests at our universities or in front of the Sydney Opera House.

Yes, these really were dark, dark times.

This is, of course, not to say there were not economic and social challenges – there are in every age. It is not to say there has not been technology and material progress since then – of course, there has been. It is also not to say there have not been welcome advancement for formerly marginalised groups. But it is certainly a debatable position whether our nation is on a more stable economic and social footing today than it was then.

Jim Chalmers’ latest budget shows our national debt is now well over a trillion dollars. There are pools of red ink projected for years to come. That does not include many of our heavily indebted states or large off-balance sheet liabilities. No one really has a plan to address it or even seems to care. At the same time, the overall tax take has never been higher. Consumer and mortgage debt are at record levels. Despite all the trendy talk about critical minerals, quantum computing and the like, the reality is we now have a minuscule industrial base – one that struggles to produce a decent bicycle or fishhook. Many of our children have given up the idea of ever owning their own home. We have sub-replacement fertility.

Not all of this can be laid at the feet of the settings put in place during the Hawke/Keating/Howard era – but a great deal can. The policies they implemented such as open borders trade, mass immigration, and over-financialisation of the economy are always presented such virtuous things, but the long-term consequences have not been sweetness and light. Many of the changes were never popular. As has been the case elsewhere in the world, a political reckoning is coming.

‘If the rule you follow brought you here, then what was the point of the rule?’ The psychopathic villain Anton Chigurh asks in Cormac McCarthy’s novel No Country for Old Men. It’s long past time for some serious reflection and a reassessment of the current bipartisan consensus or Australia’s future may turn out to be very dark indeed.

Dan Ryan is executive director of The National Conservative Institute of Australia

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