For the past 10 years, Rebecca Huntley has travelled thousands of kilometres across Australia sitting in the corner of living rooms, drinking tea and listening to people talk about the things that matter to them.
She's one of Australia's foremost researchers on social and consumer trends.
For a decade she was director of Ipsos Mind & Mood Report, the longest running study on community attitudes.
Huntley has just published a book: Still Lucky: Why you should feel optimistic about Australia and its people.
The book goes back over those years of qualitative research and paints a picture of Australians today.
Huntley says in general Australians are a sage bunch and the book shows they have the wisdom “to see through the BS.”
“There’s a couple of presumptions that people make about the community generally, that their views are completely dictated by the mass media and that’s not the case.
“I’m constantly surprised about basically the innate intelligence and wisdom of the community and the extent to which our leaders in politics and government underestimate that capacity and that’s what’s been depressing really.”
She says she found plenty of examples of “racism and a range of other things that were not so savoury”, most of her research disrupted commonly held stereotypes about Australians.
“Whether that’s on climate change or funding education or how we plan our cities, that was consistently proven to me time after time.”
But she says after the John Howard era came to an end a decade ago, politics and the population started to part ways.
“Early on there was a genuine respect for John Howard and how he managed the economy, a general recognition he was a skilled politician.
“At the end of his time it was more of a case that his vision of Australia was slightly askew, for the first time he’d misread the mood of the electorate.”
She says the election of a Kevin Rudd-led Labor government in 2007 was a chance wasted.
What Kevin Rudd and Labor Party misread was the enormous gift they’d been given by the Australian electorate.
She says that political capital wasted “overnight”.
“That set off in the electorate’s view a chain reaction of political instability, lowest common denominator politics and endless empty slogans that didn’t mean much.”
She says she detected a change among older voters around the time of the Julia Gillard/Tony Abbott election in 2010.
“Older voters who had always taken their vote seriously whether Labor or Liberal, it didn’t really matter, said ‘For the first time in my entire life I put a line through the ballot paper’ when you hear those kinds of stories your heart breaks a bit.”
So what are the burning issues in Australia according to her research? And what is the mood of the so called “Lucky Country”.
On immigration she says little has changed over the years, with the first wave of each immigrants facing suspicion moving to gradual acceptance. She calls it a kind of ‘hazing’.
“The community will always imagine they [immigrants] have got a nefarious agenda: if they decide to come here get jobs and work hard they’re criticised for working too hard, for undermining standards, for taking Australian jobs. If they don’t get a job and they live on government payments they’re criticised for taking taxpayer’s money.”
She says the first generation of immigrants has to “prove themselves in a way that’s almost impossible”.
“The good news is their children are pretty rapidly embraced into society, but they do so at incredible cost – language, culture, that creates a kind of generational conflict between that first and second generation.”
She says women from the 30s to 50s age group are increasingly stressed balancing work and home life, with little let up in the amount of work they do at home, and men still shirking house work.
She says fulltime working mothers were particularly pressured.
“Talking to women in their 30s, 40s and 50s, they were using alcohol and some prescription drugs to manage stress. So we’re talking at the end of every day a couple of glasses of wines a couple of Xanax to manage their stress - and honestly feeling like they were trapped inside their lives.”
Housing remains a pressure point, and the situation in Australia had worsened, she says.
“It’s an enormous problem. I met a nurse from a quite wealthy family and she was living basically in a room with a toilet at the end and paying about $A400 a week just for rent in order to be walking distance from the hospital where she worked because she did night shifts and didn’t want a long commute.”
And forget about the Australian dream of owning your own home, she says. Houses are too expensive where there are jobs and affordable where there are few poorly paid and casual jobs in regional Australia.
Despite the pressures they are under, Huntley has faith in the people.
“They are capable of being led in the right direction. If the leaders stand up some of those better angels are still singing, but that may not last for another ten or 20 years unless we have the kind of leadership across the board that we need.”