Two decades ago, Australia was beginning a golden era economically, socially and internationally.
In 1998 the top marginal tax rate was 47% which is the same as it is today (currently 45% plus 2% Medicare levy), and there was no GST. The unemployment rate was on its way down, beginning its ten year run of falling unemployment. Average earnings were growing solidly and consumer sentiment was strong.
House prices were rising, but back then you could buy the average house in a capital city for around one-quarter of what you would pay today. Sydney, then as now, had the most expensive homes nationally, but the median house price was just $248,750 – compared to more than one million dollars today. Interest rates were the lowest they had been for 28 years, at 6.7% and there were further falls to come. The federal government budget was brought into surplus for the first time in 9 years and it marked the start of a string of 9 more surplus budgets.
The Australian stock market was at record levels, and almost every month of that year it closed on a new high. It was the start of the tech era, with dot-com companies abounding, digital start-ups blossoming and mobile phones slowly replacing pagers on the belts of many workers.
It was an era of political stability on both sides of politics. By the end of the year, the Howard government was re-elected for a second term and John Howard would remain Prime Minister for the next nine years. The opposition leader, Kim Beasley, had been in the role for two years and would remain there for another three.
There were no international wars or conflicts in which Australia was involved. Sydney had won the rights to host the 2000 Olympics and was amidst an unprecedented construction boom. The national psyche, perhaps with an eye to the global stage that this nation would soon be, was one of optimism, and anticipation.
It was a simpler time- smartphones were a decade away, entertainment usually involved a trip to the video story to pick up a DVD if not a VHS, and Hey Hey It's Saturday was still a hit on TV.
But a look back to this era leaves Australia in 2018 with some big questions. Where did we lose our optimism? What happened to our excitement about what the future would bring? And how do we get our mojo back?
While we could point to the troubled state of politics, the uncertain economy or the complexity of life today as factors, perhaps much of the answer rests with us. Back then, the Baby Boomers were still in the family years, the Gen Xers were twenty-somethings making their way in the world, and Generation Y were just children or young teenagers. If we can lift our sentiment, regardless of the circumstances, and borrow some of the positivity from our younger selves, this will no doubt raise the national mood.
We created those times, and we can influence these times too and so bring new meaning to that iconic phrase of 20 years ago: "let's party like it's 1999".