More than 50 years ago Donald Horne, then working in an advertising agency, described Australia as “a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck”. The phrase “the lucky country” quickly became part of the language, though its message was often misrepresented.
Horne’s 1964 book sounded three loud warnings about Australia’s future: the challenge of our geographical position, the need for “a revolution in economic priorities”, and the need for a discussion of what sort of country we want to become.
Those warnings are even more urgent today after 50 years of inaction by our second-rate leaders. I’ve revisited Donald Horne’s ideas and updated them for the 21st century. An additional complication is the accumulating evidence that we are not living sustainably.
The need for change was underlined by a 2015 UN report on sustainability. Australia ranks 18th of the 34 developed countries, below the UK, New Zealand and Canada, based on indicators covering economic, social and environmental progress.
We are among the worst of the affluent countries on resource use, waste production, greenhouse gases released per unit of economic output, and our obesity rate.
We are also well below average on social indicators such as education level, gender pay gap and proportion of women in parliament, as well as economic indicators such as the poverty rate and the degree of inequality.
Interestingly, the top four countries were the Scandinavian nations of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. The United States ranked 29th. It is a reminder that only ideologues with no concern for evidence could still be seeing the United States as a model to which we should aspire, rather than the much more successful Scandinavian approach.
The challenges of our location include how we develop relationships with our Asian neighbours beyond simple economic dealings; reconciling our history of indigenous dispossession; and our foreign policy and defence strategies in the complex world of the Asia-Pacific.
Our education system still has a strong bias toward our European past, with few young people studying any Asian language and even fewer having any real understanding of the complex social history of China, Japan, Indonesia or India.
Most of our leaders know something about the complex history of Europe and the essential differences between France and Germany, between Spain and Italy, between the Scandinavian countries and those further south.
By contrast, general assertions are still made about the region we live in from a position of ignorance. It remains true, as Horne said half a century ago, that we see the region simply as an economic machine from which we can make money.
Chipping away at innovation
Horne called for a revolution in economic priorities, moving away from being “a stupid country” that exported minerals and farm produce, “investing in education and science” so that we would be better equipped for the world of the twenty-first century.
Instead we have further run down our manufacturing base, mainly by opening up our markets to cheaper imports. We have failed to invest in science and education to become competitive in emerging industries.
CSIRO has been steadily run down and recent changes seem aimed at turning it into a second-rate consulting, organisation, rather than a model of public-sector applied science for the public good.
The Gonski reforms would go some way to redress our failure to invest in the education of our young people, but the coalition’s political agenda looks like reinforcing the past trend of slipping further behind other countries in the region.
The best possible investment in our future is educating all our young people to the limit of their ability, rather than the limit of their parents’ income or political clout.
The perils of population
Australia has changed fundamentally from the Anglo-Celtic enclave of the 1950s. We need to have a serious public discussion about societal values, population growth and what kind of country we’d like to become, including our relationship with the British monarchy.
As one extreme example of the issues we should be discussing, politicians almost all believe that it is good to have a rate of population growth higher than any other advanced country, ignoring the evidence of the social costs of this approach. I discussed these issues in a previous book, Bigger or Better? Australia’s Population Debate.
Urban infrastructure is failing to keep pace with the unsustainable rate of population growth, which is also causing social tensions. A few sectors benefit from population growth – retail, housing, land speculation – but there is little evidence the community as whole is better off.
Our governments claim to be in control of our borders because they prevent relatively small numbers arriving by boat, while ignoring the impacts of a total legal arrival of 250,000 or more, or even cheekily claiming it to be evidence of their superior approach to economic development.
Of course, the huge level of migration creates jobs, but is also brings in a proportionate number of people looking for those jobs. We should recognise that migration has costs as well as benefits.
Are you feeling lucky?
Horne’s three warnings must now all be filtered through the lens of our precarious environmental situation. The extreme weather patterns that come with climate change, the loss of biodiversity, the breakdown of the Earth’s ecosystems and our unsustainable use of finite resources, all affect our future prospects.
A recent Academy of Science project found strong consensus for “a future Australia that is more caring, community-focused and fair than present-day Australia”. That would be a truly lucky country, a wonderful legacy to future generations.
It is still possible for us to live sustainably and make Australia both a model for the developed world and a beacon of hope for the developing nations in our region. That will require conscious policy choices involving the community rather than the present obsession with markets, the mindless pursuit of endless growth and integration into a globalised economy that puts our well-being in other hands.
In that sense, our future is in our hands. Our actions will determine whether we really become a lucky country.
The Lucky Country? Reinventing Australia by Professor Ian Lowe was published by UQP in March 2016.