The other day I was having a coffee with an old friend, and we pondered, among many other, usually more cheerful topics, about the state of politics today. “Isn’t it something,” my friend said, “that this country has had twelve years of pretty average governments, and yet it seems to be coping quite well.”
He’s right; when you look at most economic indicators they are still quite positive: the economy continues to grow (as it has been uninterruptedly since 1992), the unemployment is relative low, as are the interest rates. We’re not booming, but we’re not busting either; we’re chugging along, with most people managing OK.
Fifty-five years ago, Donald Horne published his cringey sociological classic about Australia, “The Lucky Country”, which opens with the famous line: “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”
Horne was not, as some people interpreted it, arguing that the luck was a matter of good climate and bountiful natural resources, which enabled Australia to thrive without a great deal of effort (the country “riding on the sheep’s back” – and the miner’s back, one could add). But the wealth we generated by exporting our raw materials to all corners of the globe certainly helped, making it if not easier than certainly more comfortable to coast along.
Horne is just one of that considerable cohort of public intellectuals perpetually disappointed by their own country and its culture and let down by their fellow citizens. Every developed country has got its own domestic industry of self-loathing and self-criticism by philosophers who would be kings if they could, but fortunately can’t, though their ideas remain nevertheless far from inconsequential. There is, however, something to Horne’s criticism; for most of the twentieth century, Australia didn’t really have to do very much or exert itself in order to give its people a pretty decent life.
If that was our luck, it was finally running out by the early 1980s, as vividly portrayed by Paul Kelly in his classic “The End of Certainty”. The Australian Settlement, on which five pillars (industry protection, wage arbitration, welfare paternalism, White Australia policy, and imperial benevolence) our prosperity had been built, quite simply couldn’t still work as well in 1980 as it had in 1920. The world has changed, Australia hasn’t.
Thankfully, from 1983 onward, we have enjoyed a string of successful reformist leaders from both political parties, who over the course of a quarter of a century remade Australia into a vibrant, modern economy. Hawke, Keating, Howard and Costello were far from Horne’s “second rate people” – they were in the same category and mold of transformative leaders as so many of their international counterparts in the last twenty years of the century: Reagan, Thatcher, Kohl, Mitterrand, Gorbachev, John Paul II, Douglas. Deregulation, privatisation, free trade, industrial relations reforms all created Australia 2.0 economy that, while still quite reliant on primary production, is much more open, varied and robust.
And so, thanks to the reformist remaking of Australia between 1983 and 2007 we have become the lucky country again – a country that can again be run by mediocrities and thrive, or at least soldier on, without problems becoming too apparent and too crippling. Yes, we’re lucky, but that’s not the best way to live. Sadly, it doesn’t look like our present condition will change anytime in the near future.