Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Lucky Country – 50 Years Later

By Ian Lowe

How much has changed since Donald Horne labelled Australia “the lucky country” as a warning about its “second-rate leaders”?

Last December was the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Lucky Country, Donald Horne’s acerbic look at Australia and what he called its “second-rate leaders”. His book was dismissed by one reviewer who said it would be forgotten by the end of that summer. Instead it became a runaway best-seller and the title entered the lexicon.

But the book’s central message was misunderstood or misrepresented by generations of leaders. Writing a foreword to the fifth edition in 1998, Horne lamented the misuse of his book’s title “as if it were praise for Australia rather than a warning”. He said this had distracted attention from his message, which is still relevant today.

Horne said that it is essential to accept the challenges of where Australia is on the map, to recognise the need for a revolution in economic priorities “especially by investing in education and science”, and to undertake a broad conversation about Australia’s future.

Most of our leaders still make sweeping generalisations about Asia that very few would make about Europe. They have little understanding of Asia’s history or social complexity. Most still see relationships with Asian nations through a narrow economic prism: somewhere to sell our produce.

The need for a “revolution in economic priorities” is even more obvious today. Horne commented that the Australia of the 1960s was “a rather stupid place that … cover[ed] its imports bill by exporting unprocessed commodities”. That is even more true today, with the car industry closing, electronics in decline and little advanced manufacturing. Australia now imports even such basic products as shirts and shoes. Our escalating import bill for manufactured goods has been covered by exporting increasing quantities of unprocessed raw materials, principally iron ore and coal.

As Horne noted, Australia’s ability to export minerals and agricultural produce hinged on the past investment in science, but CSIRO and university science is now being systematically run down. While it’s difficult to see a long-term future in the present approach, contemporary leaders still behave like their 1960s predecessors. Horne said they lacked curiosity about the world and were constantly taken by surprise by events they hadn’t foreseen. Plus ca change…

International Energy Agency’s Climate Warnings Ignored

The Queensland government decided to hold a State election in January. A campaign while most people were still on holiday meant there was little scrutiny of policies.

There was no sign of the major parties reviving former Premier Peter Beattie’s notion of a “smart state”; indeed the government’s slogan was “strong choices”, which is code for selling public assets.

Little was said about science or knowledge-based industries. Instead I saw bipartisan support from the major parties for the coal industry, despite the obvious problem of accelerating climate change.

I was bemused by the selective use of the International Energy Agency’s 2014 report on the world energy outlook. The IEA was formed by the energy-using nations 40 years ago after the first oil crisis. Its annual reports on the global energy situation respond to changes in energy resource availability and the political acceptability of technologies like nuclear power.

The IEA has long been aware of the problem of climate change, saying in a 2008 report that the world needed “nothing less than an energy revolution”. It called for cleaner energy supply and more efficient conversion of energy into goods and services.

But the IEA also recognises political reality. The 2014 report said that current policies will see fossil fuels still supplying about three-quarters of world energy in 2040. It noted that this approach would place the world on a path for a 3.6°C increase in average global temperature: a catastrophic outcome on many levels. So the report warned that achieving the goal of limiting the increase to 2°C will require “urgent action to steer the energy system onto a safer path”. A special IEA study on the subject is forthcoming.

This conclusion was confirmed in Nature by McGlade and Ekins of University College London, whose research found that 90% of Australian coal reserves must remain unused if we are to limit warming to 2°C (http://tinyurl.com/nsptn9t). When this study was reported in January, the politicians ignored its inconvenient findings. The head of the Minerals Council of Australia, Brendon Pearson, attacked the research. He actually claimed that the IEA report endorsed expanding the coal industry!

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.