Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Reinventing the Lucky Country

By Ian Lowe

The challenges facing Australia in the 1960s have not been addressed, and a new challenge will need to be overcome before we can really become a lucky country.

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.

Donald Horne described Australia in 1964 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 by people who had not even read the book, or who had certainly not grasped its ironic meaning.

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 wanted to become. Those warnings are even more urgent today after 50 years of inaction by our second-rate leaders. An additional complication is the accumulating evidence that we are not living sustainably.

The need for change was underlined by a 2015 United Nations report on sustainability. Australia ranks 18th among the 34 OECD countries – below the UK, New Zealand and Canada – based on 34 indicators covering economic, social and environmental progress. We are among the worst of the affluent countries for indicators such as our 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 the level of education we reach, the gender pay difference and percentage of women in parliament, as well as economic indicators such as the poverty rate and the degree of inequality.

Interestingly, the top four countries ranked according to progress toward sustainability were the Scandinavian nations of Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Finland. The USA ranked 29th. It’s a reminder that only ideologues with no concern for evidence could still be seeing the USA as a model to which we should aspire, rather than the much more successful Scandinavian approach.

The challenges of where we are on the map include:

  • developing relationships with our Asian neighbours, moving beyond simple economic dealings;
  • reconciling our history of dispossessing the original Australians; and
  • developing 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. Only one of our recent leaders has been capable of holding a serious conversation in an Asian language.

Our defence policy consists of slavishly following the USA into whatever ill-judged military venture it embarks on, without serious consideration of the way our neighbours will see that approach. It remains true, as Horne said 50 years ago, that we see the region simply as an economic machine from which we can make money. The only thing that has changed is that we are now more likely to be selling our resources to China than to Japan, and more likely to be buying the products we aren’t clever enough to make from China or Korea than from Japan.

Horne called for a revolution in economic priorities, moving away from being “a stupid country” that exported minerals and farm produce, and instead “investing in education and science” so that we would be better equipped for the world of the 21st century. Instead we have further run down our manufacturing base, mainly by opening up our markets to cheaper imports. In 1964 we made TV and radio equipment, cars and light aircraft, clothing and footwear; today even our shirts and sandshoes come from overseas.

We have failed to invest in science and education to become competitive in the emerging industries of the 21st century. We only graduate about 6000 engineers each year, when our industry employs about three times that many. 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.

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. 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 250,000 or more arriving on scheduled flights, 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 be looking at the whole picture.

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. Four national reports on the state of the environment, stretching back 20 years, have warned that we need to deal with serious problems: the state of our inland rivers, the degradation of productive rural land, the pressures on the coastal zone, the loss of our unique biodiversity, and rapidly increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

I was reminded of the seriousness of human impacts on the inland river systems when I saw recently that there was a 400 km stretch of the Murray affected by toxic blue-green algae while an 800 km stretch of the Darling River was almost dry. We also now know that the Great Barrier Reef is in serious trouble, with UNESCO poised to tell the world that we are not properly managing this unique natural wonder.

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.

Ian Lowe is author of The Lucky Country? Reinventing Australia (University of Queensland Press, 2016) and Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.