Fellow Queenslander, the artist Lloyd Rees, once said he felt sorry for people born in Sydney “because they never saw it with fresh eyes”.
It’s a favourite quote of mine that applies well to Australia: we tend not to see our nation with the fresh eyes necessary to maintain perspective about where we’ve come from, where we are, and where we might be going.
It’s worthwhile then to have someone else look us over and report, not for the old cultural cringe that typified reporters asking celebrities getting off planes and ships what they thought of Australia, but to gain that perspective of fresh eyes.
This week’s The Economist cover-story special report does that. It reminds us of something we tend to forget while we beat ourselves up over our shortcomings and miserable politics: we’re actually bloody amazing!
“The wonder down under”, “What the world can learn from Australia – It is perhaps the most successful rich economy” headlines the Economist’s editorial.
“Rising incomes, low public debt, an affordable welfare state, popular support for mass immigration and a broad consensus on the policies underpinning these things – that is a distant dream in most rich countries. Many Western politicians could scarcely imagine a place that combined them all. Happily, they do not have to, because such a country already exists: Australia.”
Many of us have trouble recognising that we are such a place, we work so hard at concentrating on our faults. But it is true. Success, like poverty, is a relative term. Three graphs immediately illustrate our economic success:
Our love of doom ’n’ gloom headlines and maintaining our status as the world’s biggest whingers blinds us to our achievement. I’m as guilty as anyone and more than most for concentrating on the problem of low wages growth, so it’s good to be reminded of how far median wages have come since our last recession.
And, again despite the Doom ’n’ Gloomers and headlines, never mind the racist and sectarian ratbag fringe, the latest survey of Australian attitudes found that those who want immigration reduced are still in the minority. What’s more, aside from the aforementioned ratbags, most of the opposition to current levels of immigration is about traffic and housing prices in two cities, not antipathy towards immigrants per se.
“Perhaps because it is far away from everywhere, or has only 25m inhabitants, or is seen mainly as a habitat for cuddly marsupials, it attracts relatively little attention,” editorialises The Economist.
“But its economy is arguably the most successful in the rich world.
“It has been growing for 27 years without a recession – a record for a developed country. Its cumulative growth over that period is almost three times what Germany has managed. The median income has risen four times faster than in America. Public debt, at 41 per cent of GDP, is less than half Britain’s.
“Luck has had a hand in these feats, to be sure. Australia is blessed with lots of iron ore and natural gas, and is relatively close to China, which hoovers up such things. But sound policymaking has helped, too. After the last recession, in 1991, the government of the day reformed the health-care and pensions systems, requiring the middle class to pay more of its own way. The result is that Australia’s government spends just half the OECD average on pensions as a share of GDP – and the gap will only widen in the years ahead.
Even more remarkable is Australia’s enthusiasm for immigration.
“Some 29 per cent of its inhabitants were born in another country – twice the proportion in the United States. Half of Australians are either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants. And the biggest source of immigrants is Asia, which is fast changing the country’s racial mix.
“Compare that with America or Britain or Italy, where far smaller inflows have generated hostility among a big portion of the electorate – or Japan, where allowing foreigners to settle in any numbers is a political taboo. In Australia both main parties argue that admitting lots of skilled migrants is essential to the health of the economy.”
Our compulsory and preferential voting system is ticked for exerting a moderating political influence, rewarding centrism, but the report also acknowledges our failures: the circumstances of many indigenous Australians, the unnecessary severity of leaving legitimate refugees to rot for years on remote Pacific islands, our lack of a coherent climate policy which may a symptom of our political malaise of revolving door leadership:
The irony is that, just as the benefits of this set-up [compulsory preferential voting] are becoming so obvious, Australians appear to be growing disenchanted with it. Voters express growing doubts about the effectiveness of government.
“It has not cost the two main parties many seats, thanks to the electoral system, but their vote-share has fallen by 20 percentage points since the 1980s. Politicians, conscious of voters’ disgruntlement, have also become increasingly febrile. They are constantly turfing out prime ministers, in the hope that a new face will boost their party’s standing with the electorate. Some in the ruling Liberal Party, although not the current prime minister, have begun to call for a reduction in immigration, undermining decades of consensus.
Ambitious reforms have become rare. The rest of the world could learn a lot from Australia – and Australians could do with a refresher course, too.”
Which is the benefit of such a report. My own theory is that there are two primary reasons for our political dissatisfaction and one secondary.
Firstly, we have become spoilt. The 27 years since the last recession, since searing double-digit unemployment and wealth destruction, means we’ve forgotten what really hard times are like. And the resources boom years led us to regard dramatic increases in national wealth as normal and to be expected. As the Economist reminds us:
“The last time Australia suffered a recession, the Soviet Union still existed and the internet did not. An American-led force had just liberated Kuwait, and almost half the world’s current population had not yet been born. Unlike most of its region, Australia was left unscathed by the Asian crash of 1997. Unlike most of the developed world, it shrugged off the global financial crisis, and unlike most commodity-exporting countries, it weathered the resources bust, too.
No other rich country has ever managed to grow so steadily for so long. By that measure, at least, Australia boasts the world’s most successful economy.”</p> <p>
But secondly, I think there’s a level of dissatisfaction because we know we are capable of more and are becoming frustrated by not achieving it, that we have a duty to be better, to deal with our challenges and realise our potential, to set ourselves up for much longer, sustainable growth and become a better society, for our own sake and that of our neighbours.
The secondary factor is a cultural cringe that has elements of the political and commentariat classes ape other countries’ problems and behaviours. Most obviously, the local right-wing nut jobs who hunger after Trumpism and/or the US Republican agenda, but we also have those on the left who idolise the likes of Jeremy Corbyn.
Thankfully, we’re not a nation of the extreme. Our healthy centrism hopefully will continue to protect us from the worst of the ratbaggery.
We can be better – we should be better – but while we’re working on it, it’s good to try to keep perspective and realise you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else on earth.