OPINION:  For near on 30 years we have cruised down the road of economic growth feasting on the fruits of the “lucky country”. 

Sure, there were a few speed bumps along the way, a few wrong turns, and more than a few prime ministers, but it was mostly smooth sailing. 

Hit in the face by a pandemic!

Then, suddenly, we were hit in the face by a pandemic, thrown into lockdown, and our fragility as a nation was fully exposed. 

While frontline workers took it on the chin and rallied, others were reduced to fighting over toilet paper in our supermarkets. 

Shameful disparities between the social value of what essential workers do and the low wages they receive were splashed across our screens. The now-familiar failure of a free market economy to adequately value our most valuable asset; “human capital” writ large!

And as maddening as our political leaders are, with their misguided priorities and penchant for finger-pointing, in the world we live in today, they are not so much the cause of our broken political system, but a product of its decline. 

To say that we have lost faith is an understatement

But this by no means absolves our political leaders from their obligations going forward — a few points worth pointing out from the 2019 ANU Federal Election report:

  • Satisfaction with democracy is at its lowest level (59 per cent) since the constitutional crisis of the 1970s
  • Trust in government has reached its lowest level on record, with just 25 per cent believing people in government can be trusted.
  • 56 per cent of Australians believe that the government is run for ‘a few big interests’, while just 12 per cent believe the government is run for ‘all the people’.

And we except this and carry on regardless adhering to a social contract that we signed in good faith. Actually, I don’t remember signing any such contract, do you? 

And apparently, neither does the other party to it. A case in point is the global decline in democracy: 

Freedom House found that 2019 was the 14th consecutive year of decline in global freedom … Democracy is under assault around the globe, and the effects are evident not just in authoritarian states like China, Russia and Iran, but also in countries with a long track record of upholding basic rights and freedoms.” 

So, when did this all this begin? I suspect, from the time we sketched out that old neoliberal roadmap to utopia.

Life’s little anomalies

Life is full of anomalies. Note this one: 

Australia has the 12th highest average income in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) — for those who are lucky enough to have a job.

Of course, using an average instead of median creates an obvious distortion: in 2017-2018 average full-time earnings were $82,436 while the median wage — the one that most of us are on — was just $48,360 before tax. Politicians prefer to spout the former; the latter is simply an “anomaly”.

And we work pretty hard for it too, with the fifth highest hours worked per capita in the OECD. 

Meanwhile, bureaucrats rake in the millions: the chief executive of Australia Post, Christine Holgate, for example, collected a cool $2.565 million in 2018-19. Which was well below her predecessor, Ahmed Fahour, whose last pay packet was $6.8 million. That’s over 50 times, and 140 times respectively, the median wage of the masses. 

If we have to pay people these huge sums to do the job or attract them to the job, then it’s pretty clear that their incentive is money. If this is the primary motivation, then are they the right people for the job?

Working smarter not harder: a weary old cliché

But when it comes to working smarter, the dogma of which seems to be synonymous with our society, we come in at a paltry 16th — somewhere in the middle among our OECD brethren. 

Why is this so?

Sarah Wilson, in her latest book, This One Wild and Precious Life, explains her theory as to why: 

“… opulence, particularly in Australia, (which had seen nearly 30 years of uninterrupted economic growth), has made us intellectually flaccid and unvibrant.” 

But could it be that simple?

In short: as a consequence of our laid back opulent lifestyles — a perpetual hangover from living in the lucky country — we are all suffering from intellectual atrophy! 

Although stagnant wages and underemployment suggest something else is in play. Or perhaps we might pin it on the steady decline in funding for research and development in our universities. R&D has never been a biggy for recent governments!

Not to mention that our extra over-sized migration program — our population growth is around 1.5 per cent compared to the OECD average of 0.5 per cent — coupled with the rise of China, quite successfully smoothed over any cracks in our economy. 

But underlying the smoothing out, have we fallen for “resource curse” — the paradox of plenty? A mindless and an unimaginative means to an end.

We also know that Australia’s management capability that is critical to facilitating innovation has been slow on the uptake, especially in realising the benefits of digital technologies.

But we’re still living in the lucky country, aren’t we?

In the 1960s and 70s, we gave each other a slap on the back and called ourselves “the lucky country”. 

But the book of the same name, by Donald Horne (1921-2005) — a social researcher, philosopher, and historian — from whence it came, was actually a disparaging critique of Australian society: “an indictment of a country mired in mediocrity and manacled to its past.” 

The reference to “lucky country” was satirical in the sense that we were lucky to have made it this far. Whoops!

But in typical Antipodean fashion, it was rewritten to paint us as the country with everything going for it — a dressing-up as opposed to a dressing-down. A kind of literary correction based on the premise that “she’ll be right mate!”

And once the politicians got hold of it, Horne’s book had turned full circle into a book of praise for the luckiest country on the planet — politicised on its way to being immortalised as the goto slogan that you could confidently hang your hat on! 

Talking about an exercise in popularism!

The dumbest, or not-so-smart country

So, we might now more solemnly call ourselves “the dumb country” — as Horne had intended. Or at least one of the dumbest countries in terms of our technological capability. 

That is, we are still riding down that same old road on the coattails of our top three exports: coal, iron ore, and liquified natural gas (LNG); inclusive of the old-world technologies which they sustain.

Sure, you might well say that we have great mining technology — fantastic for digging big holes in the ground and drilling through the Earth and ocean floor — but it’s also the same technology that facilitated, and continues to facilitate, climate change.

Horne’s true legacy

This might be a little long-winded, but well worth the read as Horne’s intended legacy could hardly be lost in translation: 

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. A nation more concerned with styles of life than with achievement has managed to achieve what may be the most evenly prosperous society in the world … According to the rules Australia has not deserved its good fortune.”

A rather harsh indictment, yes!

Lifestyles aside, and apart from the irony, the fact that we were intent on rewriting Donald Horne’s manuscript was a measure of our hubris, or apathy, or pie-eyed optimism. Or perhaps all of the above, but not necessarily our ingenuity! 

Which, half a century later, might be thought of as anachronistic — or is it?

Innovation: now that’s an idea!

Sustainable economic growth and genuine prosperity are powered by the accumulation of knowledge which is used to create increasingly innovative industries that benefit “everyone”. 

However, perception only creates reality to the point that reality eventually dismantles your economy. Read a little further ….

The latest Harvard Growth Lab Atlas of Economic Complexity — a guide to the level of technological knowledge and its use in the production of complex products — has Australia at 87th as of 2018, lagging well behind Kazakhstan, Uganda, Senegal, and Vietnam, and sitting just above Pakistan and Mali. 

As the chart from Harvard University’s Atlas of Economic Complexity shows, Australia was ranked 55th in 1995 but has been in a sharp decline ever since, even though we trebled our national income in that period. Remarkably, we dropped 22 places in just over the decade to 2017. 

And the report goes on: Russia, Canada, and Brazil all possess large deposits of natural resources like Australia; but conversely, they all rank in the top 50.

It seems that self-adulation is what we’re particularly good at, relative to our technical prowess as a nation. 

Why the decline?

The Australian National Outlook 2019: Securing our Nation’s Future Prosperity, produced by the CSIRO, outlined how our current trajectory is one of economic and social decline if we fail to address our foremost challenges; namely, to create globally competitive industries and a sustainable natural environment. 

The panel of experts, chaired by Ken Henry and David Thodey, summed it up this way:

“… if these challenges are tackled head on, Australia can look forward to a positive Outlook Vision. This could mean higher GDP per capita, ‘net zero’ greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, strong economic growth and energy affordability, and more liveable major cities.”

Lest we end up like America!

Lest we end up like America: the most advanced third world country on the planet! See anthropologist Wade Davis’s overview of a failed state:

“But when all the old certainties are shown to be lies, when the promise of a good life for a working family is shattered as factories close and corporate leaders, growing wealthier by the day, ship jobs abroad, the social contract is irrevocably broken.”

So, is it time to sign a new social contract?

A failure to fulfil one’s contractual obligations — a promise for a promise — is a breach of contract rendering that part of it null and void. The preceding attests to serial breaches. So, let’s sign a new social contract!

In return for relinquishing several of our liberties and respecting the liberties of others, and our commitment to abiding by the law and being good citizens, we require that the following form the crux of the new social contract:

Create innovative industries and interesting jobs that fairly compensate people for the work they do. Aim for genuine full employment and the elimination of insecure work. And if full employment is not achievable, accept that failure and pay the out of work a Universal Basic Income equal to a “liveable” wage.

Significantly ramp up the investment, by all levels of government, in the “care economy”: education, social housing, mental health, aged care, the disabled, and our natural environment. 

One hundred per cent renewable energy is no longer a pipe dream so let’s get on with it. Institute a “zero-carbon infrastructure” that serves to eliminate inequality across all sectors of our community.

Forget lucky, let’s make it “the progressive country”

Just imagine that we lived in a more progressive time, with more progressive leaders — or if ours was a more progressive country. 

People would be more willing to give more of themselves; we would be more productive, more enthusiastic, and our children would be more optimistic about what the future holds for them.

One thing is for sure, we wouldn’t wake up in the morning, not nearly as often anyway, fraught with despair for the welfare of the next generation and our beautiful blue planet.

Stephen Dark has a PhD in Climate Change Policy and Science, and has lectured at Bond University in the Faculty of Society & Design teaching Sustainable Development and Sustainability Economics. He is a member of the Urban Development Institute of Australia and the author of the book Contemplating Climate Change: Mental Models and Human Reasoning.

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  1. A terrific article, Stephen. Any ideas on how to depose the vested interests? They only get more confident and audacious as time passes – witness the Covid Commission. When democracy is reduced to a vote every three years between two parties equally in the thrall of neoliberalism (albiet one of them has some semblance of social and environmental conscience, but no guarantee of that prevailing in Cabinet) what hope do we have?

  2. I have no doubt about the author’s intent for a better world. Being brought up on a farm I would like him to address why Australians wont go and pick fruit and work on farms instead of just collecting social services.
    However, his use of “progressive” brought back memories of the Green Bans in Sydney led by the late Jack Mundey.
    Centennial Park was under some developer threat and Patrick White, who lived in the area was interviewed on T.V.
    When asked via a statement that he was standing in the way of progress, White answered, ” I am not interested in progress, I’m interested in civilisation.”