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6 January 2018

Australia feels wealthier than Europe – but has yet to reckon with its past

The “lucky country” has sailed through the global financial downturn – the only developed economy to have avoided any annual recession since 1991.

By Ed Smith

We’re fat, we’re round, three dollars to the pound.” Back in 2002-03, that was the chant of the Barmy Army, a devoted collection of travelling England cricket fans, as the team suffered a heavy Ashes defeat on Australian soil. We might lose at cricket, but what a quality of life for Englishmen, converting pounds sterling into copious flat whites and craft beers.

The cricketing results have been similar in Australia this winter, but the cost of living has changed, painfully so. Singing “We’re fat, we’re round, we can’t afford much at 1.7 dollars to the pound” doesn’t take the edge off a series defeat in quite the same way.

Australia has sailed through the global financial downturn. It is now the only developed economy to have avoided any annual recession since 1991 – a quarter of a century of uninterrupted growth. Travelling in Australia is a bit like being in Switzerland: you know it is a statistical fact that everyone cannot be well-off, but it feels that way.

Australian politics is moving towards Switzerland’s, too: exceptionally changeable and questionable in influence. Australia has had five new prime ministers in seven and a half years (if you count Kevin Rudd’s two spells separately). Recent prime ministers have suffered from low job security. Are they doing a good job for an ungrateful population? Or is Australia so lucky that it’s almost impossible to mess it up?

“Australia is a lucky country,” wrote the academic and intellectual Donald Horne in 1964, “run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.” The phrase “lucky country” provided the title for Horne’s book on his homeland, and he intended it to imply criticism. As with Michael Young’s concept of “meritocracy”, however, the phrase drifted away from its critical origins. The lucky country – we’ll run with that. Australia is arguably luckier than ever, still benefiting from its substantial mineral resources: in effect, it owns the bounty of a whole continent. Luck, properly understood, cannot be earned, regardless of what self-help books may want us to believe. But it must be difficult for a country on a 27-year winning streak to distinguish between chance and skill.

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Each Ashes series, I go back to a favourite cricket book, Australia 55, by the poet and literary editor Alan Ross. He travelled with Len Hutton’s touring team by boat, on what became one of the great, surprising series wins in cricket history. Ross’s book is part cricket book, part travelogue, and he makes a superb companion: hedonistic, melancholy and wry. I mostly hurry through the cricket and linger over his descriptions of Australia, especially Melbourne.

Ross’s base was the Melbourne Club, where he stayed up till the early hours playing snooker with politicians and intellectuals. He loved the cultured, cosmopolitan mood of the city. “On my way to the Melbourne Cricket Ground,” Ross wrote, “I walked up Collins Street, with its magnificent switchback of planes and elms, the only street in Australia which might be in Europe.” Indeed, Ross’s portrait of Melbourne suggests a kind of displaced Europe.

We could reverse the analogy today, given how much wealthier, better organised and more confident Australia feels than much of Europe. The next time I’m in an especially orderly European urban enclave, I’ll make a point of saying, “Things work so well here, it could be Australia.”

Enduring good fortune, however, co-exists uneasily with a sense of original sin. Must Australia confront and resolve its relationship with the people who occupied the land before it was “Australia”? Last year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull rejected the proposal to consider an extra dimension to the Australian constitution – not exactly a new third house of parliament with legal powers, but a new advisory body to provide Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders with a “voice to parliament”.

The proposal, now shelved, was the recommendation of a commission led by the lawyer and Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson. In a recent speech, Pearson interpreted Australian identity as three epic journeys. The first began 72,000 years ago when Aboriginal ancestors left Africa. Pearson’s second epic is the voyage of the Endeavour, James Cook’s journey to the east coast of Australia in 1770. Finally, Pearson cites the more recent journeys that created cosmopolitan Australia today, “the epic migrations from Auschwitz, Somalia, Italy, Vietnam, Beirut and Tiananmen Square”.

Pearson’s point is that the concept of Australia has never been properly addressed, let alone resolved. Even allowing for a Western world-view, Australia was not founded in 1788 – the year the colony of New South Wales was founded. The name “Australia” only became official in the 19th century, and the federation of the Commonwealth of Australia happened in 1901. By finally inviting displaced voices into the structures of Australia, Pearson had hoped to create a new and unified “declaration of Australia”.

I read Pearson’s speech on Boxing Day. The day before, while driving out of Melbourne along the Mornington Peninsula, I noticed an intriguing change. Initially, the suburbs gave way to Australian woodland and shrubs. Then, as we approached older settlements, the flora changed again: imported European trees started to outnumber native ones. The first instinct of the early settlers, I learned, was to uproot what had previously existed. Then, realising the need for windbreaks and shelter from the sun, they began the whole process again, starting from zero, mostly forgetting what had they had destroyed.

Couldn’t they have waited and observed the value and wisdom of what had been there all along? But that is to judge history with the values of the present – a delicate balance, especially for the lucky country. 

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This article appears in the 03 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old