On Australian Exceptionalism
Of the many defining characteristics that Australians cling to in an often uncertain search for national identity, the notion that they live in the Lucky Country endures with little effective criticism. The precision with which the term is used – Australia is the Lucky Country and not just a lucky country, one fortunate land amongst many – precludes not only a comparative appraisal of whether it really is a reasonable description at all, but also any historical understanding of how the term came into being, what it might have obscured and the extent to which it will influence the future as that uncertain time forms on the edge of the present. The country is lucky, always, and there’s nothing else to say.
Of course it’s not uncommon knowledge that the term in popular usage is something of a misnomer. When Donald Horne used it in his book of the same name in 1964, it marked the epilogue of an extended inquiry into a mindset and a manner, what it meant to be a particular type of person at a particular time. As Horne’s subtitle read, he was writing about ‘Australia in the Sixties’, less nationalistic than it had been, somehow different than what other people thought of it, but a little forlorn, worried at the edge of Asia. He described a people content with their lot, but not imaginative enough about others, or even about how things could be different for themselves.
What worried Horne the most was the absence of a public life, a debate about what might happen next, what just might be happening now. In a sense that’s not surprising because the Liberal-National coalition had been in power since 1946 and Prime Minister Robert Menzies had only just retired after 17 years in his second stint at the top. It could well be a maxim of Australian political history that federal governments both create and maintain public discourse, gently prodding much of the populace to speak of certain things now and ignore other things then.
People clearly have minds of their own, and there is always much said against the government of the day, but it is all too often those in power – not only in politics but also in the other fields that create the fabric of a culture – who frame perceptions, who start the banal conversations about national history, national destiny. Horne argued that imagination and cleverness, the will to break the bounds of public discourse and think otherwise, were sorely lacking at the time, even though Australians clearly had the capacity for change. What most people no longer recall is that Horne framed Australia’s luck in these terms. He wrote that
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.
It was, he argued later, time for “broad, general views of change”, for the country with no mind to think for itself. And he mulled over a thought that seems just as pertinent now: “according to the rules Australia has not deserved its good fortune. It will be interesting to find out if the rules are wrong”.
A reasonable guess today would be that many Australians consider the rules to have been very wrong, that Australia is exceptional in an indefinable sense, somehow linked to material wealth and, when pushed, to material wealth born of mining booms. These things stand eternal, and few ask what will happen when the latest boom – driven entirely by the Chinese demand for coal – fizzles, burps and dies. Perhaps there’ll be another, perhaps not. But an exceptional country rarely stops to consider the possibilities. Things just happen to it.
Of course there are many ways in which Australia is an extremely lucky country. Poverty is not as widespread as it is in other lands, most people are reasonably well educated if lacking in the will converse about the deeper things of life, and resources are still relatively plentiful. Compared to Manila or Mumbai, Melbourne is a dream – for most people. But at the edges of life things don’t often fit so comfortably. Poverty does exist, in the big cities as in the romanticised outback, the country was won through conquest and not compassion, the racist lives side by side with the cosmopolitan, and the Australian fascination with sport still masks an unwillingness to imagine beyond the realm of steadfast rules and teams that so easily beget larger tribes.
Look today at Australia and ask yourself whether time enough has passed to reveal any error in the unwritten rules of nations that measure fortune against industry, dumb luck against hard yakka, in the local idiom. Many things have changed since Donald Horne wrote, but the Australian capacity for self-congratulation has not. In that sense it might well be difficult to divine just where the country’s at, the sort of shape it’s in. But as the saying goes, happy people have no history. A word once spoken, a line once written, lives ever in collective memory. The Lucky Country is eternal.