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.