Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country was published in 1964. It was widely misunderstood at the time, which rather dramatically confirmed the argument of the book:
“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.”
The book was NOT a celebration of Australia’s luck. It was a devastating critique of our economic and cultural dependence, and our almost complete lack of leadership in any walk of life except sport. Horne did not use the term ‘political class’ in 1964, but his book was about Australia’s political class and its manifest, systemic failure.
In later life, Horne lamented the misuse of the term ‘The Lucky Country’: “I have had to sit through the most appalling rubbish as successive generations misapplied this phrase.” In an unsuccessful attempt to correct the misuse, Horne published The Death of the Lucky Country in 1976, but barely anyone noticed.
In the summer of 2019/2020, the nation endured a summer of bushfires for which the political class had no bushfire plan. Much of the country had just come through three years of drought, for which the political class had no water plan. And as the country reels from its economic dependence on China, the political class has still no plan to diversify the nation’s economic base.
This summer we went through it again. This time it was floods. We still have no water plan. And no national strategy to minimise natural disaster risk.
This is the dynamic in Australian public governance that we have all got painfully used to. After the Black Saturday fires in 2009, a range of community organisations and businesses were able to influence COAG (Council of Australian Governments) to produce an excellent National Strategy for Disaster Resilience in 2011. It was excellent. It had the three things that are needed: a strategy to manage disaster risk; a partnership between governments and communities to manage emergency responses and recovery; and a financing mechanism based on insurance principles to pay for the cost of prevention, response and recovery.
It was never implemented. The 2013 federal election was looming, and politicians of all persuasions threw themselves into electioneering for a short-term political victory. Planning for anything in the mid- to long-term was dropped like a hot potato.
This is how public governance works in Australia. This pattern is repeated, over and over, in every policy area, in every jurisdiction.
Donald Horne in 1964 was, if anything, soft on our politicians. He didn’t foresee then that it would dismantle the country’s entire manufacturing capacity to instead opt for an economy built on sales of immigration visas to the professional classes of Asia. Nor could he foresee the wholesale turning of the country’s universities into visa factories.
Unlike New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries, Australia has no permanent civil defence infrastructure for dealing with natural disasters, epidemics of infectious diseases, or national security threats. Self-respecting countries with small populations build infrastructure at micro-levels to enable emergency alert, prevention and preparedness capacities amongst their people. This is infrastructure to enable ‘looking after each other’ instead of hoping for the best.
The Lucky Country doesn’t do this. It hopes for the best. And when it comes up short, the political class uses its only tools – cash splashes of taxpayers’ money to bail itself out of trouble and mass media advertising to convey its preferred messages to a disengaged and ever more distrustful population.
In 2019, we formed The Sensible Centre as a non-partisan response to the systemic failure of the political class in Australia that Donald Horne described so well in 1964. In retrospect, our movement was needed as a national priority in 1965, but … better late than never.
Because in 2022, Donald Horne is still right. “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck.”
Vern Hughes is the Director of Civil Society Australia, www.civilsociety.org.au.