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Yesterday we dreamed

Australia – not that great a country

Inner-city latte-drinking basket-weavers (Sky News)
Inner-city latte-drinking basket-weavers (Sky News)


TUMBY BAY - Let’s be honest.  Australia is an insignificant world power sitting in isolation at the bottom of the planet desperately clinging on to an increasingly tenuous notion of Western hegemony.

On one current reckoning we sit in seventeenth place on the world power scale, just below Switzerland and just above Turkey.

On another ranking, as a military power, we fill nineteenth spot, after Spain, a position we’ve held for three years.

On Transparency International's corruption perceptions index, Australia has plunged from sixth to twelfth in eight years.

Depending upon their perspective, other countries regard us as either a giant quarry or as a quaint outlier with strange and sometimes dangerous animals, pleasant and sometimes dangerous beaches and twangy suntanned accents totally unintelligible behind a Covid mask.

The Lucky CountryIn his celebrated book of 1964, The Lucky Country, Donald Horne pointed to Australians’ adaptability and resourcefulness, but also wrote in the opening words of the final chapter:

"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."

That description is largely true nearly 60 years later. The only thing that seems to have changed is that we have now acquired an enormous ego and think we are a nation to be reckoned with.

We say repeatedly that something is ‘world best’, ‘world first’ or ‘world renowned’ without having a clue what we’re talking about.

“Alone of all the races on earth, they seem to be free from the 'grass is greener on the other side of the fence' syndrome and roundly proclaim that Australia is, in fact, the other side of that fence,” wrote Douglas Adams.

We even believe in Australian exceptionalism while we are roll on our back looking imploringly at more powerful countries as we invite them to scratch our tummy.

In contrast, our antipodean neighbour, New Zealand, seems happy to accept its place in the world (32nd on the world power scale, having just moved up from 34th).

Aotearoa revels in its isolation and independence.

Australians for some inexplicable reason desperately want to be noticed.

Back in the 1960s when Horne wrote The Lucky Country, Australians had something of an inferiority complex.

We even had a term to describe it - cultural cringe. This was the habit of Australians perceiving their own artists and writers, and even executives and trades people, as inferior to anything from overseas.

So we glorified in being ‘Ocker’ Australians, a theatrical stupidity and naiveté that was a point of pride for many of us.

It was exploited for all it was worth in books like John O’Grady’s They’re a Weird Mob, films like The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and stage performances by Barry Humphries.

Our cultural cringe is still here but it’s not considered patriotic to show it because we know we’re a country to be reckoned with.

We stick out our chins instead of tugging our forelocks and shout at the top of our voices, ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!’

That more laid back, easy going, ‘she’ll be right mate’ attitude – cringeworthy though it could be - was probably better than this new arrogance that came from…. surely it didn’t come from the availability of cheap travel, did it?

As in ‘Rome’s OK but we’ve got a one of those in Dubbo that’s better.’

Certainly that previous unassuming casualness helped cement our benign engagement as colonists in Papua New Guinea and our friendly extrication in 1975.

Globalisation, an ever-growing prosperity and the information revolution has changed all that however.

A desperate need to play with the big boys and girls now colours our approach to the world, particularly among our leaders.

And unfortunately they’re not very good at doing it.

That older Australia would, for instance, make the world take notice of us for an innovative and progressive approach to climate change.

SubsWe have all the right elements, great scientists, enough money, plenty of the right resources (wind and sun and minerals for battery manufacture).

Australia could be leading the world, instead we’re looked upon as a pariah.

On another front it wouldn’t be hard to turn our punitive approach to asylum seekers completely around to their benefit and ours.

We need migrants (our economy relies upon them) and our navy is already patrolling our borders and turning back the few people smugglers that are left plying their loathsome trade.

We could be a shining example to the world of what a compassionate and innovative nation looks like. Just like we used to be.

Instead, we preen our feathers and engage in dangerous and crude pandering to placate and win favour with so-called allies and corporations of which our government now appears to be a wholly owned subsidiary.

We Australians have got a lot of hard thinking to do about what we have become.


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Philip Fitzpatrick

Actually, you do make a good point Robert.

Our perception of Australia depends very much on our perspective.

And, of course, that perspective tells us a lot about the individual.

I can think of lots of people who would say Australia is a wonderful place.

One of them not so recently asked the rhetorical question, "How good is Australia?"

I think the male equivalent of a sheila is a bloke.

Lindsay F Bond

By other cricket nations crumbed, and by our own battered?

Robert Wilson

Fair crack of the whip there Phil, Oz is still a bonzer place but our cricket blokes are a bit crap now.

Luckily for us, our sheila's are smashing everyone in the cricket and now that some bed wetters have banned the name 'batsman', we can now slip some of those sheilas in to the men's team and get us back up the rankings.

I apologise for using the gender specific term 'men' but don't no what else to say.

See, some of us do have our priorities in the right order.

Bernard Corden

I particularly like the acronym FILTH (Failed in London try Honk Kong)

Philip Fitzpatrick

Sometimes you have to over egg the pudding to get people's attention Chris.

I also get the distinct impression that a lot of what you are describing as Australia's virtues only existed in the past.

In the last two decades or so Australia has become a greedier and meaner place to live.

Good people have retreated into themselves and left the field open for the carpetbaggers that now infest business and government.

Thankfully there appears to be a younger generation of people born in the 1990s and later who aren't prepared to drink the kool aid.

Hopefully they'll prevail.

Lindsay F Bond

Some mobs of Aussies might baulk at that word 'country'. Are we not blessed in that land? For some mobs culture, nature and land are all linked. See:

This is not to denigrate the topic, only to note complexity in a word that derived from a contrasting view.

Chris Overland

While I think that you are over egging the pudding, Phil, it is true to say that Australia is not a 'great' country.

You have referred to many of its faults, which is fair comment I suppose, but there are some virtues too.

In relation to climate change, every state and territory has now committed to being carbon neutral by 2050. The charge is being led by NSW and SA, both having Liberal governments.

The Federal LNP government has left itself in the pitiful and embarrassing position of refusing to commit to an internationally agreed target to which its agreement has become largely meaningless.

It deserves derision and contempt for its pathetic abrogation of leadership, yet again, on perhaps the most significant strategic issue of our time.

Australia's record on successfully absorbing immigrants for something like 200 different nationalities is a genuine success story, and something for which we can be grateful and proud. The contrast with many xenophobic European countries is striking.

We can also be grateful for the fact that our people taken as a whole are generally industrious and hard working.

As a consequence, our economy is generally efficient, with both public and private sectors easily matching or exceeding the productivity levels achieved in comparable countries.

Unfortunately, it also is true that we are not especially good at monetising innovations.

Our entrepreneurial class and financial institutions are quite timid about developing and marketing new goods and services, preferring to on-sell them to others for a modest profit rather than taking a chance on making a fortune by marketing them on a global scale.

Amongst our other virtues are a very efficient and productive agricultural sector, our generally good quality education and health systems, a flourishing small to medium business sector, a huge number of excellent cafes and restaurants and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, generally competent if usually uninspiring governments.

Australians are also very good at volunteering to help others, especially during a crisis.

This is one of our less recognised but admirable traits. For example, our various rural fire services are almost entirely operated by volunteers, as are our various state emergency services.

So, while I agree that Australia is not a 'great' country in the way that term is commonly understood, I would suggest that very few Australians are especially anxious to live somewhere else.

Even our cousins across the ditch, beautiful as their country is and admirable as they are as a people, are rather fond of migrating to Australia (although they never, ever forget their fundamental 'kiwi-ness').

We Australians fall short of perfection and tend to know our limitations. We are largely unmoved by nationalistic rhetoric (except in relation to sport and Anzac Day) and tend to view such sentiments when expressed by politicians with undisguised suspicion.

We mostly love our wide brown land but do so in an understated way. We have no need to incessantly wave our flag or constantly proclaim our virtues to the world at large. We back each other when push comes to shove and are mostly kind to one another.

In short, we are not too bad mate.

Paul Oates

Ah Phil, your use of the evocative to induce the provocative is a skill you've mastered well.

Australians are what they are. We don't need to do more navel gazing to know our faults. We need to start working out how to overcome them.

Our world has shrunk to the size of a global village in contact and information access. The problems that were always there are now broadcast by megaphone into our living rooms every night.

That is, if any other news can squeeze past the ongoing infantile blast of political point scoring over a health issue.

The current so called news has become a kindergarten fracas based on claims and counterclaims over meaningless statistics and emotive claims and counterclaims of the value of vaccination to everyone.

We now more than ever need to heed the lessons of history and not recreate the wheel. The real problem is that our young people are not being taught human history and are being led along a path of limited and narrow perception of what some, who have taken over the school curriculum, now see as their chance to right the wrongs they wish to have righted and teach the younger generation what they should know rather than give then a chance to form their own ideas based on a broad spectrum of factual information.

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