Five great things about Australia

Having blogged for a couple of months now, I am conscious of the lure of writing ‘why dont the people in charge do as I say’ pieces. As an antidote I’d like to offer 5 observations which strike a European like myself on why Australia is a great country, some of which are likely to be taken for granted by the people who have lived here all their lives:

1. The social cohesion and harmony within Australia just blows you away. No ghettos worthy of that name. English is the dominant language everywhere. No violent minorities burning cars and looting police stations every other week. No youth subculture of anger directed at public amenities like parks and bus stations. No fear that the next person in the street you dare look into the eyes is going to beat you up. It may be strange to hear, but that cohesion and internal harmony is quite unusual in Europe, and basically unknown in the US.

2. Radical changes are simply proposed and implemented in a very short space of time. Changes politically impossible elsewhere are implemented here without a second thought. One can complain that changes are not thought through and often have to be reversed or amended later on, but this willingness to simply change things is very refreshing after spending 30 years in Europe where people argue about changes, but hardly ever implement any change worthwhile. Good historical examples were of course the reductions in trade tariffs, HECS, the PBS, or the labour market reforms of the late 90s. Only now are these reforms being copied in other countries, at least 10 years after Australia just did them. A good topical example is the quite radical proposal that the Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson announced, effectively making indigenous parents’ welfare payments conditional on the school performance of their children. Economists only dared breath such ideas indoors until last week and were mortally afraid of being called a racist should they publicly propose this kind of thing, and now an Aboriginal leader himself is proposing them! If it happens, it will be once again Australia leading the way.

3. (one that you are very likely never to have thought of) Australia has no large areas of low-lying coastland that would be lost if Greenland melts and the seas rise by 7 meters in the next 1000 years. You may not think that’s such an advantage, but it is when you come from countries that would basically disappear if the seas would rise by 7 meters (such as the Netherlands or Bangladesh). This is one of the many reasons why Australia should not be as afraid of climate change as other countries.

4. All major indicators of well-being look very good for Australia: happiness, life expectancy, school education, literacy levels, quality of education of immigrants, female labour force participation, natural habitat per person, etc., are all at the top of the OECD range. The lucky country indeed.

5. There’s no real danger to Australias stability, wealth, or cohesion anywhere on the horizon: no major ethnic divisions to speak of that should worry us (even most of those calling themselves indigenous share a majority non-indigenous ancestry); no likely foreign aggressor that will bother us; no impending natural disaster for which there are not obvious adjustments at hand (less rain in the South-East is compensated by more in the North-West; desalination plants can make up for less rain near the big cities; world food prices are dropping so we can quite easily import food if soil erosion should temporarily force us to, etc). Barring a serious WW3 (not the minor skirmish we pretend is worthy of the name ‘War on terror’) I cannot realistically see anything to threaten Australia’s well-being in the coming decades.

When I reflect on all the ways this country is blessed and reflect on the poverty and dictatorship that still exists in many other countries, I cannot help feeling that Australia is a lucky country with nothing to seriously worry about. If you compare the dredge and misery that is Zimbabwe or Darfur with ‘merit pay for teachers’ or ‘industrial relations’, doesnt a smile appear on your face too? Happy is a country indeed where we so ferociously debate such relatively insignificant issues and are able to go home at the end of the day to our large houses with healthy and happy children who face such a bright future.
Update: John Cleary in the commentary mentions another clear great thing about Australia that has happened relatively recently, i.e. the almost complete disappearance of religious bigotry.

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Backroom Girl
Backroom Girl
14 years ago

Paul – if I was to be nitpicky (who, me?), I would point out that female labour force participation is unfortunately not one of the indicators where Australia is at the top of the OECD range.

We do very well among young women (70 per cent in 2005 compared with an OECD average of 45 per cent) but we are pretty average when it comes to prime-age and older women. Now you can regard this as a good thing or a bad thing, it seems to me. If you like to focus on the capacity for women to be economically self-sufficient it’s not so good, but if you think it is important for women to be able to take (sometimes extended) periods out of the workforce for child-rearing then we actually have a pretty good set of institutions to allow that, and for the majority of women I think it is a real choice rather than an outcome foisted on them by society.

However, it is heartening to read such a positive view of Australia from a European perspective. I reckon it’s a pretty good place to live too, but I don’t have the personal experience to be able to compare it with many other places.

mangoman
mangoman
14 years ago

Thanks Paul for a postive post. Perhaps it is because we are prepared to debate issues and are able to do so without fear of retribution that allows us to continue in this way.

I wont be too nitpicky but we in the Northern Territory are heading down a road where there is a large proportion of the population that is increasingly alienated from the rest of society. This population has generally little or no education, limited capacity to achieve their wants and often sky high expectations. The results of this alienation are increasingly being seen with a rise in assualts and robberies. Ever higher fences in urban areas are being built.

Another great thing about Australia that I would like to add to the list is that we have demonstrated that we have both the wit and the will to deal effectively and sensitively with the issues that face those who don’t share the majority culture and are unable to communicate effectively with the rest.

Unfortuntately, this one can’t be added yet.

Ken Parish
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Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
14 years ago

mangoman

I agree about the alienation, although the precise causation mix between bad government policy and bad choices by indigenous people themselves is another question. However, it isn’t actually true that this alienation has resulted in a rise in assaults and robberies. In fact the armed robbery rate in the NT has always been significantly LOWER than the national average (possibly in considerable part because we don’t have a large junkie population or significant organised criminal gangs) and there is no current identifiable rising trend.

Levels of sexual assault have actually fallen rather than risen since 2002. See http://www.nt.gov.au/justice/ocp/docs/statistics/200612_Issue18_FS-EBook.pdf . Crime figures in most other categories have also fallen. While non-sexual assault figures have risen since 2002, however, the Office of Crime Prevention comments as follows:

In late 2004, the Northern Territory Police launched their Violent Crime Reduction Strategy, with a consequential increase in the number of recorded Assault offences in 2005 and 2006. These increases in Assaults largely reflect the impact of operational changes the Police have made in the reporting and recording of domestic violence related Assaults, rather than an actual increase in violent crimes in the Territory. In 2006 there were 4 496 recorded Assault offences, 15% (570) more than in 2002.

Patrick
Patrick
14 years ago

Ah, Ken, when will you learn? Facts are just so boring compared to juicy anecdotal impressions :)

Having spent a few years in America, Europe and the Pacific, I agree strongly with 1 and 2 as being fairly striking differences, and with 5, subject to some qualifications as to the extent of the difference for that one.

Tom N.
Tom N.
14 years ago

A great post Paul.

Another indicator of how lucky we are in relative terms is the shock I experienced, and that I suspect most Australians experienced, by the recent shooting in Melbourne. It was such an unexpected and rare thing here: presumably it would hardly have made the news in some places on earth.

john cleary
john cleary
14 years ago

I would add a big, unseen achievement in Australian society: A complete dismantlement of religious bigotry, particularly protestant vv catholic which still chokes other countries with its hatred. Post WW2 and devastatingly fast paced.
And a big, current achievement: The child focus emerging in already liberal divorce law. Combined with the Child Support Act of 1989, the placing of children’s best interests at the centre of divorce / separation is ahead of anything in the world.

Backroom Girl
Backroom Girl
14 years ago

I’ve just been browsing in the statistical annex to the OECD’s latest Employment Outlook. Here’s another couple of things we are near the top of the OECD league table in:

* We’re No. 1 in the incidence of male part-time employment (% of male employment that is part-time). This is of course not unrelated to the fact that we have the 2nd or third highest rate of youth employment in the OECD.
* We also have high average wages – for a ‘full-time and full-year equivalent dependent employee’, Australian wages rank tenth in terms of current USD value, but third in terms of purchasing price parity (PPP).

James Farrell
James Farrell
14 years ago

It’s easy to find things here that the US lacks: a good public hospital system and public broadcaster, reasonably good public transport in cities, self-deprecating humour, divorce of religion and politics, freedom from jingoism.

And easy things Europe lacks: efficient real estate agents, wilderness, proper showers.

But it’s not so easy to find things that both lack. Social cohesion is a candidate, but I think Paul needs to spend more time in Sydney before he decides there are no ghettos.

However, I think Australia’s egalitarian ethos is pretty unique. Class distinctions survive in most of Europe, especially Eastern Europe — I keep being reminded how strong they are in Hungary. In the US rich people expect a degree of groveling and scraping from their underlings that would be laughable here, where no one cannot get away with airs and graces.

Perhaps we have competition from Scandinavia in this dapertment. Maybe the Netherlands too, but Belgians (whom I know much better) are pretty snobbish, so I’m not sure.

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

Paul, I had a bash at a post like yours – with quite different good things in it here.

http://clubtroppo.lateraleconomics.com.au/2007/01/16/what-are-we-best-at/

Nicholas Gruen
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Nicholas Gruen(@nicholas-gruen)
14 years ago

I made the same point as Tom N to someone I was speaking to recently. The prominence the shooting was given indicated how rare something like that is.

Patrick
Patrick
14 years ago

Maybe over the next (financial) year we could start a wikipedia like ‘Report on Australia’; and people could list areas where they thought Australia was doing well, or badly, and examples of other countries doing better.

I don’t think it would be as much work as it sounds like, and it might turn into a really valuable resource – especially for identifying low-hanging fruit.

I’ll think about it some more next month.

paul frijters
paul frijters
14 years ago

Patrick,

I like the idea of a ‘state of the nation’ document. I foresee lively debates on some points. For instance: is the food in Oz relatively good or bad? I think its pretty good, but some of my colleagues complain of the fruit and vegetables having no taste in this country. Perhaps someone has some expert knowledge on whether tastebuds work better in different climates or whether there is actually a difference.

Patrick
Patrick
14 years ago

Certainly there is a difference – taste of natural produce is strongly influenced by climate and terroir. The effect is best known with wines, seafoods, truffles, meat, chocolate and cheeses but applies universally.

Normally, hozever, it would seem wiser not to discuss the merits of the product of one region against another in absolute terms except where the explicit aim of one is to mimic the other (as is the case with, eg, many ‘New World’ wines and cheeses).

But I also like the general idea of a publicly acessible and ‘live’ document of that type. Maybe it would help journalists sound smarter ;)

listohan
listohan
14 years ago

And we like and are reasonably good at sport while not taking it too seriously.

Dean Ashby
8 years ago

I think you wrote this article too early, because Australia was indeed hit by a few major flood crisis a few years after your article was written. There was a major flood in 2010 at Tasmania that left many residents and businesses stranded while looking at rivers peak every second. The year after, in 2011, major flooding occurred at Queensland and in the following year, 2012, at a Sydney suburb, emergency workers had to close a bridge as the floods might wash over the flood gate. So, natural disasters do occur at Australia. Nonetheless, I have to second your thoughts on other good things about Australia especially the quality of education there and the social cohesion. Australia’s local degrees are globally recognized and no major racial prejudice cases take place there (or at least none reported by the media).

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
8 years ago
Reply to  Dean Ashby

yes, there have been floods, but once again their circumstances make you marvel at this country. You wouldnt know there were floods in Brisbane a few years ago, so fast has the cleanup been. Death tolls miniscule compared to the thousands who die in floods in Bangladesh. Social cohesion peaked with the nation coming together over these disasters. So yes, the weather is not always the best and some aspects of the changing climate seem worse now than they seemed in 2007 (when projected changes were not as grim), but I wouldnt say we seem incapable of coping so far.