Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Coming full circle in the lucky country

This heading has little to do with a previous book “Coming full circle” by my PhD supervisor Professor Eric Jones in the early 1990s. Rather than combing through complex long haul development paths in centuries of early modern history, this writing attempts to trace major turns and events of about one century of Australia and probe what really shine and what combinations of unique characteristics of this lovely country indeed bear significance in a new century of expected giant strides of human progress. At the start of the 21st century, this is a perfect time to step back, look around, and make sense of the completion and outlook of a full circle.

The Australian experience in this circle simply illustrates that some initially conceived advantages and benefits prove more crucial after all for the welfare of future generations of this precarious world. Previous dissections of this writing serve to demonstrate those crucial characteristics of Australia, as well as long term impacts made by global trends. Similar to the wavering of a moving vehicle on road, a society is deemed under the influence of a certain guiding philosophy, or more restrictively an ideology, in a given phase of history, only to leap to another at a later phase. A chosen approach to survival and development is seen by the people in the driving seat, most likely the social elite, as a destined course to take, reaching the end of history if one gets his wishes. Inevitably, however, complex forces and relations in the society forge new perceptions and adjust focuses, edging previously treasured and cherished principles to the sideline. This ongoing process of adjusting and sublation reflect the true nature of social progress as not a single, straight line. History is primarily a collection of human activities through time and thus is supposed to be shifting and wavering this way, while selecting a set course amidst multiple choices. Otherwise, it would not have been possible for us to sense progress in the making and gain deepening understanding of the world, if rigid and sacred doctrines retain their sway forever. There would also have been little excitements and rotating scenes of rise and fall of powers based on brute force or innovation. The right direction is always sought and advocated, with continuous identifying, legitimising, and cross-checking.

In terms of modern politics, swings between the left and the right have also been a matter of course in recognised Western democratic countries. The most recent example is the switch of roles between entrenched thinking of social democratic welfare and pervasive, triumphing neo-classical economics (economic rationalism in Australia). It is worth noting how fervently social democratic countries stuck to their principles and risked loosing the so-called all important productivity contest to a more ruthlessly profit-driven US. Priorities of the moment urge actions and preferences on one side of life, to make money and get rich quick, or to maintain a desired balance in quality of life through work. The mild differences between these two breed separate political parties and groups of left and right, and command the trends forward of the world economy and politics. A more recent tide of market oriented thinking resurrected neo-classical economics in public policy domains, reversing previous mainstreams of social democratic thinking. What was widely discredited is now justified and honoured, such as greed and casual employee dismissal. To the people of this moment, the path is a certainty, and a worry of what this turn of event will be judged or a possible occurrence of further reversions or sublation in the next phase is nowhere to be seen. Responding to immediate concerns, people and governments tend to seek available solutions and justifications of their decisions and strategies, giving little thought of aftermath and long term impact. It is precisely an opposite to these contemporary priorities that a longer cycle of events should be objectively examined and analysed.

The course of turns and shifts in Australian politics serves as a timely reminder of past experience and convictions since the date of Federation. Australia has a longer history than that of Federation, from the Aboriginal cultures to the first landing and fleet. This early history is largely omitted here for the reason that it was basically a British colonial experience and that it is from the time of Federation that Australia gained an independent identity, which loomed larger with the passing of time. Australia has endured torments and fortunes in the 20th century and by and large coped well with challenging realities. It, above all, has not relinquished previous traditions and characteristics, which has made the country a desirable place to live.

In college years, a book about Sweden was thrust to me by a classmate as a leisure reading. I was somewhat dismissive: why not a book on much mightier countries such as the US or Russia (the Soviet Union at the time)? I realised the mistake of not reading that book more thoroughly by the time I arrived in Australia, having witnessed the first time a true Western country, not a super power, but a well run democracy and market economy, more importantly, a welfare state in good shape. Getting more grasps of this typical Western democracy in Australia, Sweden to me is obviously another oft-quoted example in par. This sense of comparable achievements even more intensified after my casual acquaintance with a Nordic student studying at the same university. In both of these examples, social democratic traditions are cherished, retained, and reinvented with vigour. Even if the Blair-style “Third Way” implies a disguised surrender to free market manipulation and has since lost some appeal and following, Australia is to carry on with remarkable social welfare on the basis of raised performance levels and improved utilisation of talents and resources within. More common grounds are shared between Australian and European practices, even after surging tendencies to imitate things American under the Coalition government. The crucial point is to keep Australia European, as it has been, rather than American, in future. This saying has nothing against the American people; rather, it refers to a preference to a less ideological choice and more balanced life.

The US could be a nice living place as Australia, giving its immense space and bountiful resources. At least the sizes of deserts there are less intimidating. That blessing has become less certain out of many of the distinctive American characteristics, such as an insuppressible urge to dominate world affairs, the self-centred idea of speaking on God’s behalf, worshipping of unparalleled military might, willingness to use force for ideological or even religious reasons, etc. The administrations’ undying zeal in pursuing its own course of actions in the world has surpassed all expectations, disregarding opinions and sentiments of others in this mistakenly labeled global village. They therefore should at least pay some attention to the thundering words in their own Hollywood production, Ben Hur, that the day Rome falls, there will be shots of freedom the world never heard before. Good or bad intentions of others notwithstanding, the indoctrinating of the American supremacy all over the world is much too overbearing.

Australia is lucky not to have that many blatant characteristics and obligations, content to be a medium power comfortably blending in with peoples around the world. Despite the usual neglect of Australian affairs in world news bulletins, this is not a story of dumb and dumber in a weird, incomprehensible place. Bill Bryson writes in his brilliant book on Australia “Down Under” about remaining historical sites, scenes and people matters, and a variety of hilarious experiences. That deviates markedly from the usual stock of country tour guides, but remains the type of writing from the perspective of a visitor on an interestingly strange land and related unique features, thus lacking certain depth and long term projection. This writing, instead, is about the running of this country and on development potential and future trends. It also offers a perspective of human activities and immediate practical problems. If this land is nurtured well, in the right way, short of negative influences from other old and more “advanced” worlds, there will be hope and light at the end of tunnel, not exclusively to Australians.

The “lucky country”, termed and described by Donald Horne, is not a theme to escape from lightly in writings on Australia. That book is certainly a somewhat depressing read when I sat down at a beachfront house in a spectacular sunny day in Melbourne. Contrasts are so sharp that words from the book seem far detached from the surrounding reality. It would be so much easier for people to believe that “lucky” here implies real happiness and enjoyment in life, rather than the whining of an extraordinary intellect. That easy Australian life is indeed real, as the outcomes of generations of work and discoveries in casual and unhurried manners. This is a life fair distance away from cutthroat market competition and unrestrained chase of wealth. With the reference of happiness index, Australia gets a high mark, regardless of indices of gross output and zillions of money notes one country possesses. This life style is truly a demonstration for those not in the league of what is to come in future and what is supposed to be the life for human beings. To the question of what kind of life is ideal and desirable, the answer is pretty much in this Australian settlement.

From Horne’s viewpoint, however, “lucky” is up for some ironic interpretations. Being called lucky implies that pure luck is not quite deserved, similar to a spoil and waste of this wonderful land by a people of ignorance, or a privileged place which cannot be forcefully taken by more intelligent peoples under current international laws. In Chinese phrases, “lucky” may refer to a situation of an illiterate, hardly handsome guy marrying the prom queen, in a sea of envious eyes of the more popular, gentlemanlike schoolmates. This ironic “lucky” is a label of low awareness of deep shortcomings, under-utilisation of human intelligence, and slack management of available resources, so its existence received a pity and was scorned by certain early writers and critics like Horne. This ironic use of the word is close to the origin of that inspiring writing, when the society in the 1960s faced confusions over future prospects, after long prosperity and certainty under conservative administrations. Achieved goals seemed making people become less productive, and inertia grew out of sheer boredom. People and the elite were just not up to the coming challenges from the 1970s on, and they were forced to think harder, break modes, and seek new directions, instead of relying solely on their entrenched being “lucky” mentality and over-generous rewards from the nature’s rich endowments.

By the time of this century, the first and original meaning of the term “lucky” is again highlighted, as a true testament to enjoyment of life the people of Australia cherish and the remarkable achievement of an egalitarian society rarely matched in this world of deepening social divide. This real meaning of lucky has the support of the proud fact of Australia, widely recognised as an extraordinary place for quality of life. Put it another way, this is an oasis of the world of troubles and disorders. The list of advantages includes output supporting high living standards, adequate welfare benefits, mostly still pristine natural environment, and convenience and security in travels and communication with other peoples. This combination is not to be lightly dismissed or disregarded, in comparison with situations in many other countries.

The lucky country label of Horne’s making has been with us for quite a long time. Its ironic interpretation is almost forgotten, especially in the time of prosperity early this century. This is not supposed to be, as the country is now at another crossroads and faces new challenges. Complacency undermines sustainability and encourages attempts to curb social justice. It is imperative that Australia seeks assured directions, out of past turns and swings, from the left to the right and back. This time it is important not to be easily influenced by outside temptation, fashionable models, strong arm propaganda, or naked interests and their persuasion. Australia’s luck lies in the right direction of future, and it will be lucky as now if managed well and with foresight. The lucky country will thus realise its true meaning, as the circle has run a full round and enters the next.

At the time of Sydney winning the right to host the 2000 Olympics in 1993, I honestly was shocked and perplexed by the news, not the least on the grounds of my country of birth or rampant trickeries during the bidding process. The chief competitor was Beijing, the capital of China. As China had undertaken bold and extensive reforms one year earlier, after Deng Xiaoping’s southern tour, the country was considered with great potential to grow into a great power in the 21st century. The 2000 Olympics was given immense significance as an illuminating indication of future direction and hopes of the coming new century. An emerging power of China was simply more promising and convincing to the Olympics member states of its worth. Australia at the time was just out of a severe recession, and as a medium sized Western country in a far away continent it seemed to bear little sense of destiny for the new century. The final selection of Sydney over Beijing was seen in some quarters a “West wind over east wind” phenomenon by the people who harboured uneasy feelings of the political turmoil in China four years earlier. As it has become known, the Olympics committee made a correct and brilliant choice. The Sydney Olympics was an exemplar case of international Olympics movement and was successful in so many aspects. Beijing, on the other hand, has so much to learn and to improve before the city could reach the levels of success Sydney achieved, even without considering political uncertainties and nastiness.

Sports and organisational matters aside, with hindsight, the symbol of future directions is surely with Australia (not particularly Sydney). This is beyond the issues of emerging powers or potential power shift standard issues of international politics. For Australia, this is a play at another level. Australia represents an identity with fuller characters and clear signs of progress. The future of democracy, environment, economic balances, social justice, and most of all, equitable welfare for all, will be staying in this country. Ideals of social progress and economic gains in the most recent phase are demonstrable here. China, on the other hand, is bound by old world geopolitics, internal frictions and external pressures. Ideological and practical tensions will grow to a heightened level in later generations. The country is also so close to unfriendly neighbours, and relations are often fragile. It remains likely that China one day gains a respectful status and reaches a rightful influential place in the world. That kind of miracle in development does not diminish the implications of Australian experience. Australia, as a separate and full continent with developed economic, social and legal systems, has so many advantages with untold benefits and security. If the people of Australia and its political parties continue their pursuit of principles, justice, equality, fair play, and excellence with undying passion, the ideals of the human kind will not fade or evaporate. This further proves the selection of Sydney for 2000 Olympics a wise and far sighted one, ironically made by those members who actually saw more of short term benefits and convenience.

Australia has much of its potential hidden nicely and is the place for long term development almost by default. It is not perfect, and we could say far from being ideal, but the impressive progress during a short century has made Australia a true egalitarian society rarely seen in other parts of the world, not even in the all powerful US. The emphasis here is on potential, on the nearest possibility of a place for lasting hope, an oasis among many other types of tyranny, absolute power, prejudice and dictatorial ideologies. It is definitely not the figure-based growth or wealth that counts, but the combination of factors, especially social harmony and cohesion. In this regard, Australia stands as a better choice over some equally impressive but too small or less promising places.

Human nature is hard to be right and perfect, particularly in a materialised society of today. It may show a good side in good times and reveal a nasty side during down times. It is unpredictable, often accompanied by an urge of greed, which sometimes throw entire communities into chaos and carnage. A place with reasonably well behaved human nature is rare and needs to be nourished consciously and constantly. Australia is obviously a place with commendable features of human nature, not completely flawless, but undesirable tendencies are by and large prevented from surging. This is done through traditions of democracy and equality, through political will and institutional restraints, and above all, through good manners brought up during good times. Fortunes lay in long run favourable conditions, not in lures of brief achievements or wealth amassing. As this country strives to achieve a betterment of human life, it has reduced chances of abuse and conflict, deriving from bad human natures, and will remain on the right track ahead.

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