This is not so much a lucky country, according to the overarching critique by post-war Australian intellectuals, as an imitative country. 'I didn't mean that it had a lot of material resources,' wrote Donald Horne in The Death of the Lucky Country, published in 1976, lamenting not just on how the title of his seminal study had been misappropriated, but its thesis misinterpreted:
I had in mind the idea of Australia as a derived society...In the lucky style we have never 'earned' our democracy. We simply went along with some British habits.
For Robin Boyd, the author of The Australian Ugliness, the corrupting influence of America was more problematic. By the beginning of the 1960s, when Australians rejected Sir Robert Menzies' idea of calling the currency 'the royal' but proved amenable to the dollar, Australia had become 'Austerica'. Later on, the historian Elaine Thompson came up with 'Washminster' to pithily describe a political system with the trappings of Westminster but the nomenclature of Washington.
If the dominant influences have traditionally been British and American, there are signs that Australian thinkers and politicians are looking closer to home, and borrowing ideas from Asia. This is by no means novel, but unquestionably more pronounced. The Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey's 'age of entitlement' speech was a case in point. He held up Hong Kong as a model for what a smaller welfare safety net might look like and spoke admiringly of the 'concept of filial piety, from the Confucian classic Xiao Jing.' Throughout, his frame of reference was Asia.
What made the speech even more striking was its inference of American and European decline, and also that it was delivered in London, where Australian politicians have usually gone to kiss hands. (Let it also be noted that the speech drew a sharp response from Penny Ying-yen Wong, the Malaysian-born Finance Minister).
It is not the first time in recent months that a British audience has heard an Australian talk up an Asian model. Rupert Murdoch, during his grilling by the House of Commons Select Committee last June, praised Singapore for paying its ministers' high salaries, to avoid corruption. Singapore, he said, was 'the most open and clear society in the world.'
Gina Rinehart, the richest ever Australian, recently editorialised glowingly about Singapore,'which welcomes investment, makes real effort to minimise red tape (even asking its people and businesses to point out time- or money-wasting red tape if they find it), has low taxes, low crime, enables guest labour, and has no debt.'
Nor is it just the Right looking towards Asian countries. When the public policy think tank, the Grattan Institute, recently published a report on educational standards it urged Australia educators to learn from East Asia's 'unrelenting focus on learning and teaching', and the Confucian tradition of elevating the teacher. Little wonder. The four top global educational performers, according to the OECD, are Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea.
The philosopher Tim Soutphommasane, a former speechwriter for Kevin Rudd, has also called for a closer intellectual engagement and identified areas of common ground and kinship. 'Might there be value in reflecting on the similarities between Asian concepts of communal obligation and our own value of mateship?' he asked recently.
More and more, Asia is becoming the yardstick. 'I keep alluding to Hong Kong', said Joe Hockey in London, 'because Hong Kong is our direct competition as is Singapore, as is Korea in different ways, Vietnam, Indonesia.'
Likewise, the debate about updating Australia's infrastructure is framed in terms of how the rest of Asia is racing ahead. The starting point for Michael Wesley in There Goes the Neighbourhood, for instance, was the stark difference between traveling from Central Station in both Hong Kong and Sydney to their respective airports. Japan's bullet trains have long been the prototype for those who would like to see a high-speed rail service linking Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne.
Let us not forget, however, the extent to which Australia is becoming a model for advanced economies, be they in Asia or beyond. For George Megalogenis, a columnist with The Australian, this is 'The Australian Moment'. For Peter Hartcher, the political and international editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia has found 'The Sweet Spot'. Read in conjunction, their books represent probably the most serious challenge that 'Lucky Country thinking' has faced.
They also remind us that Australia starts the Asian century from a position of enormous strength, and there should be a cross-flow of influences and ideas. After all, this is now a country that is not so much imitative as emulative.
Photo by Flickr user Stinkie Pinkie.