Thursday, August 26, 2010

The lucky country

When Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country, the title was an ironic indictment of mediocrity. And one can point to fortunate things about the land of Oz, more commonly called ‘Australia’. The rich resource base. Being settled by the British rather than by, say, the Spanish.

But a resource base can be squandered. And one may inherit an institutional structure, but it is what one does with it over the long term that matters. Luck only takes you so far. Over the long haul, other things matter much more.

Australia has done well with its good fortune. For example, the Australian stock market had the highest returns and the lowest volatility of any stock market in the world over the last 100 years. While other countries face serious public debt problems, we have one of the lowest levels of public debt in the developed world. Where other countries had the Global Financial Crisis and the Great Recession, we did not even technically have a recession. Due in large part to our Reserve Bank performing significantly better than other central banks. The Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank recently spoke about Australia’s world-beating economic performance:
"The period since 1991 is the longest period of growth that Australia has recorded for at least the past century," he said.
The next longest period during which year-ended growth remained positive was the 13 years between 1961 and 1974."
The period when Donald Horne wrote his book.

All this while successfully absorbing lots of foreign migrants. Australia has a very high proportion of foreign-born residents (much higher than the US, for example). Of 29 cities around the world with a more than 25% foreign-born population, 3 are in Australia. (19 are in various former parts of the British Empire: 20 if you count Muscat.)

It was reasonable to complain about the limited substance in the recent Federal election campaign, and the hung Parliament result made its own statement about the lack of defining content in the election. Yet, we also had two personable, intelligent, public-spirited people on offer as Prime Minister. Leading proposed ministerial line-ups of generally sensible and experienced people. (Claims that there is some great moral urgency that one or other lose or win, or that one or other becoming PM is some grounds for moral despair, tell us far more about the folk indulging in such extravagances than Julia or Tony.) The election campaign was fought with a lack of violence we take entirely for granted but would be regarded as a miracle in large parts of the globe.

Even the hung Parliament may prove to be something of a blessing. In the US, for example, periods of gridlock (when different Parties control the Presidency and the Congress: and so the politicians constrain each other) show higher stock market returns than periods when the same Party controls the Presidency and the Congress (so politicians are less constrained: average stock market returns are, in fact, negative across such periods since 1973).

Since 1983, we have generally had competent federal governments which have brought public finances to a much sounder basis than most developed democracies, have delivered reforms which provided an astonishing period of continuous economic growth and unemployment levels which most developed economies would envy. We have low levels of corruption: what corruption there is, fairly predictably, is where official discretions have high “resale” value (land use regulation and “vice” regulation). Complaints that the performance of our politicians over the last quarter-century represent some moral disaster again tell us much more about those indulging in such moral extravagance than the reality of things.

There are some obvious problem areas. Indigenous policy has been a long-term disaster, with conditions in many indigenous communities deteriorating over recent decades. But, revealingly, indigenous policy has typically been based on maximising differentiation from the rest of a highly successful society rather than building on its successes. Our housing prices have reached madness territory, due to official discretions creating ludicrous artificial shortages in land for housing. Having the populations of Sydney and Melbourne increase by 30% without any significant new dams, while having water prices that do not reflect resulting scarcity, has, fairly predictably, created water shortage problems. Investment in transport infrastructure has seriously lagged population increases. All these fit into the “could do better” category.

Our politics has its low moments, as a recent book on NSW Labor details. Yet, even at its most pathological, our politics still works so much better than that of so many other countries. It is not some weird accident that Australia regularly rates in the top three countries in the UN Human Development Index.

Australia is a highly successful society and highly successful polity. Any perspective that does not grasp that will tend to undermine that success rather than build on it.

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