Review of The Lucky Country by Donald Horne

Australia considers itself the lucky country. Yet very few Australians know that the phrase “lucky country” was originally an insult. “Australia is a lucky country, run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck”, wrote Donald Horne. Australia’s prosperity was simply good luck. Unless we smartened up, the luck would soon run out. Horne issued this warning in his 1964 classic, The Lucky Country. Fifty-eight years later, much of The Lucky Country stills holds up as an incisive analysis of Australian society. Other parts, however, have aged badly. I suspect Horne would be happy that many aspects of the society he criticised no longer exist.

Ironically, when read from the vantage of 2022, The Lucky Country embodies so much of the ‘cultural cringe’ that Horne sought to expunge from Australia. The cultural cringe is an attitude held by many, consciously or otherwise, that Australia’s cultural and intellectual life is mediocre, especially when compared with the mother country, Great Britain. Horne calls these cringers “London-oriented Australians”. To see how Horne simultaneously criticises and embodies this cringing attitude, it is worth briefly recapitulating The Lucky Country’s main argument.

Almost unknowingly, Australians have created one of the most prosperous and egalitarian societies on Earth. Our national income is spread far more evenly across the population than in the United States. Once upon a time, Australia led the world in reducing working hours and creating paid holidays. Without the rhetorical self-importance of America, Australia enables more of its citizens to engage in the pursuit of happiness. Getting a ‘fair go’ is, or at least was, more than an empty slogan.

Culture flows from economics; Karl Marx taught us this much. Australia’s economic egalitarianism is reflected back in its proletarian culture. The everyday working-class Aussie is venerated in popular culture. Forget scientists, astronauts or poets, Australia’s heroes are sportspeople, tradies, and those just ‘having a go’ without the need for acclaim. There is much to like about this. We don’t address our leaders as “Mr. Prime Minister”, but rather as “Scomo”, “Albo”, or simply “that fuckwit” (usually when referring to Tony Abbott). We sit in the front seat of taxis. Anyone with an air of self-importance is promptly brought back down to Earth. We’re all in this together, mate. Don’t get ahead of yourself.

There are downsides to this attitude too, of course. Australians can be notoriously anti-intellectual. New ideas are treated with more than a healthy dose of scepticism: “Mate, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Nothing is to be gained by denying the negatives of Australian culture. For too long, our veneration of the everyday bloke has been an excuse for misogyny and sexism. On average, one woman dies every ten days at the hands of her partner – in 2022, not 1964.

But Horne does more than just make good faith criticisms of Australia. At times, The Lucky Country is the cultural cringe par excellence. Nobody in Australia seems to please Mr. Horne. One could be forgiven for thinking that other than himself, no one on this continent had ever uttered an original thought. The workers are too crass, the politicians too visionless, the academics too careerist, the media too superficial…the list of complaints goes on and on. We are lucky because we have done nothing to deserve our prosperity. In the future, it will be human ingenuity, not raw materials, that will determine the fate of economies. Horne doubts Australia is up to the task.

On the whole, I think Donald Horne is rather unfair to Australia. Then again, I did not experience the 1950s and 60s. There is still undoubtedly an anti-intellectual strain to Australian culture, but I think it is weakening. Unfortunately not all changes have been positive. Australia is a far more unequal place today than it was during the 1960s. Ask a casually employed single parent or a Centrelink recipient if they are getting a “fair go”. Bemused laughter would be a polite response. If Australia is to remain the lucky country, we need to focus more on the worker, not the public intellectuals and their grand designs for Australian identity. Fair dinkum, mate.

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