‘Australia in 2010-11 offered the best conditions for human existence on planet earth, a sweet spot indeed.’
The quote is from Peter Hartcher’s book, ‘The Sweet Spot’, published in November last year. Hartcher bases his view that Australia is the sweet spot on well-being indexes such as the UN’s Human Development index and the OECD’s Better Life Index. That view seems to me to be soundly based. As I noted on this blog last year, Australia is ranked highly even when the weighting given to the criteria incorporated in the OECD index is changed to reflect differing priorities with respect to income, social and environmental objectives.
The great strength of ‘The Sweet Spot’, in my view, is that it provides historical perspective on how Australia came to be where it is now. This helps the author to get across the message of the sub-title: ‘Australia made its own luck and could now throw it away’.
Hartcher argues that Australia has become the sweet spot because it eventually found a good balance between opportunity and security, or between free markets and collectivism. A central focus of the book is the evolution and later dismantling of what Paul Kelly referred to as ‘the Australian settlement’, which led to what Donald Horne referred to as ‘the racket’. The Australian settlement, which was largely established around the time of federation, involved a consensus in favour of racially-based restrictions on immigration (the white Australia policy), trade protectionism, national wage regulation (the arbitration system) and government paternalism, underpinned by a belief that Australian prosperity was underwritten by the British Empire.
Donald Horne argued in his book, ‘The Lucky Country’, published in 1964, that Australia’s good fortune in terms of natural resources had become an excuse and perhaps even a licence for complacency. Hartcher reminds readers:
‘Horne had detected and foreshadowed Australia’s slide from the top ranks of the world’s richest countries, arguing that luck and complacency were poor substitutes for originality and investment. “Can the racket last?” he asked, immediately responding with a resounding “NO”. He was, of course, correct, and it was a slippage that gathered pace in the ‘70s and 80’s.’
The subsequent chapters tell the story of how Australia opened up to the rest of the world, moved away from a rent-seeking culture and reformed its economy. In my view the story has been told fairly, with appropriate acknowledgement of the immigration reforms introduced by Whitlam, the influx of refugees from Vietnam during the time of the Fraser government, the floating of the Australian dollar, industry assistance reforms and the beginning of wider ranging economic reforms during the Hawke-Keating years and the privatisations, tax reforms and labour market reforms (subsequently aborted) of the Howard-Costello period of government. Hartcher makes the point that while the general thrust of these reforms was to give markets a greater role in the Australian economy, they were achieved, for the most part, without the rancour that accompanied the reforms of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States. He attributes this to greater reliance on consultation and consensus-building in Australia, in contrast to more overtly ideological approaches adopted by the UK and US governments. I would have like to have seen more attention given to the role of the policy advice processes adopted in Australia (but my view about the importance of the role played by the IAC and Productivity Commission might not be objective).
Let us now jump to 2007, by which time the economic strength which is reflected in Australia’s current ranking in quality of life indexes would have been established. I don’t think Peter Hartcher actually mentions it, but in October 2007 Paul Kelly announced the arrival of a “new Australian settlement engineered by political leaders during the past generation and a half”. He noted that the policies of the major parties had converged. For example, economic policy had become more pro-market, foreign policy had converged on a strategic outlook of simultaneously deepening ties with East Asia and the US, and immigration policies had converged on acceptance of increased immigration accompanied by a deeper commitment to Australian citizenship. A few weeks later, former Labor leader Mark Latham observed that the policies that the major parties had put forward in the election campaign then being conducted were virtually indistinguishable. He suggested that the policies of the major parties had converged to address the concerns of the middle classes. I can remember this because in April 2008 I posted an article on this blog entitled: Do we now have a new Australiansettlement? I agreed with Kelly and Latham, but subsequent events suggest that we were all wrong. Rather than a sensible convergence on policies that build on the strong legacy left by Hawke, Keating, Howard and Costello we now seem to be drifting in the opposite direction.
I don’t agree entirely with Peter Hartcher’s assessment of the political sins of the main political players over the last few years. I think he is far too kind to Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan. Nevertheless, that doesn’t prevent me from agreeing with him that neither Gillard nor Abbott ‘seems to be the leader to take Australia into its next golden era of national improvement’. I also agree with Hartcher’s qualification to that judgement: ‘Leaders change, and perhaps one, or both, can develop the agenda and skills to lead the country in the national interest’.
In my view ‘The Sweet Spot’ is a fine example of big picture journalism. It deserves to be as widely read and influential as ‘The Lucky Country’. With a bit of luck this book might help prevent a return of the rent-seeking culture that saw Australia’s relative living standards slip so dramatically during the 1970s and 80s.