Opinion & Commentary

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Losing sight of the lucky country

Oliver Marc Hartwich | Business Spectator | 05 April 2012

This is going to be my last column for the Business Spectator for a while – and the last column I will be writing from Australia. After nearly four exciting years at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney, I am moving to Wellington to head a new think tank, The New Zealand Initiative.

I have moved countries several times before, and each time it felt like I was closing a chapter and beginning to write a new one. As I make my moving arrangements, I am excited (and even a bit scared) about this plunge into the world of ideas in New Zealand. The only certainty at this moment is that this chapter of my life in Australia is about to end. Although I have had a fantastic time here, and feel nothing but great affection for and indeed gratitude to Australia, I am leaving with an underlying sentiment of disenchantment.

So instead of writing about the never-ending euro crisis or Australian industrial policy, I hope you will forgive me the indulgence of a personal reflection on Australia – of a foreigner who came here as a student, married his Australian penfriend, and was privileged to have found friends here.

When I first came to Australia in 1999, and when I later studied for my PhD at the University of Sydney in 2001-02, my feelings of life here were of upliftment and liberation. Before that I had only ever lived in Germany.

Germany had of course gone through the enormous upheaval of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and unification in 1990. However, my home country felt stagnant and unmoving in a strange way. Major policy reform projects in Germany were endlessly debated but never tackled. It was a country you could leave for years, if not for decades, and return to find you had not missed a thing.

Australia was different in the early 2000s. I arrived here towards the end of the reform era to see its impressive and visible results. Maybe it was the contrast with slow-moving Germany that gave me a stronger connection with the buzz in the air. Australia was ‘can do’ where Germany was all too often ‘could do’ or even ‘won’t do’.

My doctoral thesis underlined this impression. I was comparing the regulation of advertising in Australia and Germany, and everything I found here struck me as much more commonsensical and pragmatic than Germany’s hypertrophic trade practices law. German lawyers often tend to believe they are popes in the church of competition law, and thus they don’t have the urge to learn from other countries – least of all faraway ones like Australia. However, I returned to Germany arguing for an ‘Australianisation’ of German competition law (which, of course, will never happen).

The first chapter of my life in Australia made a deep impression on me. It was an optimistic, pragmatist, forward-looking country. And best of all, it was everything that Germany was not (in a positive sense).

I returned to Germany in 2002, and then moved to London in 2004, before returning to these shores in October 2008 at the peak of global financial crisis – and beginning the second chapter of my life in Australia. Though Australia and Sydney, where I live, superficially looked the same, it slowly dawned on me that something was different. Either I had seen Australia through rose-tinted glasses or it had lost its sparkle.

It is hard to quantify my impression when all the economic data are against my gut feeling. Even after the financial crisis, Australia’s unemployment is low; the mining boom continues to provide employment and economic growth; and public finances are in a much better shape than in other developed countries. Most social or economic indicators show Australia is a nation worthy of admiration.

So why is it, then, that Australia feels so different to me now than just a decade ago?

A key irritant has been Australia’s apparent inability to understand its own good fortune. Other countries would gladly swap their positions for Australia’s economic and social situation, which is indeed enviable. However, in Australia the focus has shifted from grabbing opportunities to hiding under potential risks and side-effects.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Australia’s deplorably populist population debate. How a continent-sized country can believe its ‘carrying capacity’ is just around 22 million people is beyond me. There are far more opportunities in a young and growing population than in a stagnant and ageing one, as any European or Japanese demographer can confirm. Where is Australia’s ‘can do’ attitude when it comes to managing population growth? Since when have Australians become so frightened of embracing change, growth and opportunity?

The other development in Australia I notice with horror is the ‘Europeanisation’ of its politics. When I first lived here, John Howard was prime minister. Whether you liked him or not, you knew precisely where he stood. And Howard could give you his clear opinions on anything even in his sleep.

Howard single-handedly offered a healthy dose of polarisation and conviction politics to the political discourse in this country. You cannot say the same about the current leadership of both major parties. Lindsay Tanner was onto something when he complained about the rise of spin and the decline of substantial policy debates in his excellent book, Sideshow.

Australian politics is also becoming more and more European is in its tendency to announce grandiose schemes, which often fail to deliver. 'Building the Education Revolution', the 'New Car Plan for a Greener Future', or the 'National Broadband Network' – even the names sound like programs designed not in Canberra but in Brussels.

Just as in Europe, we are witnessing in Australia an expansion of government financed by deep debt. Australia only seems to be a decade or two behind Europe’s big spending governments, but we know what such policies have done to Europe.

To be clear, I am not leaving Australia because I had fallen out of love with it. And like Australia, I expect New Zealand to have its own singular problems. There is no such thing as a perfect country. But I can’t help feeling that something about Australia has changed for the worse since my first visit.

I wonder whether Australians take their good fortune too much for granted. Instead of celebrating the resources boom, Australians only wonder how they can tax it. Instead of celebrating their multi-ethnic success story, Australians spend a disproportionate time discussing illegal arrivals. Instead of appreciating its position close to booming Asia, Australians behave more and more like old Europeans.

As this second chapter of my life in Australia comes to a close, I hope to continue visiting and observing from across the Tasman – and maybe even adding a third chapter further down the track. But I equally look forward to starting a new chapter of my life in New Zealand where I will delve once again into a new country with all the fascination and excitement that it comes with.

Australia is a country that barely understands, let alone appreciates, its own luck. Being so close to good fortune can make us blind to it. I sincerely hope it will remain the lucky country.

Dr Oliver Marc Hartwich is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies. He will be taking the position of Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative in May.