Sunday, May 29, 2011
The next Golden State
With a bit of self-belief, Australia could become a model nation
IMAGINE a country of about 25m people, democratic, tolerant, welcoming to immigrants, socially harmonious, politically stable and economically successful; good beaches too. It sounds like California 30 years ago, but it is not: it is Australia today. Yet Australia could become a sort of California—and perhaps a still more successful version of the Golden State.
It already has a successful economy, which unlike California’s has avoided recession since 1991, and a political system that generally serves it well. It is benefiting from a resources bonanza that brings it quantities of money for doing no more than scraping up minerals and shipping them to Asia. It is the most pleasant rich country to live in, reports a survey this week by the OECD. And, since Asia’s appetite for iron ore, coal, natural gas and mutton shows no signs of abating, the bonanza seems set to continue for a while, even if it is downgraded to some lesser form of boom (see article). However, as our special report in this issue makes clear, the country’s economic success owes much less to recent windfalls than to policies applied over the 20 years before 2003. Textbook economics and sound management have truly worked wonders.
A flash in the pan?
Australians must now decide what sort of country they want their children to live in. They can enjoy their prosperity, squander what they do not consume and wait to see what the future brings; or they can actively set about creating the sort of society that other nations envy and want to emulate. California, for many people still the state of the future, may hold some lessons. Its history also includes a gold rush, an energy boom and the development of a thriving farm sector. It went on to reap the economic benefits of an excellent higher-education system and the knowledge industries this spawned. If Australia is to fulfil its promise, it too will have to unlock the full potential of its citizens’ brain power.
Australia cannot, of course, do exactly what California did (eg, create an aerospace industry and send the bill to the Pentagon). Nor would it want to: thanks to its addiction to ballot initiatives, Californian politics is a mess. But it could do more to develop the sort of open, dynamic and creative society that California has epitomised, drawing waves of energetic immigrants not just from other parts of America but from all over the world. Such societies, the ones in which young and enterprising people want to live, cannot be conjured up overnight by a single agent, least of all by government. They are created by the alchemy of artists, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, civic institutions and governments coming together in the right combination at the right moment. And for Australia, economically strong as never before, this is surely such a moment.
What then is needed to get the alchemy going? Though government should not seek to direct the chemistry, it should create the conditions for it. That means ensuring that the economy remains open, flexible and resilient, capable, in other words, of getting through harder times when the boom is over (a sovereign-wealth fund would help). It means maintaining a high rate of immigration (which started to fall two years ago). It means, above all, fostering a sense of self-confidence among the people at large to bring about the mix of civic pride, philanthropy and financial investment that so often underpins the success of places like California.
Many Australians do not seem to appreciate that they live in an unusually successful country. Accustomed to unbroken economic expansion—many are too young to remember recession—they are inclined to complain about house prices, 5% unemployment or the problems that a high exchange rate causes manufacturing and several other industries. Some Australians talk big but actually think small, and politicians may be the worst offenders. They are often reluctant to get out in front in policymaking—on climate change, for instance—preferring to follow what bigger countries do. In the quest for a carbon policy, both the main parties have chopped and changed their minds, and their leaders, leaving voters divided and bemused. There can be little doubt that if America could come to a decision on the topic, Australia would soon follow suit.
Its current political leaders, with notable exceptions, are perhaps the least impressive feature of today’s Australia. Just when their country has the chance to become influential in the world, they appear introverted and unable to see the big picture. Little legislation of consequence has been passed since 2003. A labour-market reform introduced by the Liberals was partly repealed by Labor. A proposed tax on the mining companies was badly mishandled (also by Labor), leading to a much feebler one. All attempts at a climate-change bill have failed. The prime minister, Labor’s Julia Gillard, admits she is unmoved by foreign policy. The leader of the opposition, Tony Abbott, takes his cue from America’s tea-party movement, by fighting a carbon tax with a “people’s revolt” in which little is heard apart from personal insults. Instead of pointing to the great benefits of immigration—population growth is responsible for about two-fifths of the increase in real GDP in the past 40 years—the two parties pander shamelessly to xenophobic fears about asylum-seekers washing up in boats.
…or a golden future?
None of this will get Australians to take pride in their achievements and build on them. Better themes for politicians would be their plans to develop first-class universities, nourish the arts, promote urban design and stimulate new industries in anything from alternative energy to desalinating water. All these are under way, but few are surging ahead. Though the country’s best-known building is an opera house, for example, the arts have yet to receive as much official patronage as they deserve. However, the most useful policy to pursue would be education, especially tertiary education. Australia’s universities, like its wine, are decent and dependable, but seldom excellent. Yet educated workers are essential for an economy competitive in services as well as minerals. First, however, Aussies need a bit more self-belief. After that perhaps will come the zest and confidence of an Antipodean California.