Australia is not the greatest country in the world.
As you can see, I have started this article with a controversial statement that is going to either have readers turn off immediately, or desperate to read on.
Frankly, the types who would turn off immediately are part of the problem. And probably they will become the trolls hustling to abuse this posting.
However, if you are part of the solution, read on. Let me see if I can at least outline why I say this.
I hear it so often that Australia is the greatest nation in the world. Invariably, I would opine, that this is said by those who don’t really stay aware of how the rest of the world is coming along.
And it is often repeated by those who have lost sight of what the Australian project was supposed to be, or who never understood the Australian project in the first place.
When speaking about the greatest country, I would, of course, distinguish this from the beauty of the country. A rich and diverse landscape makes it a very beautiful country indeed. But a country is not only defined by the gifts it gets from nature. It is far more about the people.
What follows is, excusing the impending double negative, not about not feeling grateful for what Australia has. But it has everything to do with being disappointed with what Australia has become, and seems to have lost sight of the desire to be.
Australia had so much potential early on. A wide open country, sparsely populated, with freedoms to spare. But freedom is not a rare rack on which to hang one’s hat. Freedoms – political, social, and economic – like those enjoyed in Australia, are common.
Australia does not live up to its reputation in so many ways, is slipping in many others, and quite simply must do better.
The world, and every nation in it, is a work-in-progress. Project Australia has not ended. We don’t just sit back and say we are doing better than hoped. A nation IS a project; ongoing, in need of constant watchfulness.
When we stop paying attention, the project begins to under-perform. And, like all projects, at a certain point, it becomes painfully obvious the project has stalled.
It is the very lack of attention to the Australian project that has caused us to stall. To fail in ways we should not. To endanger our potential.
Happily, we can say that perhaps we have not fallen too far back to fix it. None of our problems are irreparable, but they all take action, energy, and vision.
Of all the threats to Project Australia, our greatest is apathy. If there is one thing that engenders more failure in a national project, it is apathy; a lack of interest in learning, a lack of curiosity about the world, a lack of questioning – and ability to frame questions – of our policy-makers and law-makers. And a lack of vision for the Australia we could be. Look at the United States as a perfect example of what should be the world’s greatest country in many ways, a position they have squandered, now drowning in apathy on almost any indicator.
And here is our report card.
Half of our teenagers lack basic math skills, and nearly a third are practically illiterate. Our children are 19th in the world for math, 16th in science, and 13th in reading. And falling in all categories.
We are 5th for overall literacy, and 13th for numeracy. We are overall 13th in the world for education.
Why are we slipping? Apathy.
We are 80th in the world for education spending, at the same time as we are 13th in the world for defence spending.
What is the result of our lack of attention to education? We are 25th in the world for Nobel laureates. Ah, I hear you say, it is because we are small country. The figure is per capita.
We have 5 universities in the world’s Top 100, but we have slipped, and continue to slip, in our education reputation. This is especially the case in higher education. The US, by comparison, has 45 in the Top 100, and the UK has 10.
We have stopped valuing education. Stopped championing intelligence and learning.
As a country that was actively and energetically engaged, with our small and malleable population, in women’s liberation, Australia is now 24th in the world for gender equality, and dropping.
Women, and the men around them (or in the way), have given up on the effort demanded to move forward on gender. Some simpler projects have been done, it seems it is time to close up shop.
With women making up 54% of the Australian workforce, we are still only 14th for women’s participation in the workplace. And even more tellingly, 76th in the world for wage equality.
Many progressive countries have already demonstrated that until we achieve a critical mass of women in senior positions, in parliament, in corporate boardrooms etc, that women’s advancement will stall. By our lack of attention to making sure women can break through glass ceilings, to take the ‘boy’ out of the boy’s club, we are a staggeringly poor 49th for women in parliament, and a nearly-as-woeful 41st for women in ministerial positions.
1 in 4 women in Australia are still subject to sexualised violence.
But we are a healthy, happy country, I hear you say.
Well, quite true. But not entirely. Our beautiful beaches, mostly clean air, and healthy outdoorsy lifestyle certainly play a major role in making sure we are ranked 2nd in the world for human development, and 3rd for life expectancy (unless you happen to be a native Australian, in which case you will live a whopping 11 years less than your non-native Australian).
However, despite identifying ourselves readily as a thoroughly sporting nation, we have become spectators. We are killing ourselves with obesity, currently ranked 21st worst for obesity in the world, and climbing.
And, tragically, we are very highly ranked – 7th in the world – for type-2 (adult onset) diabetes. And, as with so many life indicators, if you are a native Australian, you are amongst the world’s top 5 populations at risk of type-2 diabetes.
But we have stopped paying attention to making sure everyone is healthy. Have we just stopped giving a damn about our neighbours?
With our 13th ranked health spending, we have allowed our health system to become overall the 32nd ranked in the world. Despite some highlights in our health development, such as reduced smoking-related deaths (which is more about people stopping smoking than about our health system), our 32nd ranked health system means we have disturbing rankings in some major health issues; for instance being ranked only 19th for infant mortality in the world.
While we claim to have a healthy life, we are now ranked 3rd in the world for cancer rates.
But of course, we are doing many things right, perhaps also underwritten by our beautiful situation; we are only ranked 50th for our suicide rates.
We are quite a rich country (12th in the world for GDP). We are number 1 in the world for households with income over 200K US dollars.
But we are also among the least generous. We are more free (10th in the world) than most to spend, but we exercise that freedom mostly by choosing to ‘invest’ little on taxation (23rd in the world for taxation), and keep more of our household income (14th highest in the world) for consumer spending.
Having lost sight of what is important, we are ranked the world’s 3rd most decadent country (and this is on an American index, not a hyper-critical one).
We are a low-taxation country by comparison to other rich countries, and the result of our individual parsimony is our system is insufficiently funded for the levels of spending needed to keep up our education and health systems.
Social and Human Rights
While being a nation almost entirely comprising migrants, we are not migrant friendly. We have become greedy, and protective, and ignorant of (immune from?) the suffering of others.
We think of ourselves as ‘doing our bit’, but with a world full of devastating conflicts, we are ranked a lowly 49th in the world for taking in refugees. This does not tell the full story though. We are 62nd for taking in refugees (per capita), and a dreadful 87th for taking in refugees if you factor by GDP.
Most of those who come to Australia seeking refugee status come by air. Most of them have come illegally. Most of them end up having no claim for refugee status.
Almost all of those who come to Australia by boat, by contrast, end up having genuine refugee claims. And none have come to Australia illegally.
And there is only one thing worse than our lack of generosity to those fleeing conflict and persecution. Our lack of understanding of the facts about refugees to Australia. That we fail to inform ourselves (the information is out there) and instead we allow political actors to use soundbites to cheat us on the facts.
While priding ourselves on being an open and free country, we rank a pretty awful 25th in press freedom. Maybe this explains why we are less informed – and less independently informed – than we should be.
Our societal violence levels means we are not as peaceful a country as we might like to think either. It carries us up only to a 16th ranking for global peace (societal violence, militarisation etc)
On corruption, the news, however, is good. We are number 1 on the global corruption index.
Well, what is there to say here? Blessed with one of the most incredible ecosystems and gorgeous country-scapes, Australia is ranked a shameful 46th for environmental performance.
There Endeth the Report Card.
Australia was, after the Second World War, a fair country. We used to stand up for what was right. We fought for largely moral reasons, and never in breach of international law.
We wanted to be the best. And not only in cricket and rugby…and the Olympics. We loved and excelled in our sport, but it was never a diversion from the real issues in life, and in the world.
And now, our sports rankings are the only world rankings that matter to far too many.
We used to give a damn about our neighbours, both in our street, and in our part of the world. Now we don’t know who they are, in our street or the region.
We harnessed the wealth of a huge country while realising we were a small nation.
We greeted with open arms those from other parts of the world; refugees, workers, skilled people alike. Regardless of religion, ethnicity, or finances. Now we block them with a religious fervour.
As a middle power, we sought to influence world affairs by playing the role of observer, advisor, negotiator, and fair actor. We spoke calmly, and carried a pleasant air.
We understood that poverty was our enemy. The poor were not.
We understood that everyone wanted to be healthy and live a free, healthy life. We saw that society had a role to play in making sure everyone else could live that life.
We understood that lack of economic development on our doorstep was anathema to our own development.
We built universities, and powerhouse academic talent. We did not belittle education; we sought it.
We were led by political leaders with gravitas, leaders with intellect, leaders with political convictions, who were capable of informing.
We looked at everyday problems, and invented solutions far more often than many other nations have done.
We did not disregard intellect, we appreciated it. We listened in awe to bright people with bright ideas. The intelligence of others did not threaten us. Intelligence did not become something that should be belittled.
We read the newspaper with our own ideas to begin with, and looked to be further informed. Ignorance and stupidity were not our aspiration.
We wanted to be better than we knew we were.
We had a natural curiosity about the world and the things in it.
We did not seek diversion in shallow magazines and bigoted opinion.
As a fair-minded nation, we sought to seek out inequality and act against it. One of the earliest nations to embrace the liberation of women, we turned our back on continuing the journey.
We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election. And we voted for real policies, and with hope.
We gave a damn about Australia’s position in the world, our reputation, and being the best.
We were able to be all these things and do all these things … because we were informed.
But now we are on the stand as our own all-too-silent witnesses to the dumbing down of public debate. We are left with few political choices because we give ourselves those very few political voices.
The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.
Australia is not the greatest country in the world. Not yet.
Our time can still come, but only once we start paying attention.