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The Lucky Country

G4th June 2014

C1 Comment

Tbook reviews, politics

Fifty years ago social critic Donald Horne wrote his famous book ‘The Lucky Country’ describing Australia as “a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck”.

The Lucky Country was a literary sensation when the first edition was published in December 1964, but its relevance extends way beyond the Australia of the 1960’s. As the book approaches its fiftieth anniversary, I have recently picked up a copy of The Lucky Country and it’s certainly made for some very interesting reading.

I have no memories of Australia in the 1960’s because I wasn’t there. For me, this period is understood through black-and-white photographs and television programmes, history books and the stories of my parents and grandparents. For uninformed members of my generation (I was born in the early 1980’s), there’s a temptation to associate the 1960’s with decadence, promiscuity, drugs, liberalism and all of the fun and colour of an Austin Powers film. In reality, there was far less colour and far more dullness than people are willing to recall, especially when Australia is compared to other similar Western nations.

Book cover

The current cover of The Lucky Country.

Horne opens his book with a chapter about how happy Australians were in the 1960’s. In no way being critical, Horne noted that Australians were blessed with good weather, high employment, decent wages and democratic government and that the mass of the people worked in order to fund their leisure time on weekends. They were happy to live in “the most egalitarian of countries, untroubled by obvious class distinctions, caste or communal domination, the tensions of racialism or the horrors of autocracy”. Horne noted that “a person who does not like ordinary people to think they are as good as he is, or to enjoy some of the things he enjoys himself, will not like Australia”.

True as this all was, Horne moved quickly onto describing the nation’s weaknesses as he saw them. In describing Australia’s lack of intellectual life and creativity, Horne wrote

Except in those few fields where it has a history of enterprise, Australia has not been a country of great innovation or originality. It has exploited the innovations and originality of others and much of its boasting is that of a parasite.

Horne lamented the lack of thinking in Australia’s political and industrial leaders, claiming that they were of a past era and too lazy or exhausted to bother dealing with the challenges of the 1960’s. These are themes explored throughout The Lucky Country in quite some detail.

I can see why The Lucky Country caused quite a stir fifty years ago. Horne provided a wide-ranging critique of a nation that simply wasn’t used to hearing such criticism. In order to support his central argument that Australia was “a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck”, Horne profiled the ordinary people who made up Australian society before moving on to describe the nature of our intellectuals, industry leaders and politicians.

In this review, I seek to highlight some of the parallels that exist between the Australia that Donald Horne wrote about in 1964 and the Australia that I know today. For the contemporary reader, this is where the power of this book lies. Australia has not advanced nearly as much as it could have in the past fifty years and we’re far from achieving the cultural change that Horne sought for us in order to secure our economic future.

Those in power (and those who aren’t)

These days, Australia is hypersensitive to making ‘generalisations’ about people, but men of the 1960’s were far less concerned with such matters. The early part of Horne’s book is dedicated to objectively describing the various dominant groups within the Australian population with chapters named ‘The Wowsers’, ‘Catholics’, ‘Snobs’, ‘Women’, ‘Migrants – How Assimilated?’ and ‘The Underprivileged’. These serve to describe how these groups are characterised by other Australians as much as how they fit into broader society. Horne is not pedalling negative stereotype nor being critical; he is neither racist nor sexist nor bigoted. His whole point is to profile a nation and demonstrate where the power lies (and where it doesn’t) and enable readers to understand Australia’s obsessions and idiosyncrasies.

For instance, in matters of religion, Horne wrote:

Perhaps the single most important issue connected with religion that remains with Australians as a whole are questions of Catholicism and anti-Catholicism. This has been one of the divisive issues in Australia. (…) Anti-Catholicism has not been as overt as it was in the nineteenth century when fear and hatred of Rome led secularists and Protestants to combine to secularise the State and education; those who have not grown up in Australia do not now always detect the significance of anti-Catholicism and it is now at last declining; but bitter distrust of the Catholic Church is part of the system of beliefs of most older non-Catholic Australians.

Horne described the contentious debates about state funding of private (mostly Catholic) schools and the role of lay Catholics (including B.A. Santamaria) in pulling the levers of power, especially within the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He spoke of how the Church was credited with using its vast power to manipulate its entire congregation to move as one; a notion that was as absurd in the 1960’s as it is today.

What’s of particular interest in these descriptions is that contemporary Australia is not really too different. Whilst the tension between Catholics and Protestants has thankfully dissipated and the threat of communism has passed, there are still strikingly strong sentiments of anti-Catholicism within the Australian community. Many Australians still distrust the Catholic Church, assume that it has some vast and supernatural power over its flock and complain when prominent Catholics bring those values into the Parliament. People still complain about the level of funding for private (mostly Catholic) schools or the influence of the Church in dictating social policy in Australia. (Recent revelations of paedophilia within the clergy have done untold additional damage to the reputation of the Church in Australia and justifiably so).

Horne also wrote about the position of women in Australian society in 1964:

It is both true and untrue that Australia is peculiarly a ‘man’s country’. In access to occupational opportunities and professional or public position Australia is quantitatively no more a ‘man’s country’ than any other ‘western’ society. That is to say that it it still is a man’s country, but no more so than in comparable countries.

Whilst it’s fair to say that working women in Australia in 2014 are considerably better off than they were fifty years ago in terms of opportunities afforded to them and the respect with which they are treated, there are still ongoing debates about “glass ceilings”, discrimination in certain spheres and the relatively low number of women who run our largest companies or hold ministerial positions in our parliaments. Indeed, the current Minister for Women’s Affairs is a man and there is only one woman in Cabinet. There has been an ongoing debate about a revised Paid Parental Leave Scheme, with proponents and objectors citing women’s participation in the workforce as reasons for one position or the other.

Horne’s book was written when the Australian feminist movement was in its infancy. Now in 2014, ‘feminism’ is almost regarded as a dirty word. A lot has happened in those intervening 50 years yet the reality that women still earn less than men (for no good reason) and struggle to balance work and family demonstrates that Australia still has quite some work to do in terms of making gender equality a reality for all.


In the 1960’s, there was considerable anxiety that migrants were not integrating well into Australian society. Speaking of European migrants (at that time, the majority), Horne observed:

The old belief that Australia swallows its migrants whole and does not itself change as a result of their digestion no longer seems true. It is true that children of most migrants cease to be Europeans but in the process somewhere Australians are also ceasing to be ‘Australians’. It is normal liberal thought to wish to see old national minority cultures preserved, though integrated; but what now seems to be the Australian way, in which both old and new grope towards something different, has a great deal to be said for it.

Horne was quite correct in observing that migration would change Australia for the better, although there were hiccups along the way (the formation of the One Nation party in the late 1990’s and its brief period of modest popularity is evidence of this). It was in response to One Nation’s rise that Prime Minister John Howard introduced citizenship tests, requiring migrants to pass a quiz in order to qualify for naturalisation. How interesting it is, then, to read this passage outlining immigration policy in The Lucky Country:

Officially there was still a narrow assimilation doctrine, in which migrants were supposed to ‘become Australians’ in double quick time. Six migrant centres and 29 hostels were set up to assist this purpose. Lessons in the English language and in Australian customs were pumped into the newcomers….. And a naturalisation ceremony was rigged-up in which New Australians were required to swear allegiance, among other things, to Elizabeth II – a requirement that is not officially made of the native born.

Similar criticisms were made of Australia’s citizenship tests at the time of their introduction. Many noted that there’d be a considerable number of Australian-born citizens who would be unable to answer some very simple questions about the history of their nation. This has certainly been my observation.

Industry and Government

As interesting as observations about religious groups, women and migrants may be, the portions of The Lucky Country that have the greatest parallels with contemporary Australia relate principally to the intellectual, economic and political spheres of our society. In all three regards, Horne was deeply scathing.  Horne believed Australian industry leaders to be lazy and was deeply critical of the private sector who seemed all to keen to rely on high tariffs and protectionism to sustain profitability at the expense of innovation. In essence, business depended too heavily on government.

Many Australian manufacturers have not been concerned with building up their competitive output in a relatively open market, but with making profits by putting pressure on the Tariff Board or by collusive practices with their competitors.

Obviously the Tariff Board is long gone in Australia and competition policy has been introduced, but the reliance of Australian industry on government is as strong as ever. The debates about the continuation of Australian car manufacturing, a subsidy for a chocolate factory, the future of SPC-Ardmona, a bail-out for Qantas and the near hysteria of the retail sector complaining about competition from online retailers are good examples of how industry still sees pressuring Canberra a greater priority than innovation. It was Phil Burgess, a former Telstra spokesman, who complained of Australians’ love of government and he may very well have had a point.

Man trying to sell "The Productive Country" t-shirt whilst obese lazy customer prefers his shabby old "Lucky Country" t-shirt

Cartoon by Nicholson from The Australian newspaper.

Horne’s lamentations about the poor quality of industry leadership is second only to his extended criticism of Parliament. At considerable length, he bemoans the poor leadership and lack of imagination in Australia’s ruling class:

The sheer dreariness of parliamentary life – its lack of political meaning and its old-fashioned rituals – repel many of the kind of people who might make good members of an Executive and also the kind of people who like to acquire information and to probe into the processes of government (and would make good parliamentarians). An able man in the prime of life is not usually prepared to make the sacrifice of listening day after day to speech after speech of almost complete drivel. The fiction that Parliaments are hotly debating whether they will pass a Bill, as if they were still made up of eighteenth century squires, combined with the demands of party discipline and the general poverty of parliamentary candidates have produced a banality in ‘debate’ that is of world class. It is doubtful if there are any parliaments anywhere in the world where the standard of speaking is lower than it is in the Parliaments of Australia.

When speaking of the quality of parliamentarians, one needs to be careful because there’s a tendency amongst many to reflect that the calibre of parliamentarians in the past was greater than now.

Nevertheless, it is both reassuring and disheartening to read of Horne’s reflections of government at the end of the lengthy Menzies era. Portraying the long-serving prime minister Sir Robert Menzies as a slothful individual with a disinterest in reading and a predilection for promoting mediocrity over talent, Horne actually reminds the contemporary reader of The Lucky Country that perhaps things are not so bad now – they’re just the same as they’ve always been. Politicians are politicians and whilst we’d like to imagine them as a class of talented and sincere individuals (and the majority of them probably are), the party politics, factionalism, vested interests and allure of power inevitably get in the way of policy.

Within his political analysis, Horne spends a considerable amount of time criticising Menzies. According to Horne, he “showed little interest in seeking the company of his intellectual equals” and “cut off from power or silenced all those who disagreed with him”. These may be true – it was well before my time – but it makes for interesting reading. The parallel that I can see with contemporary Australian leadership is the very swiftness that Tony Abbott – a man who declared that “climate change is crap” – has worked at attempting to silence those people who disagree by shutting them down, cutting hundreds of their staff or even cutting funding.

There’s a temptation for those of us with visions of a more progressive and enlightened Australia to wring our hands and fret about our future, but Horne’s book provides some valuable perspective: Australia’s political class has always been substandard.

National Identity

One of Donald Horne’s frustrations after writing The Lucky Country was that people misappropriated his “lucky country” phrase. Missing the irony in the book’s title, the uninformed took it to be literal and before long we were hearing of it in the context of Australia being some sort of blessed nation. Sadly, it has almost become part of the mythology of Australia that it is ‘lucky’. The realisation of a message lost is quite sad and one of the reasons that I feel more people should read The Lucky Country.

Mythology is a powerful thing as many Australians would have noted during recent Anzac Day celebrations. When reading The Lucky County, I picked up this passage about the Australian battle at Gallipoli:

…according to its official texts, (Australia) did not achieve full status as a nation until April 25 1915, when the Australian soldiers assisted in the Gallipoli landing by storming Anzac Cove. It was as if the whole process of achieving nationhood was so easy that it was not until men died – if quite irrelevantly, and in a minor and unsuccessful campaign – that Australians felt they had earned their way into the world.

How true this is. To this day, we read nonsense asserting that Gallipoli represents some sort of national baptism or “the birthplace of the Anzac spirit” (whatever that is). In reality, it was a failed military campaign that cost 50,000 men their lives. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating agrees that the Gallipoli myth is nonsensical, but expressing such sentiments in Australia is somewhat brave.

In late 2013, ABC1 aired a four-part series entitled Keating in which veteran television journalist Kerry O’Brien interviewed the former Prime Minister. Having watched that series, and now having read The Lucky Country, I cannot help but wonder whether a young Paul Keating read a copy of Horne’s book and whether it had some influence upon him?

There are a number of themes common to The Lucky Country and Paul Keating’s time as Treasurer and Prime Minister. Both Horne and Keating believed that Australian industry was lazy and overprotected, that the Australian economy of the time was inefficient and unproductive and that Australians themselves had a poor understanding of Asia. Keating sought to correct both these problems during his time in government.

Another concern that both men shared was the notion that the Commonwealth of Australia should one day become a republic. Horne wrote:

How Australia will become a republic, and when, is not predictable. However one knows that the older generations to whom such a change is unthinkable are going to die, and that in the younger generations there is likely to be little interest in preserving Australia as a monarchy. Merely to write the word is to invite derision…. It will become politically practicable to make this break (to a republic); all that is needed is some push from events, some dramatic reason for making it. No one can tell what that push might be, but it will be pushing against a lightly locked door.

On this point alone, Horne was quite wrong. A referendum to make Australia a republic in 1999 failed miserably, much to Keating’s horror (and no doubt Horne’s). Just this month, newspapers have reported that support for an Australian republic is at its lowest level in 35 years whilst Australia’s future king and queen tour the nation. That door to a republic was locked a little more firmly than it appeared. A time may very well arise in the future when the Australian people decide that they do wish to sever formal ties with Mother England, but it won’t be any time soon.

Upon Reflection

The Lucky Country is a wide-ranging book which sought to stimulate critical thinking about the sort of nation that Australia had become in the 1960’s. The book’s impact was so significant, in part because it spoke to ordinary Australians. It empowered them to analyse how their society functioned. In an era when overseas travel was still a relative luxury for the few, it also offered some valuable international perspective on what had become a fairly insular nation.

Brilliant as The Lucky Country is, some of Horne’s criticisms almost bordered on the petty. For instance, Horne wrote disparagingly of the housewives who decorated their houses with aboriginal motifs and modern furniture, suggesting that their homes were tacky rather than fashionable. His assertions that Australian society was largely blind to the arts at all levels – from the living room to the nation’s galleries – may have had some validity. Yet the attack on the domestic residence seemed unnecessary.

Horne also makes an occasional claim that, in my view, probably could have benefited from referencing. For instance, Horne wrote:

In fact Australia has been chosen, in a recent Research and Development debunking session in England, as an example of a country for which it may be more economical to lease the fruits of modern research than to think up things for itself…

Whilst this mysterious event may very well have happened, the reader has no idea who made this claim, or why, or what vested interests they may have had. We’ll never know.

Small concerns aside, this book is as thought-provoking today as it was in 1964, even for someone who was not born when the first edition was released. Horne’s thoughtful arguments, his humour and his eloquence seek to highlight the malaise that existed in Australian society in the 1960’s and he does so convincingly.

Having read The Lucky Country, it’s apparent that for Australia’s leaders in the industrial and political spheres, little has changed. As a nation, Australia may have become more multicultural, creative and dynamic but we still collectively fail to commercialise our successes or grow our businesses in a globalised economy. We continue to sell our economic interests to others and when it comes to economic advancement our collective imagination seems to have evaporated. We still suffer from gender inequality and bouts of religious intolerance and we continue to treat migrants (especially ‘boat people’) with suspicion. If nothing else, this book should inspire a contemporary reader to reflect upon the sort of nation that Australia is and could be, just as Donald Horne wanted for his readers back in 1964.

Donald Horne passed away in 2005, aged 83. As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Lucky Country, his book should serve as a reminder that the task of building an enlightened, educated and prosperous nation is far from over.


The Lucky Country by Donald Horne (ISBN 0143180029) is published by Penguin Australia.



One response to “The Lucky Country”

  • Written by Michael S. on 31 August 2014:

    Much of what was said in The Lucky Country appears to remain true to this day; however one of the biggest driver of Australia’s luck has been the relentless and dishonest pursuit of economic growth through extreme population growth. Ever since 1901 the average annual GDP growth has been 3.2% and the average annual population growth has been 1.6%. Any moron can understand that demand within the economy increases by 1.6% per annum purely because of extreme population growth. Over the 14 years since 2000 Australia’s population has grown by a staggering 25% driving panic-driven construction of now unused desalination plants combined with inadequate infrastructure expansion in many other areas.

    Australia remains a very dumb country which uses the dumbest method known to man for driving GDP growth. That method is mass migration in pursuit of short term financial gain masquerading as coherent strategy. It is a policy driven “by stealth and without consensus” as described by now Professor Gavin Jones in his work completed for government in 1996/7.

    We live in a pro-growth dictatorship; and the method no longer works. The economic KPIs all indicate that something is wrong; but media, including the ABC, and politicians refuse to open the cupboard door and expose the skeleton.

    The Lucky Country remains one of the dumbest countries on earth. Let’s save the world by crying crocodile tears over climate change by doubling coal exports every 20 years and deliberately creating the fastest rate of population growth in the developed world – in the country with the highest emissions per capita on earth. And let’s ignore the KPIs that seem to be telling us that this doesn’t even work for our economy – let alone for our foreign aid budget (which was just cut by $7.5 billion). The Australian pigs at their trough just want to keep gorging on pure bullshit.

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