When Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country in 1963, Australians picked up the book as an affirmation of their ridiculous good fortune. They only got a few pages in however before realising it was anything but. One critic described the book as, “a bucket of cold saltwater emptied onto the belly of a dreaming sunbather.” The book came as a rude shock to sun-drunk Australians.
“Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck,” wrote Horne. “It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.” Horne wrote about how the luck we enjoy as Australians – endless white beaches, riches in the ground, a fish on the first cast – had lulled Australians into becoming culturally lazy.
The Lucky Country was published over 50 years ago now but would be horribly relevant if it had been published last week. The above passage couldn’t sum up modern Australia any better. When the Black Summer fires burned up and down the eastern seaboard two years ago, the Prime Minister was drinking mai tais in Hawaii. When Lismore flooded a whole two metres above the previous record, nobody turned up to save the town. Despite being warned for decades now by scientists these natural disasters would become more frequent, the blokes in charge could only act surprised. Volunteer firefighters fought the fires while locals in tinnies plucked people off rooves in Lismore. The ordinary people adapted. The leaders were missing.
A guy in a hat – last seen drunk in a paddock yelling at the sky – eventually turned up to tell us the flood was a “one-in-3500-year event” only for it to happen again three weeks later. This Old Testament thinking is not only still prevalent in modern Australia, it’s held by the men that run the country. Fires, floods… frogs falling from the sky. The yokel in the hat was Barnaby Joyce, the Deputy Prime Minister. The Prime Minister meanwhile believes in The Rapture, and end-of-days reckoning where the faithful ascend for salvation, while the rest are damned to remain behind and burn.
This is not particularly reassuring for younger generations. The federal government currently gives more money to the fossil fuel industry than they do to schools. The kids are already out on the streets demanding some kind of future, but they’re up against it. A judge recently ruled the Federal Environment Minister had no duty of care to future generations when approving new coal mines and gas projects. In years ahead these kids will be linng up to piss on the graves of these people.
But while Horne wrote about our cultural cringe, the stakes are far higher today for the Lucky Country. You might have missed it in the news, but a few weeks back, on the same day, the Antarctic recorded a temperature 40 degrees above the average while the Arctic hit 30 above. You might have missed it in the news because in the same week Warnie died and Buddy kicked his thousandth goal. In that same week an ice chunk the size of New York broke off and floated away from Antarctica. That’s a baby. If the Thwaites ice shelf breaks off, the glacier behind it slides into the sea and the ocean rises by 10 feet. Climate change will happen slowly at first, then all at once. After the last couple of years it feels like we might already be at that point.
Meanwhile, the things that have made Australia lucky in the past are all depleting. Decades of prosperity are grinding to a halt. An economy propped up by “houses and holes” is looking increasingly unstable. We’ve had two mining booms with little to show for it. Young people on the coast have little hope of owning their own houses. The divide between rich and poor has become a canyon. Australia’s billionaires doubled their collective wealth during the pandemic. The federal government meanwhile unleashed a computer algorithm on Australia’s most vulnerable, chasing welfare recipients for thousands they didn’t actually owe, hounding many of them to their deaths. Maybe we’re just in the wrong game. The Prime Minister’s spiritual mentor wrote a book a while back titled, You Need More Money – God’s Plan For Your Financial Future.
But that’s just the economy. The real markers in the world around us are all tanking. Oceans are warmer. Soils are poorer. Old growth forests are disappearing. In the water there are signs everywhere. There are bull sharks off Tathra, kingfish off Bicheno, and bluebottles lining the beach at Jan Juc. Nature is on the move, and great environmental shifts that have taken thousands of years in the past are happening in the span of a single human lifetime.
Given, the picture being painted here is all a little grim. Midnight Oil lyrics as prophecy. Mad Max as documentary. Do we simply start preparing for a time when the highways of Australia are ruled by kinky, murderous bikies? Do we just ignore it and go surfing? What do we do when our luck runs out?
We do something. Action as a cure for depression, just like the thousands of people in the Northern Rivers who jumped in vans once floodwaters receded and spent days covered in mud cleaning strangers’ homes. There’s hope in that. The Oils sung how the “Great South Land can be as great as the one it could have been.” But Garrett knew that change started at the top. There’s a federal election in a few weeks. Time to vote a few of these guys back to the Stone Age and make the Lucky Country lucky again.