Wednesday 21 Aug 2019 | 12:02 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 21 Aug 2019 | 12:02 | SYDNEY

Lucky in the Asian Century


Graeme Dobell

4 July 2012 18:03

A key submission to the Asian Century inquiry – perhaps a foundational text – is a work that is fast nearing its 50th birthday.

In contemplating the grand task of an Asian future for Australia, Ken Henry would well understand the many layers of thought in Donald Horne's The Lucky Country, a dissection of Australia's regional fate that still resonates for its verve and insight – and the quality of its word-smithing.

Consider one of the most famous paragraphs ever penned by an intellectual proving his love of Oz by skilled use of both whip and scalpel: 'Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.' The Lucky Country was first published in 1964 and is still on the shop shelves. Do yourself a favour and shell out $9.95 for some classic Horne the next time you see that distinctive Penguin cover.

Horne's two great themes have been the subject of separate inquiries by Ken Henry: the modernisation of the Oz economy and the coming age of Asia. The way the Treasury Secretary's review of the tax system was bowdlerised and bastardised by Canberra's present rulers might draw a silent nod from Henry for the Horne rating of our leaders.

One of the many merits of The Lucky Country is as a reminder of the considerable distance Australia has already traveled, using much more than luck. When the book first appeared in the 1960s, Australia's mental barriers to Asia were shut nearly as tight as the migration laws. I was a teenager in that era, and I often return to Horne's rendering of the time to revisit familiar faces and deep attitudes that seemed at the time like the natural order of Oz.

As editor of The Bulletin in 1960, Horne had deleted The Bully's old motto: 'Australia for the White Man'. This was a politer rendering of the original version: 'Australia for the White Man and China for the Chows.'

Remembering that time gives some sense of Horne's vision in headlining his prologue 'Peopled from all over Asia'. The title draws on a Filipino prediction offered to Horne during a lunch at the University of the Philippines: 'We are all interested in Australia. It is a huge continent. In a hundred years' time it will be peopled from all over Asia.'

We are nearly half way along the course of that century journey and the view from Manila is being rendered accurate by the census figures. The census results just released show that Mandarin is now the most common language in Oz after English; others in the top ten languages spoken at home include Arabic, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Hindi and Tagalog. Lucky – and smart – is the country that can work changes like that in 50 years.

Horne charted some of that journey in the 1990s in his prologue to the fifth edition of the book, noting the shift over three decades from the age of Menzies to that of Howard. He wrote that many had missed the deep irony in his description of Oz as The Lucky Country, ignoring the loud warnings he sounded: 

It was essential to accept the challenges of where Australia is on the map, the need for a revolution in economic priorities and the need for a bold redefinition of what the whole place adds up to now. These three warnings can now simply be replayed with the amplifying knobs turned up. The first need has been met by many Australians: greater engagement with some of the countries in Asia has helped Australia move into the second chapter of its history.

Horne's most important point for the Asian Century inquiry is one he continually returned to; the thing, he thought, that might save a lucky land that was starting to run out of luck as Asia arrived. Donald Horne knew the hard-headed pragmatism and adaptability of Oz. He closed his work with the thought that those Australian traits of pragmatic improvisation mingled well with non-doctrinaire tolerance, an egalitarian sense of fair play and a courage that could be stoic. These were qualities, he concluded, that could constitute the beginnings of a great nation.

The words Horne penned in 1998 for the fifth edition are still apt: 'In contemplating our present leaders we come face to face with a paradox that became a leitmotiv of The Lucky Country: there are times when the only pragmatic course is to be visionary.'