Still the Lucky Country

With two of my Imagining Australia coauthors, I have a piece in today’s Canberra Times on the enduring relevance of Donald Horne’s 1964 tome. Full text over the fold.

Wise Hedgehogs and Clever Foxes
Macgregor Duncan, Andrew Leigh and David Madden
Canberra Times, 16 September 2005

In the wake of Donald Horne’s death, countless column inches have been spent recalling his greatest work, The Lucky Country. Much has been made of the fact that the book’s ironic title has been greatly misunderstood. Yet the irony continues, for amidst all the focus on Horne’s turn of phrase, there has been little reflection on the ongoing relevance of the book’s central thesis.

With few exceptions, most obituarists have treated Horne’s 1964 bestseller as a critique of its era. It is held up as a book that captured the deep concerns that many Australians felt in the midst of a seemingly endless period of plodding Conservative government.

Yet The Lucky Country should not be regarded like fondue – new for the 1960s, but a mere curio today. Forty-one years on, the book speaks as powerfully to our generation – born after it was published – as it did to the baby boomers who bought the first copies.

In The Lucky Country, Horne warned of the danger of taking our country, our way of life, and our prosperity for granted. Horne argued that the Australia of the 1960s allowed its imagination to ‘gum up’, leaving the nation to drift aimlessly in a self-satisfied haze. Alas, a similar critique might be levelled at Australia today.

While Australia has come a long way since Horne wrote The Lucky Country, many of the fundamental issues he raised remain. The Australian economy may be growing nicely, but when it comes to exports, we are still very much a “dig it up and ship it out” country.

We are also still wrestling with our national identity. This is not just about Republicanism — the cause that Horne did so much to advance. While it is more important than ever to articulate stories and values that can speak to all of multicultural Australia, our leaders really stray from the familiar terrain of Anzac and the outback.

Meanwhile, new challenges have arisen. The growing gulf between the salaries of CEOs and ordinary workers, the decline in social capital, the erosion of civil liberties, environmental degradation, and inadequate national infrastructure are just some of the problems that – in the absence of real leadership — are becoming entrenched. Our failure to address these and others exemplifies the complacency that Horne so vividly warned against.

It was Horne’s example and the ongoing relevance of The Lucky Country that prompted us to write (with Peter Tynan) Imagining Australia: Ideas for Our Future. In it, we argued that if Australia is to fulfil its potential, we need to rejuvenate our imagination. Australia is a nation still under construction, and today’s citizens, just like our forebears, are all the builders. This sort of thinking imposes on all Australians a responsibility, as custodians of the Australian project, to make sure that we do not stand idly by, that we do all that we can to help our country fulfil its potential.

In his famous essay on Tolstoy, the great Oxford philosopher, Sir Isaiah Berlin, wrote that individuals can be divided into two categories: hedgehogs and foxes. The wise hedgehogs know only one large thing, understanding the world through a single grand vision. The clever foxes, on the other hand, know many things, pursuing seemingly disparate ends along unconnected paths.

There are hedgehogs and foxes in Australia today, and both types of thinkers are crucial to our future. But our big-picture painters rarely trouble themselves with the world of specific and detailed policies. And our policy experts often debate the detail among themselves without a sense of the larger canvas.

As a Daily Telegraph journalist, editor of The Bulletin, professor of politics, chair of the Australia Council, Horne knew this better than most of Australia’s public intellectuals. Both a hedgehog and a fox, he offered up imagination and ideas, challenging Australians to look beyond the present, with its pettiness and preoccupations, and into the future, with its possibilities and potential.

In his original plan for Australia’s capital city, Walter Burley Griffin envisaged that the hill now occupied by Parliament House would be home to a ceremonial Capitol building – a pantheon of Australian art, culture, and civic values, commemorating the achievements of the Australian people. Such a Capitol will most likely never be built; but inspired by Horne’s call for us to look to the future, perhaps we can attain it a more spiritual sense. Donald Horne taught us that the great Australian dream ought not to merely be owning a house. It is, or should be, to help forge a better nation; for the brief time that the opportunity lies in our hands.

Macgregor Duncan, Andrew Leigh and David Madden are co-authors of Imagining Australia: Ideas for Our Future (Allen and Unwin, 2004).

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2 Responses to Still the Lucky Country

  1. Fay Hannah says:

    After forty years in this country I don’t see much change in the Australian identity. The same old cliches continue,insularity and zenophobia reign mighty under the present regime. It is heart-breaking in what could be a marvellous country if there was a willingness to face the reality of our place in Asia. We are in such a unique and privileged position on this planet yet we prefer to bury our heads in the sand perpetuating military mythology and ignoring the reality of our past. We need to regognize the sacredness of the Aboriginal dreaming and honour their presence as first people of this land. This needs to be the foundation of Australian identity and from this a multifarous vox polli can flourish. Oh for some visionaries for a change.

  2. Andrew Leigh says:

    Fay, perhaps we’ll appoint you to head the Imagining Australia publicity team….

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