Ninety-one per cent of Australians are proud to be Australian, and 85 per cent believe Australia Day is a day for celebration, according to a poll commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs.
There is good empirical reason to be proud of what Australia has achieved. Sometimes it is worth taking stock.
First: Australia is one of the richest countries in the world. Australia’s GDP per capita was US$61,925 in 2014, the latest year collated for comparison by the World Bank. Only Norway, Switzerland and a few city-states are richer than us. (Financial market turbulence and the exchange rate will have played havoc with our rankings since, but, well, comparative economics is a tough gig.)
Being rich is not everything, of course. The United Nation’s Human Development Index, which takes into account things like life expectancy, inequality and environmental sustainability, puts us at number two, just below Norway.
Second: Australia is one of the most democratic countries in the world. FreedomHouse gives Australia its highest ranking: a “1” for both civil liberties and political rights, including perfect scores for electoral process, functioning of government, freedom of expression and belief, associational and organisational rights, and near perfect scores for personal autonomy and individual rights, the rule of law, and political pluralism and participation. The Economist gave Australia 9 out of 10 in its 2014 Democracy Index. Polity IV gives us full marks for democracy.
Third: Australia is one of the freest countries in the world. We are in equal third place for overall human rights respect in the CIRI’s Human Rights Data Project. We’re ranked number seven on the Cato Institute’s Human Freedom index, and number 12 on the Fraser Institute’s Economic Freedom of the World Index.
These are no trivial achievements. The majority of the world’s population lives in countries which are less free, less democratic, and less respecting of the rights of its citizens than Australia. What we have in this country is a constellation of institutions and cultural norms that are among the best on the planet.
Consider how hard it has been to export those institutions to poorer countries. The best minds have spent decades trying to make developing countries like Australia, and their record of success is, shall we say, mixed. Somehow we have a stable institutional order that combines both wealth and liberty. This is more than enough to celebrate on Australia Day. It is more than enough reason for pride of country.
Pride does not have to be a synonym for obliviousness. There are significant pockets of disadvantage and too many people are unable to enjoy our aggregate prosperity. Every news outlet and every columnist – myself included – pours out a litany of problems with Australia; its government, its society, its culture. These are very often justified.
Even among the aggregate measures of success, there are some worrying outliers. For instance, we are lower than we ought to be on Reporters without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index: number 25 in the world, well below many of the countries we consider our peers.
And it’s also true that January 26 is a peculiar day to celebrate Australia Day, given it is the day a floating prison colony found land as distant from home as eighteenth century policymakers could conceive. That landing was no more the birth of the country we live in than Queen’s Birthday is actually the Queen’s birthday. In The Age yesterday, Martin Flanagan argued that we should switch Australia Day to another day.
But what has made Australia so successful compared with other settler societies has nothing to do with the landing of the First Fleet or the intentions of the early military governors. Success from that moment was not guaranteed. Nor, indeed, did the landing force the settlers into an inevitable clash with the continent’s Aboriginal inhabitants. The pivotal choices were yet to be made.
In his How Australia Prospered, Ian Maclean looks at the paths Australia did not travel. For instance, we avoided becoming like Argentina, a country with which we share many similarities, when the aristocratic squatters failed to entrench a privileged place in nineteenth century Australian politics. There have been many junctures in our history where the Australian project could have fallen apart.
More fundamentally, stable and successful institutional orders do not have “birthdays”. If Australia Day was not January 26, then when should it be? Australia’s origins cannot be pinpointed to colonial self-government in the 1850s, the end of transportation in 1868, federation in 1901, voting rights for women from 1895, the adoption of the Statute of Westminster in 1942, full Commonwealth voting rights for Aboriginal people by the 1960s, or the Hawke government’s 1986 Australia Act, which severed the Australia from the British legal system. Each of these were milestones, yes, but milestones in what was really an evolutionary process. Australia was not created, it grew.
Pretending that January 26 is Australia’s day, even just symbolically, actually undervalues the achievement that is Australia’s institutional heritage. We could just as easily say the institutions that made Australia a success – representative democracy, the rule of law, a market economy – date back long before 1788, even before Britain existed as a discrete political entity.
Any celebration of a nation has to be coupled with an awareness of its past, for good or ill. But while we must not let the good whitewash the ill, neither should the ill be allowed to drown out the good. There is much to celebrate on Australia Day. At least, that’s what the data says.