Is this still the ‘lucky country’? Picture: Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images.
Is this still the ‘lucky country’? Picture: Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images.

The true scandal of Australia Day

OPINION

A week ago I was in Mexico City, a vast sprawling metropolis of crumbling concrete and silver skyscrapers that is home to some 22 million souls - almost the entire population of the Australian continent.

A few of these souls are sickeningly rich; the vast majority are sickeningly poor.

It is a place of staggering beauty and dynamism and staggering atrophy and decay. Culture, wealth, paucity and poverty sit cheek to jowl, separated only by invisible class barriers and ten-foot walls.

I was there to see an old friend, and accompany him and his two sons back home to Australia. For the few days I was there, as he packed up his life and said goodbye to his brotherhood, we were bombarded with wellwishers.

And they weren't just wishing him well, but the whole of Australia. News of the ferocious flames that had consumed so much of our bushland had spread there like, well, wildfire. His many Mexican friends offered our country their deepest condolences.

And, frankly, it made him sick.

It was not that he was ungrateful to them or unworried by his fire-ravaged home.

It was simply that he could not accept sympathy from people who lived in a poverty almost no Australian could imagine. For all the grief and loss and sorrow that the fires have caused, he knew that our country, our lives, were so much more fortunate than theirs.

I was contemplating this the morning after we arrived home. It happened to be Australia Day and, like most Australia Days, I had barely even noticed.

I am not exactly the flag-waving kind, nor do I need any encouragement from a calendar to get drunk and laugh with friends. But I am accidentally reminded on January 26, like most other days of the year, just how lucky we are to live in this country.

It certainly doesn't mean that we are free from problems, nor that everyone in this country shares that luck. Indeed, it is our greatest national shame that the First Australians continue to suffer from problems that seem to belong to another country altogether.

This remains a stain on our soul that we must always fight to remedy, even though we are still fighting over what that remedy should be.

Protesters cames out in droves to rally all over the country on Australia Day – or rather, to mark it as Invasion Day. Picture: AAP/James Ross.
Protesters cames out in droves to rally all over the country on Australia Day – or rather, to mark it as Invasion Day. Picture: AAP/James Ross.

But even among all the tragedy, violence and mistakes both well-meaning and malevolent, Australia remains, by almost any measure, the luckiest nation on earth.

This is not because of race or the patterns on a flag. There is no pride in being born in a certain place any more than there is being born in a certain skin. It is because of a series of stands taken by lawmakers and community leaders that have crosshatched into the most stable, generous and prosperous foundations of any liberal democracy.

The delicate balance of our political institutions protects us from the volatility of the UK's first-past-the-post approach and the US's incongruous electoral college vote. Our preferential voting system means we don't always get the best government but we do get the least worst.

Within that framework we have woven into the national fabric social bulwarks like free education, free healthcare and a welfare safety net - many not entirely free but more free than most.

And we have strong workplace laws and a minimum wage, a justice system almost entirely untainted by corruption. And a political culture where elections are free and fair and come with a sausage at the end.

Plus we have an economy that even in its moments of weakness, has withstood the global turbulence of the last quarter century, forces which have plunged other nations into levels of recession and unemployment that our young Australians would scarcely recognise.

Again, none of these things is perfect - just as nothing in the world is perfect - but it is almost impossible to live in or even consider any other nation and not conclude that Australia is a remarkable triumph of good luck and good will.

Of course we must eternally strive to make it better. We must close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, we must work to stop wages flatlining and give people the dignity and security of having their own home, and we must do everything at all times to get people out of poverty - paradoxically both by jobs growth and a liveable dole.

But you have to wonder when you see some of the more hysterical laments of the commentariat if there is any real sense of just how lucky we are. Indeed, it often seems like the luckier they are the more they lament.

Australia, as it stands now, is a land beset by fire and flood and killer flu. You could be forgiven for thinking the end of days really is upon us.

And yet we are also a land beset by decency and kindness and common sense - in our laws, our culture and our nature. We are less perfect than imagined nirvanas but as good as any real nation on earth.

And I still believe that these strengths will overcome all disasters - be they natural or human - because our whole nation is built on the scandalous assumption that we are natural and human ourselves.

Joe Hildebrand is the editor-at-large of news.com.au and co-hosts Studio 10, 8.30am weekdays, on Network Ten | @Joe_Hildebrand


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