The Lucky Country by Donald Horne (1964) 256 p.

“The lucky country” is a phrase any Australian is familiar with, one often applied with beaming happiness to things like Vegemite advertisements or Australia Day speeches. Yet few Australians would be able to quote the sentence it originally appeared in: “Australia is a lucky country, run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.”

Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country in the early 1960s as a stark assessment of a nation he felt had lost its way. Australia possessed fabulous natural resources and enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the world; yet, unlike other advanced nations, he felt it had done little to earn its success. It rested on its luck and was unimaginative, uninspired and unexceptional. It was almost a dependency, looking to Britain and the United States to tell it what to do and unable to shake the feeling that it was an unimportant backwater, albeit a pleasant one. It reminded me of an assessment by Ted Simon in Jupiter’s Travels, when he visited Australia in the early 1970s:

Like most people everywhere they spent most of their time just getting by, but there was no collective dream or mythology that told them what it was they were supposed to be doing.

Now, The Lucky Country was written half a century ago and much of it is irrelevant today – the influence of the Australian Communist Party, the White Australia Policy, and the tension between Catholics and Protestants, to name a few things. But a larger portion of the book is surprisingly relevant. The most striking thing to a modern reader is how little has changed. Horne knew Australia was at a tipping point in the 1960s, like much of the world, and that if it was ever going to seize its own destiny, that was the time. And indeed, the 1970s saw the election of Gough Whitlam, a prime minister who stood up to Washington, engaged with Asia, introduced universal healthcare and began the process of recognising Aboriginal land rights. But he was dismissed after only a few short years, and Australia sank back into a swamp of lazy complacency. And now here we are in 2012: still not a republic, still looking to America and Europe for guidance in cultural, political and economic matters, and still relying entirely on our natural resources to maintain our economy. Australia was renowned in 2008 for being the only OECD country which did not enter recession, but virtually the only reason this was so was because our economy is centred around selling ore to China. How lucky.

And our current leaders hardly inspire confidence – indeed, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott regularly poll in the 30% range as preferred prime ministers, among the lowest ratings of all time. Say what you will about John Howard and Kevin Rudd, but they were both titanic figures who led with vision (my vision of hell, in the case of Howard, but vision nonetheless) and imposed themselves mightily upon the Australian psyche. Gillard and Abbott, on the other hand, feel like understudies thrust into the spotlight. They might make able politicians, but in the grand narrative of history, they will never go down as great leaders.

So the Australia of today is strikingly similar to the Australia of The Lucky Country. It reminded me of what Nick Bryant, the BBC’s Sydney correspondent for many years, wrote upon leaving the job in 2011:

The anger and hostility [in Australian politics] is currently being compared with the mood in 1975 during the Gough Whitlam dismissal crisis. But it also has a late-60s feel – a post-Menzies, pre-Whitlam interlude when the country appeared to be treading water, and waiting for something to happen.

The curious thing when reading The Lucky Country is that Horne seemed to be optimistic, to believe that change really was around the corner, that the next generation – John Howard’s generation – would prove to be far less stagnant and conservative than their predecessors and lead Australia into a bold new future. (He seemed particularly convinced that a republic would happen any year now.) That didn’t happen. And while I myself am optimistic that Australia might grow up a little in the coming decades, in an era of global connectivity and an emerging Asia and a rising Green Party, I can’t help but feel that perhaps we’ll just see a repeat of the last 50 years.

The question is whether this time our luck will run out.