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Australia was first referred to as “The Lucky Country” in 1964. It was in this year that well known Australian writer and social critic Professor Donald Horne published a book by that name. The title came from the first sentence of the last chapter: “Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.” Since then, the nickname has been used by many people in various contexts.

Horne was the author of three novels and about 20 volumes of history and social comment. “The Lucky Country” is his best known work. The book is a study of Australian society in the 1960s. He argued that Australia was stuck in a past era of narrow outlook, a lack of culture, and dependence on the old ways of doing things and on the mother country. Australia had prospered through agriculture and mining. Most of its manufacturing was based on processing the products of these industries and there was a lack of technology and innovation that was seen in other industrialised countries by that time. Protectionism had served the country well, and much of industry had become propped up by subsidies and tariffs. Banking was another sector held back by heavy regulation. Foreign policy was tied more to other English speaking countries rather than nearer Asian neighbours.

He pointed out that other countries were producing a much more highly educated and skilled workforce than Australia and this was holding the country back too. The lack of opportunities in Australia led to a “brain drain” of highly skilled people to overseas countries where their abilities were more appreciated. There was also a feeling in the 1960s that things made in Australia – films, literature, manufactured products – were not as good as those made overseas. He criticised the White Australia Policy and the country’s reliance on a political system set up to serve Britain.

Thus Australia was drifting along rather than moving with the rest of the world, but was somehow still quite successful, especially in economic terms. While other advanced countries were progressing through technology, innovation, education, home-grown culture, and by determining their own destiny, Australia seemed to be doing it through luck, and hanging onto things that had worked in the past. Other countries were creating wealth by being clever, Australia was relying on luck, meaning that it was lucky that many of the old ways still did work, but might not for too much longer. This is where Horne’s term “The Lucky Country” came from. It was his way of urging Australia to adopt the “clever” approach used in other countries.

The term was initially used in context as Australia strove to change and improve many aspects of the country’s social, economic and cultural apparatus. Australians voted overwhelmingly to give Aboriginal people the vote and to include them in censuses by the late 1960s and discarded the White Australia Policy in 1975. Tariffs were lowered and many industries, particularly banking, were deregulated. Sweeping changes were made to the education sector, with a huge increase in the range of courses and the number of people gaining qualifications. There was more support for the arts. Tax incentives for the private sector to invest in research and development were introduced in 1986.

“The Lucky Country” was soon used in all sorts of contexts not originally intended by Horne. It was used as a means of giving approval to the laid-back life style and the “she’ll be right” attitude; that things would continue to be fine with minimal effort, because we were lucky. This probably slowed progress in many areas. The term was also used to describe Australia’s natural assets such as the climate, the large amount of room for a small population, its strong economy, its lack of social tensions, no hostile neighbours, opportunities for all, sporting success, and so on. Migrant groups use the phrase as a promotional tool to attract skilled workers from other countries.

Other related phrases crept into use too, such as “the unlucky country” when Australia did poorly in sport or when asylum seekers were turned back, and “the forgotten country” when describing the plight of those in many Aboriginal communities. When pockets of poverty were found, people would ask “Whatever happened to the lucky country?” Such was the extent of misuse of the term that Horne was later moved to state: “I have had to sit through the most appalling rubbish as successive generations misapplied this phrase.”

The misinterpretations look set to continue. Australia’s economic growth over the last three decades has exceeded that of every one of the larger OECD countries. It has good weather and social cohesion. It provides a home for 13,000 refugees a year, second only to the US. It has the equal fourth highest life expectancy of all countries. It was among the top five medal winners at the four Olympic Games from 1996 to 2008 (10th in 2012). It has Oscar and Booker prize winners and a number of Nobel laureates. Donald Horne can at least take satisfaction that Australia has made huge improvements to its economic, educational, social and cultural structure, mainly through hard work. Luck has really only played a minor role.