THE LUCKY COUNTRY by Donald Horne is among my treasured Australian books. When first tempted to open its covers, as an undergraduate student of politics, long-haired and lined up for conscription to Vietnam, I found myself attracted to the unsettling question posed within the opening pages of its deft description of contemporary Australia: what if things turned out badly? What if disaster struck down the arrogant politicians too set in their ways for the good of their country? What if bad luck suddenly laid its hexing hand on the shoulder of the sun-tanned bloke in an open-necked shirt, the natural-born democrat solemnly enjoying an ice-cream, his kiddie strolling beside him?
Horne never posed things quite so sharply. But from the outset his remarkable book hit readers with a brickbat, with the unsettling thought that the lucky country might not have luck on its side. This most egalitarian of continents, an easygoing country whose soldiers are renowned for the ‘lowest saluting rate in the world’, happily ignores the problems of the world: ‘Australia is not a country of great political dialogue or intense searching after problems (or recognition of problems that exist),’ Horne wrote. ‘The upper levels of society give an impression of mindlessness triumphant,’ he added. ‘Whatever intellectual excitement there may be down below,’ he continued, ‘at the top the tone is so banal that to a sophisticated observer the flavour of democratic life in Australia might seem depraved, a victory of the anti-mind.’ Then came Horne’s pinching conclusion, the barbed thought that the young and confident Australian democracy, especially its leaders, had such a poor sense of the power of bad luck in human affairs that they had failed to grasp dilemmas and problems for which they had no ready solutions. ‘A society whose predecessors pioneered a whole continent now appears to shun anything that is at all out of the ordinary,’ he wrote. ‘The trouble is that, by Australian standards, almost everything that is now important is out of the ordinary.’
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