Australia: Lucky country or laggard?

Ron Horvath, The University of Sydney

Rod Tiffen & Ross Gittins How Australia Compares, Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, 2004 (294 pp). ISBN 0-52183-578-X (hard cover) RRP $49.95.

In 1964, and with heavy irony, Donald Horne called Australia ‘the lucky country’. But as with Prime Minister Howard’s moniker ‘Honest John’, Horne’s original meaning has been reversed, and many Australians proudly imagine ourselves to be the lucky ones, and our country to be the best in the world. Ultimately, this is an empirical question, and a recent book gives us many, many clues as to the answer.

An academic specialising in comparative politics at the University of Sydney (Rodney Tiffen) and the senior economics editor at The Sydney Morning Herald (Ross Gittins) have teamed up ‘to produce an encyclopaedic source book’ on the eighteen advanced democracies. They have created ‘a reference source offering comparative data on as many aspects of social life as possible, from taxation to traffic accidents, homicide rates to health expenditures, from interest rates to Internet usage’. How Australia Compares consists of over 390 tables accompanied by well-written commentaries, and it provides the truth that gets in the way of a good story about the kind of society Australia is.

So how does Australia compare with the other advanced democracies? Tiffen and Gittins provide answers in the commentaries topic by topic but no overall summary. As I examined the tables and commentaries my attention was drawn over and over to the United States and then to Australia and then to Sweden or Norway. This process produced some genuine surprises for me. When I pointed out these tables to Americans and Australians, they too were surprised—many were actually disbelieving.

Of course, the general answer to the question ‘How does Australia compare?’ depends on how we compare Australia to the other rich democracies. The Human Development Index (HDI), produced by the United Nations Development Program, is based on three measures: health, income, and education. On the HDI Australia ranked 4th among the eighteen countries in the year 2000, up from 10th place in 1980. Australia’s rank as measured by the HDI is published annually to a media fanfare. Some Australian journalists express surprise that Australia does not ‘win the gold’. Before looking over the tables in this volume, I too assumed that Australia generally ranked in the upper part of the national rankings with some important exceptions like the environment. My experience with the Tiffen and Gittins book is that the more I compared my beliefs to the information in their tables, the more surprises appeared.

Australia’s rank as measured by the HDI is published annually to a media fanfare.

But I am not going to ask you to ‘trust me’ on this. Instead, I ask you to take the quiz entitled How Does Australia Rank?. Rank 1 indicates best national performance among the advanced democracies and 18 is worst national performance. After selecting the ranks for all of the items, the actual ranks will appear in the boxes to the right. This is not a knowledge test, but an attempt to get you to compare your beliefs about Australia with the facts. You can do the same quiz for the United States and Sweden.

As a strong believer in facing the facts, I sometimes feel as though I need to be added to a list of endangered species. After facing the facts in table after table in How Australia Compares, I decided to select a set of indicators measuring better or worse national performance. I used Measuring Progress: Is Life Getting Better?, edited by Richard Eckersley (1998), to select just over 100 indicators of progress or regress from Tiffen and Gittins’ book. I put the tables into a database to allow detailed national comparisons and I report only the crudest result from that analysis here: namely the average of the ranks of the 100 selected items (see Table 1). Of course, the rankings change somewhat depending upon how many measures are included. For example, the United States moves to 18th place overall when I included another seven items, thus bumping New Zealand up to 17th place. Nevertheless, the facts point to an unavoidable conclusion about how Australia compares.

Table 1: Overall National Wellbeing
Country Mean of ranks on 100 items Overall rank on 100 items HDI Rank
Sweden 6.8 1 2
Norway 7.3 2 1
Denmark 7.6 3 14
Finland 8.4 4 9
Netherlands 8.4 5 7
Austria 8.8 6 13
Switzerland 9.0 7 11
Germany 9.4 8 15
Japan 9.5 9 8
Canada 9.9 10 3
Belgium 10.0 11 5
France 10.0 12 10
Ireland 10.0 13 16
UK 10.2 14 12
Australia 10.4 15 4
Italy 11.0 16 18
USA 11.5 17 6
New Zealand 12.0 18 17

Another way to see how Australia compares is to examine the extremes, where Australia ranks 18th and 1st. Australia is ranked 18th on greenhouse gas emissions, sulphur oxide emissions, nitrogen oxide emissions, mammals threatened, birds threatened, current account balance, net personal savings, maternity leave, and relative income of the elderly. Overall Australia has the worst environmental record of the eighteen nations and some of the best environmental science, which means we know better and attitude surveys suggest that Australians care about the environment (see Tiffen & Gittins’ Table 18.16). Nevertheless, the knowledge in Australia and attitudes of Australians are not being translated into effective national policy. Facing the facts produced no surprises here, at least for me. When we add some other items on which Australia performs poorly—such as national account balance and net savings—it becomes clear that Australia is living beyond its means.

Yet there are also some clear positives. Australia ranks first in electoral participation, the gender development index, availability of computers in the classroom, and active members in voluntary organisations, among others.

The generalisation I would make after looking systematically at only one seventh of the data in the book is that any generalisation must immediately be qualified by noting the complexity and variability that is also evident. Take the status of women in Australia. According the Gender Development Index (Table 15.1) Australia ranks number 1, but when I examined eleven indicators relevant to the status of women, I found the full range from top to bottom rankings. On the ratio of female and male earned income Australia ranked above average. On the ratio of females in the professions and women in parliament Australia achieved an average rank. On the proportion of doctors who are females, Australia ranked below average. On the availability of paid maternity leave, Australia takes last place.

Australia has the worst environmental record of the eighteen rich democracies.

So why does Australia rank 15th according to the 100 indicators that I selected? The short answer is that Australia does poorly or below average (ranks 13–18) on 48 of the items selected for comparison. The United States does worse than Australia because it ranked 18th on a full one third of the items. And why did Sweden or Norway do so well as measured by the average of the 100 rankings? Both countries had few rankings below average; indeed, Norway did not rank 18th on any of the 100 indicators (compared to 34 rankings of 18 for the United States). This suggests that if nations want to lift their game, they need to eliminate those aspects of national well-being in which they are performing poorly. The countries doing best overall, for example, those ranked 1 to 8 on the Table 1, have achieved higher rankings by not having many lower than average rankings. Significantly, focusing upon increasing national income also does not appear to be the way to achieve ‘as good as it gets’ status in the leagues tables of national well-being; the correlation coefficient between mean of the 100 ranked items and GDP per capita in PPP dollars for the year 2000 is close to zip (–0.16). The clearest example of this is the United States, the richest country by a country mile as measured by GDP per capita, and yet 17th in overall national well-being.

I suspect How Australia Compares will be useful to a wide variety of users: from talk show hosts needing topics, to journalists requiring reference material, to students requiring material for essays, to academics wishing to do comparative analysis. What you get out of the book will be a function of what you bring to it, including your interests, skills, and questions. The main shortcoming of the book from my perspective is that it was not accompanied by a disk that would allow immediate import to a database or spreadsheet for allowing further analysis. For many users of this book, I suspect that this is less likely to be a major problem.


Eckersley, R. 1998, Measuring Progress: Is Life Getting Better? CSIRO Publishing, Canberra.

Dr Ronald J. Horvath is Honorary Research Associate in the School of Geosciences at The University of Sydney.

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