Emulate Australia? It’s not that easy

Many countries want to imitate Australia’s success. But its values and governance are eccentric—and may not travel

Helen Dale

Many countries—not just the UK—seek to copy Australian policies in a wide range of “difficult” areas: from immigration, to gun laws, to its electoral system, to its response to Covid-19.

Hardly a week goes by without discussion of “points-based immigration”—one of the few policies raised as a matter of routine in British focus groups over the last 20 years—or, in the US, Australia’s gun laws. Admiration of late has centred on its status as a prosperous, open, liberal democracy somehow able to manage Covid-19 without prior experience of Sars and with a close relationship to China (plus many Chinese immigrants).

I’m not saying one shouldn’t copy Australia. It is stable, orderly, well-governed and already steaming out of its shallow coronavirus recession. For decades, it has enjoyed uninterrupted growth, low unemployment, high immigration, and a high minimum wage. It’s often claimed the latter three cannot exist simultaneously, but in Australia they can and do. I grew up in the country and had a ringside seat at its system of governance when I worked in Canberra. Australians are good at running things.

But I do want to sound a note of caution. People admire Australia without understanding why it succeeds, and without asking whether other countries can simply import its methods. They fail to realise Australia’s governance values are relatively unusual, products of a distinctive political culture and electoral system—nurtured over 60 years—that may not travel.

First, however, it’s important to clear away some undergrowth—the authority-defying “Australian larrikin”. This figure is present in the country’s literature but does not exist outside it. While Australia has an intensely egalitarian culture and commendable social mobility, it is an authoritarian country and its police in particular expect compliance. That’s why the world has been treated to video footage of the Bill nicking pregnant women in their homes and dragging protesters out of cars. Australians are both the descendants of convicts and of their gaolers.

If John Locke is the father of the US Constitution and John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith the fathers of British approaches to governance, then Australia’s dad is Jeremy Bentham, the bloke who described natural rights as “nonsense upon stilts”. He rejected the idea of natural or divinely given rights preceding the establishment of state authority, arguing that rights are creations of law, and without government there are none. Rights, in other words, come from states. The contrast with John Locke is immediate and obvious: for Locke, individuals and their rights come first, and government comes afterwards. The state for Americans is a bottom-up creation where citizens transfer to it by social contract only so much authority as is strictly necessary for mutual benefit and
protection.

Most importantly, where the US favours liberty and rights over democracy and majorities, Australia favours democracy and majorities over liberty and rights. To this day, the country has no Bill of Rights, and what rights do exist (usually at the state level in a federal system) are simple acts of parliament that can be repealed by a hostile government.

Aware that Bentham’s approach to institutions tended to produce electorates that saw the nation-state as a vast public utility, Australians put immense care into designing the country’s institutional arrangements and electoral system. There is little beautiful rhetoric in the late 19th-century constitutional debates of its Founding Fathers—a notable contrast to the American equivalent. There is, however, astonishing attention to detail and a willingness to pinch good things from other countries and civilisations: the secret ballot from the Romans, referendums from Switzerland, the Westminster system from Britain, an elected upper house comprised of senators apportioned equally between the states from the US, federalism from Germany. An obsession with policy detail still forms a major part of Australian governance.

Onto this was bolted several Australian innovations: compulsory registration and compulsory voting; voting on Saturdays; an incorruptible system of postal votes; equal-sized constituencies whose redistricting was managed by an impartial electoral authority; preferential voting blended with what is now called Single Transferable Vote; a secret ballot where—unlike the Roman and related systems—electors did not bring their pre-filled ballot to the polling station, but a state official gave them an unmarked, pre-printed one before they entered the voting booth. And, of course, the famous “democracy sausage” on polling day (Google it).

This modified form of the secret ballot went global. When you cast your ballot in a UK general election, you are using an Australian-designed system down to the finest detail—yes, even your pencils, mandated by Australian electoral officials to avoid the messiness of dipping pens. For many decades it was called “the Australian Ballot”, even by Americans. Notably, the developed country that makes least use of Australian innovations is the US, one of the reasons it struggles to make its elections free and fair. Harvard University’s Electoral Integrity Project ranks the American system 57th in the world. Among core Western democracies, it comes in at rock bottom.

This extraordinary regime began to emerge in 1860 and was complete by 1924. Even many Australians do not appreciate the extent to which it is a logistical marvel, more so given it was developed and perfected in a country with huge distances, heavy reliance on transport by bullock trains or pony and trap, and, for some of the period, no telegraph. It is the foundation of what economists call Australia’s “high state capacity”—roughly, the ability to get shit done—and is not easy to reproduce. This is not only because it is hard but because it involves thinking about politics in a different way, chiefly by rejecting US and EU “rights-talk” and Lockean social contract theory.

Locke, Smith, Mill, and Bentham had no empirical evidence for any of their claims. When Locke and later Rousseau argued, contra Thomas Hobbes and Edmund Burke, that man was naturally peaceful and industrious—born in freedom but everywhere in chains—they were not to know that the evidence points the other way. Scholars such as Steven Pinker did the research and crunched the numbers, finding that not only is there no evidence of rights in non-state, hunter-gatherer societies, the cultures in question were also violent horrors with a murder rate that makes modern Venezuela and medieval England alike look like oases of peace and plenty. Even the most advanced pre-modern civilisations usually had a weak or absent conception of rights, and where conceptions were strong, they were limited. Rights-talk among Roman jurists—and remember, Rome provided the parent legal system for the EU and all its member-states save Ireland and Scandinavia—was confined to property and to Roman citizens.

In following Bentham, Australia placed itself on Team Hobbes, and although like Locke a social contract theorist, Hobbes’s assessment of non-state societies turned out to be correct. Man, in the state of nature, really did live a life that was nasty, brutish, and short. Locke’s tabula rasa (the blank slate) is empirically unfounded. Australia’s founding fathers and the country’s approaches to governance are therefore explicable in part by luck, not choice. Australia got the science right by accident.

For decades, there was a consensus that it was impossible to centrally plan an immigration system, until what Douglas MacArthur once called “the giant unsinkable aircraft carrier” scuppered it. Like France, Australia is fond of grands projets. Unlike France, it enjoys success at seeing them through. However, this has limits: many of the claims—made by the likes of FA Hayek and others—about the scale of what economists call “the knowledge problem” and concomitant difficulties of central planning are true.

Those who remember the 2019 election may recall one of Labour’s manifesto promises: free broadband for all. It was routinely mocked (Boris Johnson called it “a crackpot scheme”), and rightly so. Australians in these islands were heard to observe that even we can’t do that. The Australian equivalent—known as the “National Broadband Network”—has been an expensive flop. Attempts to blame one of the country’s two major political parties for its failure assume—in hubristic Australian fashion—this is another thing the giant public utility that is AusGov can just do.

Then there was “Robodebt”, an elaborate scheme using algorithmic data-matching to track benefit overpayments. It was a disaster, and unlike the NBN cock-up (responsible only for slow internet), produced genuine hardship as people all over the country were stung with fake debts and ordered to pay up (or else). As of late November, Scott Morrison’s government has quietly shelved it and gone back to pen and paper. It’s also been forced to settle a class-action suit arising from the bungle for a sum north of a billion Australian dollars. This in a country with a modest population, low unemployment, and relatively few benefit recipients.

It’s significant, in my view, that Australia’s immense state capacity has foundered when it comes to “big tech”. Maybe we have to abandon the belief that we can technologise everything: it isn’t magic and there are many tasks to which it is unsuited. Relatedly, if Australia cannot make state-backed high-tech and algorithms work, it’s likely no-one can.

Australia’s exceptional governance is as odd as its egg-laying mammals, songless birds, and scentless flowers. Replicating it even in part requires an understanding of what lies beneath it, and the peculiar environment in which it developed. Failure to do this may mean attempts to transplant it to other countries fail as organ donations sometimes do, and to everyone’s detriment: donor and donees alike. 

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