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Australia, the magazine : Australia, the magazine
the essay 6 FORGET YOUR PRECONCEPTIONS, MODERN AUSTRALIA IS SOMETHING OF A MIRACLE. Marco Del Grande/Fairfax Photos Foreigners can get the funniest impressions of Australia. A charming, educated, middle-aged American working in the US Federal Reser ve Bank told me some years ago that it was her dream to visit the Sydney Opera House. So why don't you? "Oh, I couldn't stand the sharks!" came her emphatic answer. Sharks? Puzzled, I asked what she meant. " e Opera House is right there in the harbour, with sharks all around," she explained as if I were especially thick. "I am completely terri ed of sharks." But, I tried to assure her, you don't need to cross the water to get to the Opera House. It's on the foreshore. Just stroll along the walkway, or catch a taxi to the door. e land route is shark-free. Was she pleased to discover that she'd been under a misapprehension, that her dream was now in reach? Not a bit of it. She simply refused to believe me. She actually sco ed at my insistence, as if I were a trickster trying to play a prank on a gullible foreigner. It occurred to me that this woman probably knew only two things about Australia: it's home to a sublime piece of architecture on Sydney Harbour, and it has lots of sharks. All she had done was to put them together. With odd results. What she lacked was perspective -- I'd like to give some. Australia is a bloody miracle. If you had set out to design a successful, free, peaceful, prosperous, tolerant, modern society, you would not have started with Australia's beginnings. On the contrary, Australia's white se lement set it up for failure. e population was stocked with Britain's criminal outcasts. Charles Darwin was con dent that our convict genes were our destiny. A er inspecting colonial Australia in 1836, he wrote that "it can hardly fail to degenerate". White se lement had begun in criminality and barbarity and it wasn't going to get any be er, the great naturalist determined. Similarly, the landscape was most unlikely to support a prosperous society. Jared Diamond, a professor of geology and environmental health sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, wrote in his 2005 book Collapse that "ecologically, the Australian environment is exceptionally fragile, the most fragile of any First World country except perhaps Iceland." Australia has less rain than any other continent apart from Antarctica and about a third less than the next- driest continent, Asia. Soil nutrients were thin from the outset. And when the separate British colonies federated to form the new Commonwealth of Australia, the rst moments of nationhood were not very promising for a society hoping to develop any sort of tolerance. One of the very rst acts of the new Parliament was a law prohibiting Chinese immigrants, the policy known as White Australia. Aggressive racism was one of the strongest common bonds bringing the new states together. Yet, somehow, from criminal, brutal, racist beginnings, the country developed into a law-abiding, harmonious, tolerant society. e precariousness of the environment remains a problem, and it only gets bigger. But Australia not only feeds itself, it manages to supply 20 percent of all global food exports. is is testament to the ingenuity and resilience of its farmers and scientists over two centuries. But at least the prosperity of the place was guaranteed, right? e mineral wealth lying just below the ground has given us a foolproof way of paying for high living standards, surely? Not really. Coal, gas, oil, gold, copper, zinc, bauxite, uranium and diamonds are valuable commodities. But, in the long story of humankind, it is normal that resource-rich societies end up failures. Resource wealth usually comes with high in ation, extreme indebtedness, corruption and civil war. Professor Paul Stevens, from the University of Dundee in Scotland, surveyed 52 resource-rich developing countries and found that only four had managed to extract a real national bene t from nature's bounty: Chile, Malaysia, Indonesia and Botswana. at is a dismal record. A large surge of money gushing into a fragile state will almost always break it, not make it. Only a handful of truly resource-rich nations have made it all the way through the obstacle course to become First World countries: the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. (Nor way sits atop a gusher of oil, but it was rich before it found the black gold in the 1960s.) e common Anglo origins of these successful countries hint at one of the explanations for their success. e neo-Britains imported a ready-made set of helpful habits and institutions -- a concept of citizens' rights protected in the common law, the rudiments of parliamentary democracy, an independent judiciary, the right to private property, a strong work ethic and the structures for capitalist risk-taking. And, in starting afresh, these new societies also managed to leave behind some of the worst aspects of their colonial mother. We shrugged o the ruinous British class system, developing an aristocracy of merit rather than rule by an entitled idiocy. Egalitarianism is a deep well of national strength. is constellation of forces created strong states that were able to extract vast natural wealth without destroying their society and their economies in the process. Yet even the few societies, like Australia's, that managed to build a successful country in a resource- rich land remain under constant threat from man- made economic disaster. e US is a case in point. Apparently unassailable only a decade ago, it is now an enfeebled giant. US unemployment stands at 9.7 percent, against Australia's 5.3 percent. Child poverty in America was 20 percent even before the recession, against 12 percent in Australia. In sum, a bounty of resources is neither a su cient condition nor even a necessary condition of national wealth. Indeed, if we relied on minerals and energy alone, we'd be a developing country. Mining and energy, even in the midst of a commodities boom, young and Australia is second only to Norway in enjoying the best living conditions on the planet.