First published in The Daily Telegraph, April 23, 2013
MAYBE it’s because the author is a friend, but there is a buzz around a book by Nick Cater, The Lucky Culture, that feels like a defining moment in the Australian narrative. For instance, when Rupert Murdoch was in Sydney recently, Cater, a senior editor at The Australian, handed him a copy as he was leaving for the airport. By the time Murdoch got back to New York he was so taken with the book he asked for 10 copies to be sent over.
The Lucky Culture is a migrant’s ode to the adopted country he has loved since childhood. Cater, 54, chose to move here as an adult in the late 1980s, finding it “tremendously liberating” after what he describes as a lower-middle-class upbringing in Britain: “There is no recourse to status. In this country everyone gets a fair go. There are no institutional barriers to success.”
And yet over the past 20 years something has changed.
Cater’s thesis, formed during the 2010 election, is that Australia has become increasingly polarised, not between right and left, but between people he calls the insiders and the outsiders.
A new ruling class of university-educated “progressives”, “sophisticates”, “elites” and “latte-sippers” have emerged as an un-Australian clique trying to lord it over everyone else. Controlling media, law, education and the political class, they threaten Australia’s great egalitarian democratic project: “For the first time there were people who did not simply feel better off but were better than their fellow Australians. They were cosmopolitan and sophisticated, well read (or so they would have us believe) and politically aware. This was not the classless society I had signed up to join.”
Cater set out to explore the polarisation but the book grew into something much bigger – an optimistic and affirming evaluation of the country he now calls home.
The book’s insights probably could only have come from a newcomer, seeing with fresh eyes what native-born citizens take for granted. For instance, while Australians might have come to accept our convict past without embarrassment, Cater goes further, describing it as an inspirational tale of redemption: “An obsession with the convict stain has obscured the colony’s uplifting moral purpose as a place of rehabilitation. Until (historian) Manning Clark trussed colonial history in a Marxist straitjacket, Australia was considered the Enlightenment’s most audacious experiment, an attempt to build a civilisation on a continent that had yet to be introduced to cultivation. It has succeeded beyond all expectation.”
His title refers to the 1964 book The Lucky Country, in which Donald Horne famously asserted Australia was run by “second rate people who share its luck”.
Cater’s sees Australia as “an exceptional country, populated by exceptional people skilled at making their own luck. When fortune smiles, it is not by chance or benevolence, it is the dividend of an investment of human ingenuity, enterprise and energy.
“Australians have been forging their own destiny for over 200 years; they subscribe to the idea of progress.”
But Australian egalitarianism is threatened by the assumption that “some citizens, the educated ones, are smarter than the rest, and that therefore their opinions should carry more weight”.
He traces the rise of the new insider class to the extraordinary expansion of higher education from the late ‘50s, in which the number of universities doubled – and became “degree factories”.
The unintended consequence was the creation of an “intelligentsia with a narrower, more homogenous” outlook, marked by a “progressive world view, snobbery and self righteousness”.
The intellectual class has for almost half a century “misrepresented Australia’s history, misread its present, misjudged its people and projected a miserable vision of the future”, while maligning “patriotism as akin to racism”.
Australia is not a race or an ethnicity or a constitution. It is an idea, and thus exquisitely vulnerable to the narrative that is drawn for it.
I spent a good deal of my youth in American schools, reading American children’s books and absorbing American mythology. Every story, from George Washington to the Bobbsey Twins, reinforced the idea of America the Good.
Australians have never bothered ourselves with American-style displays of overt patriotism. Our reticence is an admirable quality, up to a point. But in all our embarrassment about excessive pridefulness, we have vacated the ground where patriotism used to define who we are, and left it to the sneerers and the wreckers. Cater’s book is the spiritual sustenance our maligned nation needs.The Lucky Culturr should be on the curriculum of every high school history class, along with the complete works of Geoffrey Blainey.