Fugue for a darkening island


WRESAT Tests (Image source: Australian government)

Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck

At the end of WWII my country could make its own aircraft, radar sets, ships and tanks. By 1947 Ben Chifley our war-time prime minister had launched the Snowy Mountain scheme,  and by 1958 we had built HIFAR our first nuclear reactor. In 1967 we were the fourth nation to launch a satellite into orbit, and were pioneering digital computers on the Snowy scheme. So how did a nation that did all these things not because they were easy, but because they were important, end up in a situation where the dying heart of it’s industrial might is considered a few foreign-owned car manufacturing plants in Victoria?

I had in mind in particular the lack of innovation in Australian manufacturing and some other forms of Australian business, banking for example. In these, as a colonial carry over, Australia showed less enterprise than almost any other prosperous industrial society.

Donald Horne

We seem to have lost the ability to imagine a tomorrow different from today, and then to act on that imagining. Instead our future is mapped out by the great and the good as little more than a large open cut mine. Nation building? We’ll have none of that, it’s all about homo-economicus, the citizen defined as consumer and the devil take the hindmost. Energy policy? Why would we need that? We’ve got plenty of coal to burn for another two centuries. Imagination and reflection? No time in the feeding frenzy media cycle that substitutes for informed and rational debate. Nor are our so called business leaders any better, an obsession with short term gain and an unwillingness to take risks has led to our best individuals and their ideas decamping overseas.

The problem is that this century is shaping up to to be even tougher than the last and any nation that lacks imagination, courage and the tenacity to stay the course will just go under. I wish I could report that I think Australians have what it takes to weather the coming storm, but viewing the puerile partisan debates swirling around the latest casualties in a long dying half century of neglectful myopia I am less than optimistic.

3 responses to Fugue for a darkening island

    Mike Flannery 11/02/2014 at 7:03 pm

    I think that Australia may be suffering from a similar problem to the UK. An example of this would be the HS2 (High Speed 2) rail link. When speaking to someone last week about this project, their reply was “why is it important to be able to get to Birmingham (in the Midlands) from London, 20 minutes earlier?” There was no consideration that such infrastructure projects, which typically take upwards of 25 years to fulfill was necessary to us, today.

    I tried to explain that we didn’t want our grandchildren (a generation is typically 35 years apart) to be stuck with the same transport problems we are currently experiencing. In addition, the project itself would greatly improve the economy of not only those areas affected but have a much wider impact during the construction phase as well as when it is completed. However, the person was not convinced as it didn’t improve the quality of his life today, then it wasn’t worth doing.

    I believe we need to develop a deeper interest in the future. Who knows in how many ways it will enrich our current existence and whether or not we approach it positively, it will still happen to us.


    Stephen Spencer 11/02/2014 at 9:42 pm

    I listened today to an ABC podcast of a nuclear power advcoate, who reminded the audience that at many times Australia was at the forefront of the science only to have politics pull the rug. Your comments ring depressingly true.


      Matthew Squair 11/02/2014 at 9:46 pm

      We seem to go through the pain of learning through failure and trial, only to decide in the end that we’ll never do that again. Compare that to the American culture of treasuring their failures as the springboard to success, look at Edison for example.