Does Australian happiness have a downside? For me, it did

Great food, great weather, Great Southern Land. But do you pay a price for living in The Lucky Country?

Column LAST UPDATED AT 13:14 ON Tue 28 May 2013

AUSTRALIA, as every tourist knows, is nicknamed 'The Lucky Country'. From the outside – and often from the inside – it seems an appropriate label for a continent illuminated by constant sunshine; a place where the tanned, healthy inhabitants appear to live out their lives scoffing seafood on pristine beaches.

It is little wonder that Australia has been voted the world's happiest nation for the third year in a row. Using criteria including income, jobs, housing and health, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development says the Great Southern Land is easily the happiest of the 36 industrialised nations included in its survey. The UK – the 'mother country' many Australians enjoy thrashing at cricket, rugby and any other pursuit including quality of life - came in tenth.

I had heard Australia described as The Lucky Country when I migrated to Sydney in 1988. It was only later, that I discovered the phrase – which was coined in the 1960s by the Australian historian Donald Horne – was originally an indictment rather than a compliment.

"Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck," wrote Horne in a line from what would become his best-known book. He lamented a country that didn't think for itself and was shackled -  an appropriate phrase given Australia's convict origins – to its past.

Horne's irony has been all but forgotten in the intervening years. Modern Australia seems like the luckiest punter in the global casino: a resource-rich powerhouse which has enjoyed 21 years of expansion without a recession.

Just 5.5 per cent of Australians were unemployed in April, compared to 12.1 per cent in the Eurozone. China's voracious appetite for Aussie iron ore and other minerals has shown some tentative signs of easing in recent months, but most commentators are confident the economic boom will last for years.

So, what's the downside of living in what some Australians call 'Godzone'? If you're part of the top 20 per cent of Australia's population living off an estimated $US58,409 per year, it's hard to find one. But the popular notion of Australia as a classless society masks a deepening divide between the haves and have-nots. The bottom 20 per cent of society – the part you don't see jet-skiing on water the colour of sapphires – live on incomes of less than $US10,323.

Unlike London, where rich and poor often live in close proximity, Australia's 'strugglers' tend to be pushed to the fringes; the fringes of the cities and the fringes of the land itself. In prosperous Sydney, the remnants of an Aboriginal community in inner-city Redfern cling on in tenacious defiance of the bulldozer of gentrification.

Having moved back to London just over a year ago, I would not hesitate to say Australia is an easier, more comfortable place to live. The ingredients of happiness assessed by the OECD – wealth, health and general wellbeing – are more easily obtained there.

If there's a downside to living in The Lucky Country, it's this: becoming a lotus-eater is dangerously seductive. Weekends spent in the surf, at barbeques and outdoor parties accompanied by the crack of an electric mossie killer, are a kind of paradise. But everything has a price and for me, I suspect, it was peaceful apathy.    · 

Disqus - noscript

When I first read that Australia had one that award my first thought was "I bet they didn't ask the indigenous people about their happiness".

When we spent five weeks in OZ in 2003, we were amazed by the general contempt for indigenous people, and the sense that they had no regard for the beauty of their surroundings. It was like an Essex council estate in the fifties.Such a pity, because it is a stunningly beautiful country.