Some little time ago one of our leaders made an assertion that Australia was ‘special’, but did not give much of an explanation of what he meant or why it was so, or why anyone should care. In what way is our country ‘special’? Compared to which other country or countries? Of course, we are special in where we are situated on the globe, but that’s not what was being implied, I think. So I had a look at the data to see how special we were and are.
Wealth? Australia is the world’s 14thrichest country, just after Spain, Russia and South Korea and a little ahead of Mexico, Indonesia and the Netherlands. What does that tell us? Not much. It’s wealth (here measured by gross domestic product) divided by population that gives you a better feel for what it is like to live anywhere. There are lists, but they too come with complications. Australia is 17thaccording to the International Monetary Fund, 21staccording to the World Bank, and 20thaccording to the CIA (source here is Wikipedia). None of these figures makes our nation look at all special. But you need to remember with whom we are comparing ourselves. For example, the richest country in terms of GDP/capita seems to be Qatar at $130,000: we are a miserable $52,000. Oh, but Qatar’s one of the oil-producing emirates, isn’t it? Well yes, and the UAE, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia are all ahead of us. So are a few tiny places that attract people with big incomes, mostly because the mini-nations have favourable tax laws for the rich, like Liechtenstein, Luxembourg and Monaco. What about realcountries, you ask, you know, countries like us?
Well, Ireland, Norway, Switzerland and the Netherlands are all perceptibly ahead of us in terms of GDP/capita. So is the USA. Close to us is a group of countries: Iceland, Taiwan, Sweden, Germany, Denmark and Canada; all of which have GDP/capita figures within five per cent of Australia’s. Belgium’s is just a bit lower. That seems to suggest that we are sort of in the middle of the well-off countries. To expand the list, you can add 18 countries with GDP/capita figures between $30,000 and $40,000, another 18 scoring $20,000 to $29,000, 43 scoring between $10,000 and $19,000, 28 between $5,000 and $19,000, and more then fifty countries with even smaller GDP/capita figures. The CIA says that Somalia is the poorest of all, but has no figure, not even an estimate, while the World Bank ($726) and the IMF ($712) plump for the Central African Republic. They don’t even have Somalia in their lists.
What about ‘liveability’, ‘freedom, security, and the old demographics, like life expectancy, infant mortality and the rest? The UN has a Human Development Index that includes educational attainment as well, and measures ‘the average person’s [life] experience’. Here the top ten countries include Australia at #3. Norway is #1, the Netherlands #10, and the differences between the ten countries are very small. Another method is to concentrate on cities, because that is where most people live — and where it’s easiest to collect good data, I would imagine.
The Global Liveability Index looks at health care, education, infrastructure, stability and culture in 140 cities. Thirty factors in all give a city a weighted score between 0 and 100. The most recent ranking (The EconomistIntelligence Unit) put Vienna first, and Melbourne second, though Melbourne had been top for seven years in a row. Sydney, Osaka, Calgary and Vancouver in that order followed Melbourne, and Adelaide made the tenth position. US cities did poorly, Honolulu ranking 22nd, Seattle 36th and NYC 58th. There seems to be something to be said for Australia and Canada, even if their wealth per person is less than that of the USA, let alone that of Qatar.
And what would that something be? Why does Australia do so well in ‘liveability’? Something called Student Cities Australia gives the nod to ‘plenty of space, warm weather and economic prosperity’. It also goes for Melbourne because of its ‘cheap, efficient public transport’. My guess it is a combination of factors, like the health system, the urban transport system, the education system, the capacity to find part-time work, and the wide range of educational institutions that gives Australia such high status. Canada is similar, though I can’t speak so confidently about it, because things have changed there since I was a frequent visitor.
What about violence, homicide and the rest of the nasties? Here there are too many factors to produce a simple, single figure. The UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime ranks countries in terms of ‘intentional homicide’ (=murder), and to its data can be added what the World Health Organisation and some other national and international bodies say. The result is a conglomerate, and not much more than estimates, I think. There are some dangerous places to live, but Australia, at 0.8 murders per 100,000 people, is not one of them. South Africa offers nearly 40 per 100,000, with Jamaica, at 57 per 100,000, appearing to top the list. With smaller murder rates than us are New Zealand and Spain (0.7), Switzerland and Norway (0.5), Luxembourg (0.3). Hong Kong (0.3), Indonesia (0.4) and Japan (0.2) are all lower than us.
Switch the index around, and Australia appears as the 13th most peaceful country, with Iceland leading the race. After Iceland there’s not a lot of difference between the scores of the top twenty or so countries, which include what we would call the ‘Western developed countries’ along with Bhutan and Malaysia. In fact, given the roughness of the estimates, Europe generally seems peaceful, the Middle East and Africa notably unpeaceful, the USA falling into that category too.
Sexual violence is a data problem as well as a real problem. Rape is under-reported everywhere, and yet even the reported figures are high: South Africa is said to have half a million per year, the UK almost as many. Where does Australia sit? Around 6,300 in the 2008-2010 period, and that is actually a high rate, around 30 per 100,00. At least it seemed to be decreasing. New Zealand is similar, so is Belgium and the USA. Sweden was around 63 per 100,000. My own feeling is that the data are so spotty that not much can be made of the comparisons. There are lots of empty cells in the big table. Nonetheless, what little we have does not show Australia as being special in any positive way.
Where does all that leave us? It seems to me that Australia is one of a number of countries where it is pretty safe to live, where the standard of living is high, where infrastructure, health, education and social welfare are widely available, and where the rule of law actually works, much of the time. But it doesn’t stand out somehow as the best of all possible countries. We all become used to the notion that our country is special: we know its history, its culture, its language, its heroes and villains. I’ve lived in England and the USA, visited Canada a great deal, and New Zealand rather less. They are all similar in many respects. Once you get used to the peculiarities, it’s easy to live in any of them, and life there is not all that different to life in Australia.
Of course, there’s the weather, the beach…