How ‘special’ is Australia?

By October 9, 2019Other

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…

Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Don, your’s are the observations and opinions of an affluent, middle-class academic. Mine agree with yours, as my life experience has been similar, but they in no way reflect the attitudes of those less fortunate, whose opinions, with apologies to the demographers, are probably under-represented. However, I suspect that the ready availability of generous welfare benefits would weigh heavily in their assessments, and would probably be reflected in the rankings.

  • BoyfromTottenham says:

    Hi Don,
    Thanks for another interesting article! As the son of a ‘ten pound Pom’, I am very happy that my parents left the UK in the 60s and came here – life has been good to my whole family since then. Reading your article I note that it rests on the use of statistical averages for income, crime, employment, etc., which of course hide regional differences in all these parameters. Maybe Australia has less variation from the average than many other countries – US wealth, crime and health are distributed quite differently, for example. Just a thought. Best regards,

  • Aynsley Kellow says:

    Interesting. Pleased to see you are using PPP comparisons – the late great Ian Castles would approve!

    There is a need for caution, of course. Ian pulled up the World Bank for incorrectly using MERs in its Words Development Report, which accentuated apparent global inequality. The Bank replied that they knew it was wrong, but the President, James Wolfensohn. liked the result it gave. (Of course, Ian and David Henderson caught the IPCC pulling the same trick in the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios).

    Another big problem arises with tax havens like Ireland, which has now given up using GDP and uses a modified GNI, thanks to use of devices like a ‘Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich’, which Investopedia describes thus:

    The scheme involves sending profits first through one Irish company, then to a Dutch company, and finally to a second Irish company headquartered in a tax haven.
    The first Irish company would receive large royalties from sales sold to U.S. consumers. The U.S. profits and therefore taxes, are dramatically lowered and the Irish taxes on the royalties are very low. Due to a loophole in Irish laws, the company can then transfer its profits tax-free to the offshore company, where they can remain untaxed for years.
    The second Irish company is used for sales to European customers. It is also taxed at a low rate and can send its profits to the first Irish company using a Dutch company as an intermediary. If done right, there is no tax paid anywhere. The first Irish company now has all the money and can again send it onward to the company in the tax haven.
    In 2017, Google reportedly transferred 19.9 billion euros or roughly $22 billion through a Dutch company, which was then forwarded to an Irish company in Bermuda. Companies pay no taxes in Bermuda.

    Irish GDP is inflated! So too Luxembourg, though its wealth is very high anyway. When you realise this, and that EU President Juncker devised its tax haven strategy and that it is still a net EU beneficiary, you begin to understand the Brexiteers.

  • Aert Driessen says:

    Thanks Don, as a general rule I always like to leave a comment because I hope that keeps you writing. But for me, nothing much to discuss here. I was born in Hong Kong from Dutch parents and I and my younger pre-war sister came to Australia from HK to go to catholic boarding schools in Australia in 1952. I also played rugby and that is where you learn to ‘suck-it-up’, as a way of life. My parents never lived here but retired back to Holland. I have never left, married an Australian girl, graduated, and we raised 4 wonderful children, all now successful and financially independent. Where else could you do that? Australia for me is, without any doubt the best country in the world. For freedom and quality of life on even a very modest wage, no other country comes close, and certainly not Holland. And I also think that Canberra is the world’s best kept secret, and long may it stay that way. But I can make a ‘horizontal slice’ time comparison. The 60’s decade was the best. I wouldn’t like to raise a family now in our ‘woke world’ where most people who should be celebrating their good fortune are looking for any excuse to feel offended. Oh well …….

    • JMO says:

      Agreed Aert. My parents were 10 pound poms and I was born in Australia shortly after they emigrated from UK. It is due to them I was born in one of the best countries if not best. I went to uni, met my future wife, got married and once we had my first child decided to move to Canberra, the best place to be in the best country, effectively improving on my parents’ past great decision. We then had 2 more children. All now have jobs and we are retired and have stayed put as have our children. Not going anywhere, despite this Labor-Green socialist government.

  • Chris Warren says:

    I would have put at least some of the special nature of Australia down to our political institutions. Our Hare Clarke and Robson rotation plus the fact that we have compulsory elections means we are not confronted with some of the social and political problems in the USA and UK.

    If you get the political institutions right – you avoid a lot of problems down the track.

  • Frank Carter says:

    Australia is not special in any way. In fact there is no other country in the world as racist as this country. I am thoroughly ashamed to be Australian.

  • John Stankevicius says:

    This is concerning. Behind Spain, Russia and South Korea in the income comparisons.Spain has over taken from a long way back in the ,80, Russia after it collapse in 1989, and finally South Korea overtaking us with all of that industry – could someone explain why it took them that long to overtake us. There is no way Adelaide is a top ten city. Our city encourages communist style monstrosities to be built in our climate with no verandas, cooling, space and green areas. This is man made climate heating. Added to this is the loss of real jobs manufacturing with the rise of effiminate “jobs” such as NDIS.
    Dumbing down of education and the creeping blundering of the work force eg higher education jobs.
    We have not improved our living boundaries since Playford. We have invaded the hills where the greenies live and reduced their cooling effects, increased fire hazard and they tell me it’s environmental.

    We stop everything that improves our lives, creates real jobs and increases intellectual vigorous eg no oil search in the bight, no use for uranium or thorium.
    No great advancement in water technology, changing climate to improve inner Aus, etc
    No adventure what so ever.

  • Boambee John says:


    As Donald Horne said so many years ago, “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck. It lives on other people’s ideas, and, although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”

    Our current leaders would be lucky to be considered fourth rate by Horne’s standard. They follow every fad from around the world in a classic cultural cringe, afraid to question any of them for fear of being considered provincial or parochial.

    Australia was once special in its good fortune. It is now “special” in the abysmal policies blindly followed by our leaders. See climate change, mass immigration and many more.

Leave a Reply