Australia still regularly gets hit with the ‘lucky country’ tag, and maybe to an extent we still meet the criteria. The numbers game has been helping to keep up appearances, with Australia’s overall unemployment rate still sitting around 5.1%, way below the rates being experienced throughout much of Europe. The housing market and GDP are still growing, and while the retail sector’s growth has slowed to more of a snail’s pace for the first time in about 8 years, the base line is, Australia is not in recession. It’s been feared and forewarned time and time again, but the honest truth, at least for the moment is that the majority of Australians are thinking it’s not coming anytime soon. Life in the lucky country bubble has its ups and downs, but for the moment the possibility of a massive downturn downunder isn’t deeply rooted in most Australian’s consciousness, so life is relatively comfortable.
To the rest of the world, and particularly nations like the US where the economy and individuals have taken the brunt of the financial crisis, Australia really didn’t get an equal share of roughing up. This is not to suggest that certain domestic industries have not taken a blow due to reductions in exports or spending, or to ignore the suggestion that there is around 2-3% of the population over the age of 21 living below the poverty line. Economic hardship is a reality for many, and not everyone lives a sun kissed golden Australian lifestyle, but these experiences are more endemic of an overall political environment and deep-seated inequalities, rather than solely caused by the Global Financial Crisis (from hereon – ‘GFC’).
Numbers aside, Australia has managed to establish and hold onto its golden exoticness with great success. While the ability to be self-deprecating is key to the Australian character, there is definitely still domestic recognition of the fact that while we berate ourselves for a laugh, life in Australia, the fondly called arse of the world, can be pretty sweet. Life here comes without a lot of the stresses experienced by many of our neighbours in the Asia Pacific region, making Australia the destination that many within and beyond our region hope to migrate to, and seek refuge in. Racial tensions and figuring out the mechanics of an increasingly multicultural society are realities, but despite this, Australia still offers an opportunity for a better and safer life.
I, just like the next Sydney-sider, regularly bemoan the cost of living in Australia, and particularly in Sydney – Aussies love any excuse for a whinge – but that’s probably because we’re looking for excuses to complain. There is no sugar coating, the cost of living in Sydney is high. According to the results of the fairly recent Economist Intelligence Unit’s survey, both Sydney and Melbourne are in the top 10 most expensive cities in the world to live, at 7th and 8th places respectively. These high costs of living are weighing heavily on the wallets of consumers, with many shopping abroad or online with the strong Aussie dollar. The dollar has just in the past few weeks dipped below parity against the greenback, but it still has enough clout to make international shopping that little bit sweeter. Additionally, the costs of running a business in Australia has also pushed many manufacturers offshore in an attempt to stay on top of their costs.
Having said this, just last week Australia was ranked number one in the annual Better Life Index (compiled by the OECD). Meaning what exactly? That Australia is the happiest industrialised nation in the world. Happy with our jobs, happy with our incomes and happy with our health. While the cost of living is high, Australians also have some of the highest salaries in the OECD. Our earning opportunities and disposable incomes adequately match average outgoings. Every American I’ve met that has been to Australia has complained bitterly about our booze prices – and to an extent I agree – alcoholic drinks are expensive due to high taxes, but with the federal minimum wage at approx 16AUD p/hour, compared with the equivalent in the USA being around 5-9USD, our buying capacity is on par. As a whole, life isn’t cheap, particularly for those living in urban centres, but it’s not enough for a mass exodus from Australian shores because a half decent bottle of Australian red costs $15.
While the ins and outs of exactly why Australia came out of the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) of 2009 probably deserve far more economic analysis than I have the expertise for, a layman’s approach might give some localised bottom line insights, from an regular non-maths mind to another, here goes… The finger can be easily pointed at the resources and mining sector boom as key in keeping the Australian economy cracking along. China, and increasingly India’s demand for our natural resources are currently insatiable, and the economy is definitely feeling this. Additionally, cash injections in 2009 from the Federal government of up to $950AUD per individual went straight into the pockets of around 8.8 million Australians encouraging spending in what could have potentially been quite a stagnant market. The conservative Liberal opposition party has continued to deny the impact of this stimulus package, but giving people spare cash that they didn’t have before, it was like winning the lotto, retail, food and drink were the big winners. Lastly, Australians were simply not as highly leveraged as their counterparts in the US. While at a point Australians could apply for 100% home loans, this was not the norm. A minimum 10% deposit for a house required when applying for a loan is something that was normalised far sooner than it was in the US or the UK – something I believe helped in Australia avoiding a similar foreclosure saga as was seen in the States.
On the whole the attitude towards the impact of the GFC on the creative sector in Australia has been on the whole, positive. Georgia Hill, a Sydney artist, typographer and illustrator expressed her dismay in the high cost of living in Australia’s capital cities for the simple fact that it forces many creatives to work on projects that are often outside of their desired creative pursuit solely in order to remain financially comfortable. On the flip side, she also believes that this has meant that many people are now increasingly multi skilled, ensuring the industry remains well resourced in all new and innovative areas of design and the arts. The competition for roles definitely ramped up during the GFC, which she said was not necessarily a bad thing. The whole industry had to step up a bit, with individuals and businesses increasing and broadening their knowledge base to ensure they stayed attractive to clients. The challenge for individuals in the industry has always been finding steady work, and this was no different during the GFC. Creatives are used to working within limits, be it budget or medium, so when costs have to be cut for a job it’s not something designers love, but as Georgia said, “half the credit comes from making that job happen in the best possible way with the resources you have.” The ethos of over delivering permeated most jobs throughout the GFC.
The 2011 Creative Economy Report Card from the Centre for Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI), based at Queensland University of Technology (QUT), showed emerging markets including digital music, online entertainment, gaming and internet advertising had experienced significant growth since 2005. The industry employs around 5.3% of the Australian workforce and represents around 7% of Australia’s income earnings. Growth, particularly in digital music (800% in the 4 years up to 2010), internet advertising (tripled growth) as examples, has taken place leading up to and during the period encompassing the GFC, something which reflects the vibrancy of the creative sector. Innovation lies at the core of this sector and perhaps it’s the very Australian attitude of giving everyone a ‘fair go’ that has meant that Aussies are really supporting each other and the industry in any way to ensure that people are getting their foot in the door. Maybe it’s also high living costs that encourage even the least known musician and designer to charge for their work rather than working for free – a necessity for financial survival. Hill has suggested that there is a definite ‘cheek to a lot of the successful creative work that is going on here [Australia].’ Her comment references some of the general good natured Australian attitude that allows us to ride the wave and just get on with it, particularly in challenging times. The original use of the term lucky country was actually in the sentence penned by Donald Horne, ‘Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share in its luck.’ Ironically despite the uses of the phrase since then to describe Australia’s successes, this was a criticism of Australia in that day, the 60’s, still shackled to our colonial past. Perhaps now it is more about a recognition that Australia is not a nation born with the silver spoon in its proverbial mouth, rather we try and try and try again, and this doggedness will finally lead to some successes, or at the very least, keeping our heads above water.
The British thespian Miriam Margoyles, recently in Australia was asked what her summary of the Australian identity is, her answer was blatant and true. Maybe it’s just because we drink too much that we’re able to happily just roll through life enjoying the sun, the sand, the warmth and the fact that we’re apparently the lucky country. Life’s not always easy or cheap here, and we are ALL that way down here at the bottom of the world, but overall we’re chipper, possibly wearing some rose tinted glasses. I leave you with Miriam, even though she paints us with all our flaws…
I think of Australians as being ironic, slightly cool in their attitudes, very fair-minded, humorous, generous, occasionally racist, extremely drunken most of the time, that could perhaps be modified a bit. I think it’s a wonderful nation of strong, decent people.
By Lara Ihnatowicz
Lara is a freelance writer and photographer based in Sydney, Australia. Passionate about creating awareness of a more informed and responsible way of life, Lara comes from a diverse background including radio and print production. Her work focuses on food, community, urban development and travel.