In the old iconography of the British Empire, Britannia was often pictured as a trident-bearing imperatrix with a pet lion, surrounded by shapely young shieldmaidens representing important dominions such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Canada was portrayed as the older sister, since Confederation in 1867 pre-dated the equivalents in the other dominions. Canada’s lead positioning continued through much of the Twentieth Century, with Canada making a bigger contribution to the world wars than Australia and getting invited to clubs like the G7.
Yukonomist just spent a week visiting a client in Sydney, however, and has been forced to admit that the Australians are on the make. While Canada seems to be passing through a prolonged period of treading water, the Australians are up to all kinds of things.
The most obvious was that Australia was in the World Cup in South Africa, while Canada had been knocked out by Jamaica and Central American powerhouse Honduras, whose population is about the same as Quebec’s.
On the geopolitical front, the Australians have also been invited to the adult table via the G20, which one of the Australian papers described as a “major win.” This feels good after years of fuming as obscure Canadian prime ministers peered out smugly from between Bill Clinton and Francois Mitterrand at G7 photo ops.
A couple of months ago, Australia usurped Canada’s self-appointed role as mid-sized international deal broker by appearing as a driving force behind the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This aims to be a new free trade zone involving countries such as the US, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Vietnam and so on.
Canada has pointedly not been invited, according to the Toronto Globe and Mail. The problem is that the Canadian government remains unable to do the right thing and liberalize our restrictions on cheese and other agricultural products due to the improbable political power of the marketing boards and their friends.
Canadian tariffs on dairy products are effectively 200-300 per cent, according to various annoyed foreign governments. The director of international trade for the Dairy Farmers of Canada was quoted as claiming that “If you were to fully liberalize dairy between Canada and New Zealand, it would devastate the whole Canadian dairy industry” in the Globe article.
The point isn’t so much about cheese as about the power of the status quo in Canada. Besides cheese quotas, other examples include the Monarchy, the Senate, the absence of a national securities regulator, meaningful climate change policy, oilsands royalties, stasis in the public education system and so on.
If you look at the Australian papers, what is remarkable is how much is going on. They tried to axe the Queen a few years ago, but the referendum was defeated 55 per cent to 45 per cent. However, I wouldn’t bet on Charles lasting long as King of Australia when Elizabeth passes away. Their Senate is elected, and they abolished first-past-the-post voting years ago.
They have introduced a major tax reform to capture more of the value of public resources extracted by the mining industry. The prime minister, Kevin Rudd, eventually lost his job over the proposal but his successor is proceeding with a watered-down (but still significant) version. Meanwhile, in Canada, it is not at all clear that the public is getting an adequate share of the oilsands billions.
The Australians have also been able to introduce climate-change legislation. It doesn’t go far enough for many greens, but it sure beats the non-policy we have in Canada. Cap and trade legislation was introduced in Parliament earlier this year, although the government is being cagey about implementation dates as it negotiates internationally.
At the state level, there are also lots of things going on. The reforms to public education in the state of Victoria are very interesting, where the Australians seem to have struck a balance between some of the neo-conservative schemes around linking bonuses to test scores we see in the United States, and the extreme incrementalism we see in Canadian provinces. For example, they are introducing formal constructive feedback for teachers from colleagues and even students in some school systems, and now have comprehensive reviews of individual schools by independent experts who work with school managers.
On health, the government is trying to end the “blame game” by sorting out federal and state roles in funding hospitals. This has been controversial, but the government continues to push ahead.
Australia is not perfect, and many of the initiatives above have had hiccups. But compared to the deadening cocktail of complacency and inaction we get from Canadian leaders, it looks like Australia is going to be a place to watch for the next few years.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s