You are here

Australia - A Sweden of the South?

By Vern Hughes:

Since the 1960s, the Scandinavian model of social inclusion, economic co-operation and political consensus-seeking has been cited around the world as the stand-out, practical, real-life alternative to both free market capitalism and centralized socialism. For many people who are disheartened by the brutal winner-take-all politics of English-speaking nations, the five countries of Scandinavia (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland) have been a beacon of social inclusion, intellectual moderation, sexual equality and economic partnership.

Given the affection which many Australians have towards the Scandinavian way of doing things, it is surprising that social reformers here have not exploited this synergy. We value openness as the Scandinavians do. We have a love of the outdoors and nature as Nordic people do. We pioneered sexual equality along with New Zealand and the Scandinavians. We were innovators in democracy in the 19th century, like the Nordic countries. We have a down-to-earth non-pretentious culture which, at its best, values loyalty and relationships over personal indulgence and conspicuous wealth (conspicuous private wealth is still culturally frowned upon in the Nordic countries to a remarkable degree).

At various points in the last half century, the Scandinavian model – and Sweden, in particular – have been proposed as directions for Australian public policy and social reform. When industrial democracy and economic collaboration were talked about in the 1970s and 1980s, it was the Swedish and Finnish models that were discussed. The ACTU’s Prices and Incomes Accord during the Hawke-Keating period was drawn from Swedish and Norwegian historical experience. When alternatives to our military dependence on the USA were explored in the 1980s, it was Swedish and Finnish neutrality that caught our interest. As second-wave feminism gave way to practical issues of sexual partnership, it was Iceland, Denmark and Sweden that were pace-setters. As our public schools began to fall behind in the 1990s, it was the Finnish education system that beckoned.

In the 1980s, I first came across the term ‘Sweden of the South’. It referred to an Australian take-up of the Swedish model of economic and social inclusion. This was popular for a period with some Australian economists, trade unionists, and feminists. Some in the peace movement took it up in the late 1980s as Sweden stood outside NATO and military entanglement with the United States in a nuclear stand-off with the Soviet Union. Adult education groups discovered Sweden’s extensive system of adult and further education. Reformers in areas such as illicit drug use, prostitution and crime embraced the Swedish model in these areas.

Why didn’t this trend find its expression in the Australian Democrats? On the surface, the Democrats (1977-2003) might appear to have been a likely proponent of Scandinavian centrism. The late Senator John Siddons was a fervent advocate of employee ownership of firms and industrial democracy. He was joined in the 1990s by Senator Andrew Murray from WA. And the party always favoured reform of our Westminster parliamentary system to extend proportional representation and create a more diverse and representative system of contending political parties.
But in the main, the prevailing social libertarianism of the 1980s and 1990s ran counter to the consensual egalitarianism and inclusion of the Scandinavians. Advocacy of industrial democracy and learning circles in firms, family co-operatives in social policy, and recognition of natural relationships and mutual supports in disability and mental health require more than a culture of parliamentary amendment and protest: they demand a culture of creating practical alternatives in society and building social participation in these arrangements. This was a step too far for the Democrats – the party never managed to make the transition from ‘keeping the bastards honest’ to constructing social and economic arrangements that kept the bastards out of power and influence.

Today, the Scandinavian model stands as clearly as ever as an alternative to the political paralysis and division that has engulfed the Western world. A Donald Trump or a Jeremy Corbyn are both inconceiveable in the five Nordic countries. While parliamentary stagnation and division in Australia, the US and the UK reach record levels, Sweden continues its 40 year practice of Almedalen, where 20,000 political leaders and party members across the spectrum gather on the island of Gotlund for a week-long summer camp of discussions, talks and shared recreation. Can Australians imagine anything like this in our politics?

When Australian voters are asked in opinion polls what they expect of their politicians, they consistently indicate a preference for something like Almedalen, that is, they expect their representatives to work together for the common good without partisan divisions or game-playing. The trouble is, our Westminster system of duopoly ensures they never get it.

In 2018 there is a huge vacuum in the centre of Australian politics for an electoral force that represents the Scandinavian way of doing things – a ‘Sweden of the South’. Can such an electoral force emerge? In several key areas, the residual Left and Right still stand in the way.

On immigration, refugees and social cohesion, the Scandinavian countries do not favour open entry to their nations. They acknowledge limits to diversity, and limits to their capacity to absorb immigrants and refugees into the social mainstream. Denmark, Norway and Sweden have in recent years reduced their intake of new settlers. Sweden has curtailed welfare allocations to asylum seekers and now restricts jobs for immigrants to positions that can't be filled by native Swedes. Australia can learn from this typically Scandinavian pragmatism. Most of the centre left in Australian politics is reluctant to embrace a similar stance, as if there is something morally deficient in limiting the entry of immigrants and refugees. Australians can surely learn from the Scandinavians that limiting immigration in the name of social cohesion is perfectly legitimate for a nation that values cohesion and participation.

On economic collaboration and industrial co-operation, the Scandinavians have been prepared to subjugate ideological positions (free markets and protection of local industry) to more fundamental and enduring commitments to shared ownership and governance in industry. Imagine the Australian debate on corporate tax cuts if an Australian party proposed that companies (big and small) with more than 50% ownership by their employees would receive big tax cuts and exemptions from land and payroll tax. Imagine the debate on energy if we proposed to transfer the operating licences of energy retailers to co-operatives of consumers and small businesses. Imagine the debate on Medicare if we proposed the Dutch model of health reform, whereby citizens may choose one of several competing health mutuals to meet 100% of their health needs (a Catholic mutual, a New Age mutual based on natural and complementary health, a sports and outdoor living mutual, an indigenous mutual based on traditional culture, and so on).

On partnership between the sexes, the Scandinavian countries have a cultural tradition of celebrating children and building child-centred communities, which has shaped their feminism. Compared to countries in the Anglosphere, the family unit is relatively strong in the Nordic countries - Sweden has the highest birth rate in Europe, Italy has the lowest. Australian feminists can learn a great deal from Scandinavian feminism, rejecting the anti-family feminism that is prominent in English-speaking countries and embedding egalitarian partnership between the sexes in daily life, and a celebration of children in the culture.

Individualised funding, or use of ‘vouchers’ in service delivery has tended to be anathema to ‘progressives’ in the Anglosphere, but Sweden has the highest use of vouchers of any country in the world. It has embedded individualised funding arrangements throughout its welfare state. This has resulted in greater ownership of social provision through taxation than in countries like Australia where political parties tend to use social programs as vote-buying dispensations to passive disengaged 'clients'. Extended individualized funding arrangements in service delivery in Australia would strengthen ownership of social service provision by consumers, and shift the balance of power from providers to consumers.

On drugs, the Scandinavian countries have been pragmatically sceptical of the overblown ‘war on drugs’. They have been prepared to experiment and learn from the results. In the 1980s Sweden decriminalized several illicit drugs, in expectation that drug use would go down. Twenty years later, when drug use had increased, Sweden reversed its position, moving to mandatory rehabilitation for users of several illicit drugs and re-criminalisation of dealers. Australians can learn from this pragmatism. Ideology should always be subservient to evidence of what works.

And on defence and foreign policy, the Nordic countries have maintained an ethic of independent military self-reliance, sceptical of entangling military alliances, which is backed up by compulsory military service for young people. All the Scandinavian countries integrate their military forces into civil society in the interests of comprehensive security planning and to prevent the development of a separatist military caste that stands apart from the rest of society. Both Left and Right in Australia have tended to not take military self-reliance and independence seriously - a consequence of our ongoing 'cultural cringe' which drives, still, our military dependence on the United States. Our peace movement and our defence forces have tended to live in different cultural universes – the Scandinavian tradition of inclusion and participation has demanded their collaboration.
Is this too big a jump for Australian political activists and social change movements? Can we build on our tradition to embody a clear alternative to neo-liberal capitalism and big government socialism that is radically centrist and radically Australian? Can we be the ‘Sweden of the South’?

The original article by Vern Hughes