Not only are the Nordics among the world’s most prosperous nations, they have also dealt with many of the issues that Australia finds so difficult.
As Australia starts to peek at a future beyond COVID-19, where should we look for inspiration on how to take our country, community and politics in a better direction?
Scott Morrison’s inspiration for changes to Australia’s corporate tax system was the United States under Donald Trump.
Education Minister Alan Tudge says we should be more like the United Kingdom because of how they cut (yes cut!) education spending.
Josh Frydenberg told the National Press Club in mid-2020 that the Reagan and Thatcher era was “an inspiration” for how Australia should rebuild after the pandemic despite the drastic inequalities that era generated.
Here’s an idea – let’s look less at countries where you fancy your post-politics ambassadorships and more at countries that consistently produce desirable social outcomes. Shouldn’t Australia instead look to countries such as Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland for policy and political tips?
Not only are the Nordics among the world’s most prosperous, equal and happy nations, but also they have dealt with many of the issues that Australia finds so difficult – work-life balance, tax, industrial relations, climate and energy.
These issues have been tackled far more successfully by Nordic countries, in ways from which Australia can learn.
Indeed, as COVID-19 hit, Australia suddenly started to look a bit Nordic, just with less snow and Volvos. Policies such as free childcare, higher welfare payments and collaboration between unions, business and government often resembled the normal state of affairs in those countries.
When the going got tough last year, Australia boosted unemployment payments. But Denmark’s unemployment payment was already double the rate in Australia before the crisis – and it remains so.
A nod northward
The Danes see such payments as helping workers to seek out suitable work. They don’t demand that welfare recipients go pick fruit with a snide remark that the best welfare is a job: because helping people reskill into jobs they’re good at, and qualified for, leads to more mature-age workers returning to work.
Australia’s brief provision of some free childcare was another nod northward. Nordic governments invest heavily in the early years of children’s lives by directly providing public and community education and care, rather than just raising subsidies to predominantly private, profit-driven providers.
Paid parental leave there is generous – Iceland provides 12 months of paid parental leave. Sweden provides 16, three of which must be taken by fathers. Finland provides schoolchildren with free hot lunches. Remember that the next time you’re rushing to make school lunches.
These policies aren’t in place just because the Nordics are nice. They also help reduce the much greater costs of health and welfare problems later in life. Nordic policies have cut child poverty rates to less than half Australia’s and this results in much lower rates of crime and incarceration.
Norway’s recidivism rate fell to just 20 per cent following reforms in the 1990s that made prisons more humane and recast prison staff as not just guards, but also as role models and mentors. But here, almost half of Australians who are released from jail will be back inside within two years.
Sweden took the wrong health policy response to COVID-19 by not imposing stricter measures to control the virus in its early stages, but this does not nullify Nordic nations’ many economic and social policy successes.
Margot Wallström, the foreign minister of Sweden from 2014 to 2019, initiated and led the introduction of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy, including its adoption into the UN Security Council.
During their two years on the Security Council, Sweden’s representatives consistently asked the question: where are the women? They insisted on representation of women in meetings, in peace negotiations, in peacekeeping operations and as experts briefing the council. As a result, women played, and continue to play, a much greater role in the council.
It’s hardly the first time Nordic diplomacy has had a big impact on the world. In 1967, the Swedish government proposed a conference on complex environmental problems that became the precursor to modern climate negotiations. Since then, consistency has been a hallmark of these countries’ environmental diplomacy and climate policy. As a result, Sweden, Norway and Denmark have a credibility on the world stage that Australia does not.
Australia is more similar to the Nordic countries than many people realise. Our population is of a similar size to their combined populations. Contrary to the stereotype, Nordic people are not all tall, blond cross-country skiers. Generous refugee intakes in the last decade have made the countries more multicultural, and nearly one in every four Swedes is born overseas.
Australian governments love to compare their policy decisions to those of ordinary households. During the pandemic, Australians flocked to IKEA not just to buy furniture and meatballs, but to look at Nordic designs. It’s high time Australian policymakers did the same.
Andrew Scott, professor at Deakin University and convener of the Australia Institute Nordic Policy Centre and Rod Campbell, research director at the Australia Institute, are co-editors of the new book The Nordic Edge: Policy Possibilities for Australia, published July 2 (MUP).