ABC The Drum

As brutal as America's societal failures have been, in many ways the US outpaces Australia in progressive reforms, writes

On his recent visit to Australia, the American Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz was scathing in his assessment of his homeland.

"Countries that imitate the American model are kidding themselves," he told Fairfax, highlighting the US health care and education sectors as being particular failures.

If Australia were to imitate the United States, it could expect more inequality and worse results, Stiglitz said.

"You have to say that the American market model has failed."

Stiglitz's words will be welcomed by those who have long suspected that the United States is a harsher, more ruthless, and less egalitarian society than our own. Australian Sarah Burnside drew similar conclusions to Stiglitz in a recent article called, "Why 'American' is a bad word in Australia". She wrote:

"America" has become a signifier for low wages, high inequality, and inaccessible healthcare and higher education.

There are also now fears that this "America" represents not simply an alternative way of organising society, but a harbinger of our future — the inevitable end point of the past 30 to 40 years of the market-driven policies embraced by both of our major political parties.

Guy Rundle has also warned that the Australian Government's most recent budget might be indicative of a "decisive political-cultural shift in Australia, towards a more individualistic/class-fragmented way of life, in which the poor are seen — US style — as 'other'".

Clearly, unless we're talking about small bars or burger spots, "US style" is something Australians have firmly decided we would like to avoid.

But as brutal as America's societal failures have been — and in some cases, as Stiglitz points out, they have been very harsh indeed — there are many areas in which Australia is far less progressive than its closest ally. We should not feel we need to race America to the bottom when it comes to the minimum wage or access to quality heath care, but that does not justify smug complacency about our own superiority.

This past May, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts marked the 10th anniversary of the first gay marriage performed in the United States. Since then, 18 more states and the District of Columbia have legalised same sex unions, spreading equal rights to more than 137 million Americans.

In at least 11 more states, including deeply conservative areas like Utah and Oklahoma, courts have found bans on gay marriage to be unconstitutional, but have stayed their rulings pending appeal.

In Australia, however, not a single jurisdiction recognises same-sex marriage. The closest an Australian state has come is when Tasmania's legislative council rejected a marriage equality bill passed by that state's lower house. A 2013 ACT law was struck down by the High Court. When the federal government considered the question in 2012, the lower house rejected it by a two-to-one vote.

And it is not just marriage equality on which Australia lags the United States.

Last week, the state of Washington issued its first licenses for the legal sale of marijuana. Cannabis has been legal in Colorado since the beginning of the year.

Further, marijuana has been legal for medical purposes in California for close to two decades. All up, 23 states and the District of Columbia permit residents to use cannabis medicinally, following an abundance of evidence for the benefits of the drug in treating certain severe and chronic conditions.

Yet, as with same-sex marriage, in Australia medical marijuana remains verboten. It is to Australia's credit that it never followed the United States into the worst excesses of the war on drugs, but it is to our shame that we are so stubborn in preserving prohibition.

Even on the hot-button issue of abortion rights, Australia is left behind by the United States, despite the efforts of conservative American legislators to place increasingly onerous restrictions on abortion clinics.

Yet, because of the Supreme Court's 1973 ruling in Roe v Wade, every single American woman has a constitutional right to access legal abortion. Even the 1992 Planned Parenthood v Casey decision, which enabled states to place greater regulations on that right, left it largely intact.

By contrast, on reproductive choice, Australia mistakes peace for liberty. Abortion remains a criminal act in many Australian states, with exceptions that US courts would consider far too limited to pass constitutional muster in their jurisdiction.

Prosecutions for performing illegal abortions are not unheard of in Australia, and, for instance, Tasmania and the Northern Territory ban most abortions at a much earlier point during a pregnancy than even the most conservative US states — 16 and 14 weeks, compared to a possibly unconstitutional 20. Even liberal Victoria places strict limits on procedures that take place after the 24-week mark.

The United States and Australia share similar origins and have learned a great deal from one another throughout their histories. Joseph Stiglitz is right that there is much about contemporary America that Australia would be sorely mistaken to imitate. But the United States is far more progressive than Australia in many other regards.

In a whole lot of ways, Australia would be a better place if it were a little more American.

This article was originally published at ABC The Drum