News that Australia has, for the second year in a row, come second — behind Norway — in the United Nations’ Development Program’s Human Development Index is an opportunity for reflection.

The Human Development Report is autonomous publication with editorial autonomy guaranteed by the UN General Assembly.  Written by panels of development scholars and practitioners, it attempts go beyond mere income and productivity by assessing human well-being through analysis of life spans, quality of life, access to knowledge and standards of living.

At this point, one might take a step back and remember the controversy about Australia’s alleged population crisis, purportedly putting the country under strain, with the prospect of a social breaking points just around the corner.  What about Dick Smith’s claims that Australia’s “cities are clogged, our public transport is failing and our hospitals are stressed”?  Well, as it turns out, everything must be relative — whatever Australians may fear, perceive or experience, it is not showing any adverse impact on the country’s HDI rating.

On the other hand, some Aussies may feel outrage that Godzone could possibly be drubbed into silver place by Norway — NORWAY — a country that is neither wide nor brown, with scarcely a beach or barbie in sight.     They don’t play cricket and they didn’t even fight in the Great War.  And lifestyle — ha!  Who ever heard of a decent Norwegian pinot?  And how many Norwegians have ever won an Oscar for playing a British writer while wearing a prosthetic nose?  And as for the weather! Arctic circle, my arse.

More seriously it is worth considering just how Australia exercises its position of lofty good fortune compared to the HDI gold medallist, Norway.

Let’s start with climate change: in contrast to Australia’s conspicuously dismal performance on climate change in international politics over many years, Norway is an acknowledged leader.  As long ago as 2007, Norway committed (albeit with some tricky fine print) to becoming carbon neutral by 2030.  Norway is also an extraordinarily positive participant in international climate politics, including as the international powerhouse in the struggle to reduce emissions from deforestation in rainforest nations.  Norway has, for example, committed large sums of money to fight deforestation in Guyana, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Brazil and Indonesia.

In terms of international development assistance more generally, in 2010 Norway contributed 1.10% of GDP, while Australia’s contribution is currently at 0.32%.  In domestic terms, Norway is in the top few least unequal societies on earth, finishing around 20 places higher than Australia.  On the Global Peace Index, Norway is currently ranked ninth in the world, while Australia is at 18.  Norway stayed well away from the “Coalition of the Willing” that invaded Iraq — though Oslo was willing to commit a small number of troops to Afghanistan.

Next to the statistics, there are also a few key incidents in recent history that might be seen to tell a certain story.  In 2001, many Norwegians were appalled when the Howard government refused to allow the MV Tampa piloted by Norwegian captain Arne Rinnan, which had rescued more than 400 refugees from a sinking vessel on the high seas, to enter Australian waters.  According to one BBC report, John Howard’s actions made Australia appear “cowardly, cynical and insular” to ordinary Norwegians.

Then, earlier this year, the speech of Norway’s current Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg following the Utøya Island massacre were moving and profound:

I have a message for those who attacked us. And for those who are behind them.

It is a message from the whole of Norway:
You will not destroy us.
You will not destroy our democracy or our commitment to bringing about a better world.
We are a small nation, but we are a proud nation.
No one is going to bomb us into silence.
No one is going to shoot us into silence.
No one is ever going to frighten us away from being Norway.

We must never give up our values.
We must show that our open society can pass this test too.
That the answer to violence is even more democracy.
Even more humanity.
But never naivity.
That is something we owe the victims and their families.

Not for Stoltenberg or his country any shrill recourse to the rolling back of accrued democratic rights and freedoms in the face of terrorism.

Norway is no saint among nations — indeed there is no such thing in the world.  The Norwegian copy-book is, for example, blotted by the country’s reliance on fossil fuel extraction and continued allowing of whaling.  Nevertheless, a comparison in global roles and domestic political attitudes between the two sparsely populated nations, both of which are blessed by providence with natural resources and stable geopolitical conditions, should give pause for thought Down Under.