northern lights

This book is written in the belief that the nations of Scandinavia and Finland, or Nordic Europe*, do continue to provide important living proof that economically successful, socially fair and environmentally responsible policies can succeed.

Northern Lights: The Positive Policy Example of Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway by Andrew Scott will brighten our national mood, if politicians and bureaucrats would read and learn from the political leadership in these progressive countries.

The book concisely covers, in a scholarly manner, Australia’s history of interest in the policy examples of Nordic Europe. There is a focus on child wellbeing policies, including education; employment and re-skilling, especially for older workers; and, a great chapter on ‘public good’ that looks at taxation and the regulation of natural wealth. This seems particularly important to consider in our resource-rich, Australian context.


For those who think that looking to Nordic Europe is contextually problematic for Australia, Scott points out that these nations have “a combined population of 25 million” which is very similar to our own. Scott rejects the claim that ethnic homogeneity or having less multicultural societies is a factor.  Scott shows that “three of the four Nordic nations have significantly higher acceptance rates of asylum seekers” than Australia, with Sweden and Norway at double the numbers. There are challenges in these countries but a “strong anti-racist record, dating back to Nordic leadership of the anti-Apartheid campaign and generous donations of quality aid” to the poorest nations is indicative of their value system.

I would say that many Australians feel very uncomfortable with changed polices from the Australian government, in recent years, that curtail aid and appear to punish refugees unfairly. It goes against our national myth of egalitarianism or ‘a fair go’ for all. This makes the Nordic example very appealing.

Scott points out that we look to compare ourselves with English-speaking countries, especially Britain and the USA, which have poor social outcomes for health, equality, employment, education and quality of life compared with other nations. Australians work much longer hours and are increasingly working in casualised or part time employment. Our resources boom was poorly managed and the current government is seriously curtailing investment in alternative energy sources. Australians are social democrats by nature and are looking for sensible policy which will do more to enhance the ‘public good’ for all.

The recent election in Queensland, where the radical neoliberal policies of the Newman government were rejected in a stunning dismissal after just one term, are a clear indication that Australians are looking for more balanced, inclusive and sensible policy. The federal government is also polling disastrously with many commentators, even the journalists that usually form the cheer squad, despairing at the dysfunctional policy agenda.  Article after article lists socially divisive, inequitable or regressive policy decisions as a root cause of this unpopularity. Integrity and ethical behaviour are also perceived as casualties on the current ideological battlegrounds.

Education, Work and the Environment

“…we cannot go on underinvesting in people without serious and lasting social and economic consequences.” (Tim Colebatch quoted by Scott)

The chapters on education and child wellbeing are filled with familiar data and arguments. As an educator, these policy debates and decisions are extremely important and I have followed them closely for three decades. Scott explores the issues of equity for students, ‘Gonski’ and the growth of the independent sector in Australia. Once again, our policy decisions are heavily influenced by English-speaking nations or increasingly influenced by the results of authoritarian nations from tests like PISA. He details Finland’s educational success at some length.

Pasi Sahlberg, visiting in 2012, made it clear his belief that our educational policy in was “not healthy” with the increasing emphasis on competition in what has become a very competitive marketplace. Scott focuses on Sahlberg’s commentary about education generally, and in Australia. This Finnish educator is quoted extensively about assessment, teacher quality, respect and allowing students and teachers to be risk-takers with their learning. It is particularly important to see how each child is supported, especially if they fall behind, by well-trained teachers, in Finland. Equity, training and the status of teachers are key ingredients.

Scott discusses Denmark too but there was nothing new for me in this part of his book. I have written many times about how impressive the civics education (and strength of democratic participation) is in Denmark. Our own school has learnt much from the Danish model and is actively nurturing democracy with a variety of programs. The socially democratic and inclusive nature of politics is evident in the school system which is much more egalitarian than in Australia. Scott also mentions that the Danes have benefitted from the educational philosophy of 19th century thinker NFS Grundtvig who sowed the seeds of freedom, poetry and creativity in educational life. This was very evident from my experiences in Denmark, Grundtvig promoted equality and opposed all compulsion, including exams, as “deadening to the human soul”. His influence lives on in Denmark today.

The chapter on employment and policy is important and deserving of more than just the few words I will write here. The ‘flexicurity’ of the Danish system for re-skilling workers who lose their jobs, as industries rise and fall, is particularly interesting and an important policy. The ideal of life-long learning, genuinely supported by the state, is on show and I saw this while living with the Danes with their sound organisation of educational opportunities for the unemployed and older workers.

The Danes really have a cohesive philosophy and egalitarian value system that permeates their society. Scott discusses how Denmark has the lowest income disparity of all the OECD nations. I can tell you, after living there in 2011, that the High Court judge who I spent half-a-day with wasn’t paid much more a day than my barber. Haircuts were expensive. I did meet people in business who wished their labour expenses were less but acknowledge the social harmony (even though it made it hard for them to compete in the international marketplace).

The purist market liberal economic ideology which has predominated in English-speaking countries since the 1980s is often, quite falsely, presented as if it is the only option for nation states to follow.

How a country manages the wealth generated by the extraction of natural resources is at the heart of the policy changes needed in Australia. Scott makes this cear. He focuses on resource-rich Norway’s successful management of natural ‘endowments for the nation’s long-term benefit’. Norway remains a global leader in fighting climate change and funds innovation generously from moneys raised. Scott discusses how they have done this by the nation’s cross-party support, dating back to the 1970s, for ‘basic principles’ that protect the environment and ensure national benefits from resources, like oil. This he contrasts with the ‘polarised party politics’ of Australia in the last half century. He notes the small percentage of wealth effectively taxed for the public good here. Scott concludes that “Australia should strive to strengthen its arrangements for resource taxation.” “


Andrew Scott’s book is an important one for Australians and is recommended for educators, politicians and anyone interested in good public policy (which is hopefully all of us). It just makes sense for a social democratic nation to look for policy that assists the common-weal and limits the ‘rat-eat-rat’ philosophy of the un-mediated marketplace. The point made in conclusion, by this reviewer, outlines what so many, across the political spectrum, hope for in the near future:

In ‘Northern Lights’ Scott has outlined possible new policy approaches for Australia in sound scholarly fashion. Could it be that all we need now is a politician with the vision, courage and eloquence to revive our egalitarian spirit and lead us beyond neoliberalism to social democracy? 

Featured image: creative commons licensed (BY-NC-SA) flickr photo by d33pan:

*Iceland is the fifth Nordic country and not part of the study.



    • Cassandra Pride

    • 9 years ago

    I have been known to cause rolled eyes when I mention Finland for the umpteenth time in education conversations, but I persist because I am genuinely perplexed by the continued focus on failing systems in the UK and USA as role models for Australia. The primary reason appears to be the lack of actual educators in these discussions, resulting in yet more political rhetoric rather than genuine reform. As you mention, you have been following these discussions for three decades, and yet still we sit here watching inequity rise and politicians listen to business leaders rather than principals. I despair. I don’t know if I have the emotional buoyancy to read this book!

      • Darcy Moore

      • 9 years ago

      The night is darkest before the dawn.

      My advice: read the book and alert your local member of parliament to it. Tell other people. Talk up the fact that other nations are making equitable, environmentally sustainable progress. One of the reasons why we are in the state we are in is that more people do not engage with politics on an everyday level. If a majority of people in the nation want something to happen there is every chance that will occur. I do not think this naive but possible in a democracy.

      I remain optimistic on all kinds of levels about the future. 🙂

    • mike honeywood

    • 9 years ago

    I had the good fortune to host Pasi with a colleague of mine in 2012 at the State PPA conference. Over a lunch we had a good talk about many things including his love of Midnight Oil & that he was in a cover band in Finland (ironically didn’t recognise our Ed Minister Peter Garrett when he first met him?)
    One thing that struck a cord with me was Finland only has one system of schooling – private schools were disbanded in the early 70’s and not funded at all. Today there is basically one system, one huge team and all focused on improving teacher training. The students have less face to face time – less days and less hours at school.
    Yes we are doing it wrong because we are entrenched in old pedagogy and suck the life out of students who have passion (in my opinion).

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