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The Swedish Model in action

Looking around Stockholm, there is much that appears very similar to Australia. There are reruns of bad American sitcoms on television in English, there are similar public transport systems, education systems and shopping centres, and if I see another poster or billboard of Beyonce advertising H&M I think I might rip it down myself.

But when you scratch the surface, there are some interesting cultural differences.

There are hardly any beggars here. Unlike other cities, where you will find homeless people sleeping on the footpath or asking strangers for spare change, in the week we were in Stocholm we saw only two people shaking a cup of coins asking for change, and both appeared to be Romani (gypsies) rather than residents of the city.

While in other large cities it’s common to see an old plastic bag or a McDonald’s wrapper tumbling along the street, caught in the breeze from the passing traffic, in Stockholm the streets are clean. There is no graffiti. The gardens are perfectly manicured, and at the moment, the city is splashed with the colour of new spring flowers.

There are no houses (at least not in the traditional Australian sense), and not a backyard in sight. People live in apartment blocks, and their ‘backyard’ is the large open community parks, gardens and squares that are dotted throughout the city. Rather than sprawling suburbs where people isolate themselves behind their white picket fences, it’s a communal life where public outdoor space is shared and enjoyed.

Like most Western cities there are people of all races and cultures, but in Stockholm there are no areas of the city that appear to be dedicated to particular ethnic groups (like China Town in Melbourne for example). People of all cultures appear to have integrated into one shared community without particular ethnic norms and values governing the culture of separate pockets of the city.

And just as in most cities, by around mid morning the streets and parks fill up with parents pushing prams, enjoying the sunshine and the crisp cool air. What’s unusual in Stockholm is that there are just as many men doing this as women.

It’s a community that really appears to work. It’s ordered, clean, open and friendly.

What I’ve now learnt is that this is known as the ‘Swedish Model’. Fundamental to the understanding of Swedish society is that every citizen should have equal access to medical assistance, housing, education and job opportunities, made possible through even distribution of wealth across the community (regulated by the Government in the form of taxes).

The Swedish model is a compromise between social democratic rule and a widespread privately owned industrial sector – a middle ground between unlimited private capitalism and a socialist planned economy.

Since the Great Depression, Swedish politics has been dominated by the Social Democratic Workers’ Party. As a result of that there is a focus on even distribution of wealth (or a redistribution of wealth to lower income earners) and sharing of community resources for the common good.

The country operates on a Keynesian model where taxes are high (among the highest in the world actually at up to 57%!) and the Government takes a very active role in regulating society. But in return for this, everyone is taken care of. And a tangible expression of this is evident in the way the community operates.

You don’t see beggars or homeless people on the street because people don’t need to beg. The Government covers 97% of medical costs, and when a person is declared ill by a Physician, they receive a percentage of their wage until they are declared fit again. University tuition is free. There is affordable housing for those that can’t afford their own apartment, but there are no ‘ghettos’ or high-rise public housing blocks. Here affordable housing is integrated seamlessly and invisibly into city life.

People are happy to use open public spaces as their ‘backyard’, because public space is perfectly maintained, and quite beautiful in fact.

Different ethnicities mix because of Sweden’s generous asylum seeker policies and attitude towards immigrants. The Government provides asylum seekers with accommodation in self-catering apartments spread across the city when they arrive if they cannot arrange it for themselves. In addition, a daily allowance is supplied to cover food and medical care, and asylum seeker children are entitled to education under the same conditions as residents of Sweden. Asylum seekers and migrants are welcome in Sweden as ‘one of us’, eliminating some of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality that exists in other countries and can lead to racial tension or vilification.

You see fathers walking their babies in the middle of the day because in Stockholm, parents are provided with 16 months of paid paternity/maternity leave per child at 80% pay.

It’s much more of a socialist model, and it appears that it’s working. Sweden is at the top of international ranking lists both in terms of economic clout and quality of life.

There must be something that other countries can learn here.

In a Government model where focus is placed on the common good, when surplus wealth is redistributed to lower income earners, when people of all cultures are welcomed, the end result is an inclusive, trusting and welcoming community that looks after each other.

Creating this type of community is not wishful thinking as a result of being too idealistic (as I used to be told by a previous manager) – Sweden provides an example of a ‘common good’ model working in practice. That’s not to say that Sweden hasn’t also had its difficulties, but overall its managed to build a country with a unique, prosperous and enviable culture and lifestyle.

In a Western world dominated by capitalism, individualism, and greed from those who already have more than they need, a little bit more idealism and an active focus on the common good couldn’t do us any harm. In fact, it’s absolutely crucial in addressing some of the biggest challenges of our times.

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