It is generally used favorably, although the origin of the phrase was negative. Among other things, it has been used in reference to Australia's natural resources, weather, history, distance from problems elsewhere in the world, and other sorts of prosperity.
The title of Horne's The Lucky Country comes from the opening words of the book's last chapter:
Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.
Horne's statement was an indictment of 1960s Australia. His intent was to comment that, while other industrialized nations created wealth using "clever" means such as technology and other innovations, Australia did not. Rather, Australia's economic prosperity was largely derived from its rich natural resources. Horne observed that Australia "showed less enterprise than almost any other prosperous industrial society."
In his 1976 follow-up book, Death of the Lucky Country, Horne clarified what he had meant when he first coined the term:
When I invented the phrase in 1964 to describe Australia, I said: 'Australia is a lucky country run by second rate people who share its luck.' I didn't mean that it had a lot of material resources … I had in mind the idea of Australia as a [British] derived society whose prosperity in the great age of manufacturing came from the luck of its historical origins … In the lucky style we have never 'earned' our democracy. We simply went along with some British habits.
In the decades following his book's publication, Horne became critical of the "lucky country" phrase being used as a term of endearment for Australia. He commented, "I have had to sit through the most appalling rubbish as successive generations misapplied this phrase."
- "Lucky Country" article, from Australia.gov.au
- "Still lucky, but getting smarter," article by Horne revisiting The Lucky Country on the 40th anniversary of its publication, from The Age
- Introduction to "The Lucky Country" by Hugh Mackay, explanation of the original intent of the phrase vs popular meaning, and information about Donald Horne, from the Penguin Modern Classics edition