WHAT IS AUSTRALIA FOR? Australia is no longer small, remote or isolated. It’s time to ask What Is Australia For?, and to acknowledge the wealth of resources we have beyond mining. Over the next two weeks The Conversation, in conjunction with Griffith REVIEW, is publishing a series of provocations. Our authors are asking the big questions to encourage a robust national discussion about a new Australian identity that reflects our national, regional and global roles.
Dawn at Bondi reveals a snapshot of today’s Australia: nightclubbed couples prone on the sand, Chinese tripod photographers framing the sunrise, young women lifesavers marching to Scotland the Brave, laconic line-fishermen trying for a feed of whiting, boot-camp fitness instructors yelling at the northern end of the beach, silent yoga and tai chi practitioners on the southern ledge, human shark bait swimming between the two, and the driver of a sand-grooming machine having a smoko with a council garbage-picker. People arrive at Bondi in waves throughout the day, bringing, binning or taking away the duties and diversions of their many diverse demographics. The whole thing is a continuous animated cartoon. It’s the Australian beach cliché, updated.
Australia, you could even say, is a country of clichés. We inherit them, we reproduce and export them. Then others play them back to us from abroad. So often have we heard them repeated that we forget to ask what they mean and if they are still relevant, and unthinkingly we let them become mandatory. Australians wear the clichés as obligatorily as sheltering hats, rashies, and sunscreen, and swim obediently between them. We are regularly assured that these flags of identity will preserve us from whatever rips and currents may lie beyond our security zone or excised territory.
Our tourism clichés led a Japanese ambassador, a few years ago, to joke that shorthand for Australia in his country was KK – kangaroos and koalas, RR – rock and reef, and LLL – large, lucky and lazy. Boat people all, we inculcate the Australian clichés in new arrivals too. John Howard even set tests on them, though he was quick to deplore “the endless seminar on the national identity”.
Our obsession with identity is a cliché in itself. I am, you are, we are Australyun. As Barry Humphries, cliché aficionado par excellence (now there’s a string of them), used to sing, “all ye who do not love her, ye know where ye can go”.
We all know the list of our clichés by heart, not that it’s challenging: they are simple and mostly self-deprecating. In culture, advertising and politics, the overarching cliché is that of the Australian “way of life”. It has four components: bush, beach, beer and bayonet. English landscape romanticism laid the seedbed for images of the bush poet, the leathery, laconic drover, the lost child, the lonely wife, the Southern Cross, and the sunlit plains extending. Irish resistance bred the bushranger, the rebel, and the republican. The boozing larrikin came from the currency lads. Whig egalitarianism created mateship, then sports fanatics and surfies, and eventually slobs, bikies and bogans.
In Australian suburbs, novelist David Foster claimed a few years ago, two categories of homeowner are recognisable from the street: the handyman and the drunkard. Australia’s two cultures, if you like, with women, children, and all our ethnicities scarcely rating a mention. Beer and barbecues are what Australians supposedly live on, but we may in fact consume more wine, soy sauce, and even books. Bush nationalism remains the default Australian cultural narrative, even now, when Australia rides on minerals conveyors, not on the sheep’s back; when our population is one of the world’s most urbanised and multicultural; and when the closest most Australians get to the wide brown land is a suburban block, a McMansion, the view from a high-rise unit, or a fly-in fly-out job.
Tourism promoters everywhere thrive on clichés, and so do the airlines, which is why you should never judge a country by its brochure. National occasions bring out grand parades of clichés. The Australian icons that opened the Sydney 2000 Olympics mystified many foreign observers who didn’t detect its self-satire, and annoyed others, like visiting Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Irritated by Oi Oi Oi, he wrote that “everyone made a great racket, drank copious amounts of beer, and sang Waltzing Matilda about fifty times”. But we insiders recognised Director of Ceremonies Ric Birch’s skilful send-up of the clichés: the stockhorse parade, Hills hoist, Victa mower, and corrugated iron, the flora and fauna, and a huge banner saying “G’day”.
They were invoked again by Baz Luhrmann in his 2008 movie Australia, which seemed as much a promotion for tourism and Bundaberg Rum as it was an introduction for Americans to a fanciful Australian history. Coles supermarkets in 2012 promoted Australia Day with food to be consumed around barbecues, much of it labelled with brands formerly Australian-owned, and prawns that were most likely imported.
At such times, a collective wince can be heard around the world from Australian expatriates, and from diplomats who are supposed to encourage regard abroad for Australia as a “clever country” of diversity, talent, innovation and multiculturalism. But when asked to appear in national dress, and to produce Australian cuisine, the temptation is to default to beer, barbecue, and bushman’s clobber, for want of better. As one of them lamented to a PhD researcher, “Australia has no national dress, national songs nor literature that are widely embraced … and we are left with an apologetic use of indigenous imagery (which most of us do not understand), Crocodile Dundee images of the outback (where few of us live), kangaroos (which we shoot) and Kylie. Hardly enough to define a country”. A national narrative made up of bush, beach, and beer (or Bundy) clichés, modest and harmless as they are, is anachronistic. It sells Australia short, or not at all.
National identity seems, like nature, to abhor a vacuum, so into the space where a different Australian narrative might live and grow slouches the digger, originally a gold-seeking opportunist, later a ten-bob-a-day volunteer in the AIF, then sanitised by CEW Bean, and blown up into a heroic Anzac. He is ennobled on large monuments in Australian cities and on small ones in country towns, on honour rolls in RSLs and private schools and on wooden panels in railway stations.
This is the bayonet cliché, the one that is not harmless but aggressive, not modest but big-noting (as Robin Gerster has called it). Blameless Australians in every generation since European settlement have fought and died, first in British conflicts and later in American ones. Few of them went to war to be big-noted, and some old diggers now want no more of it. But this brave, conditioned, or pointless behaviour – depending on your point of view – was what dominions were expected to do.
Wars provided a political stockwhip with which successive Australian leaders rounded up the waverers and instilled patriotism. WM Hughes’ conscription referendum taught politicians never again to ask the people for their views on being sent to war. Nor did they ever invite voters to decide who Australia’s enemies were. To this day an Australian prime minister can more easily send troops into conflict than can a president of the United States, as John Howard demonstrated in 1999, 2002 and 2003.
Every year, in the countdown to Anzac Day, the muffled drumbeats begin again in the news media, another generation of young enthusiasts turns up at dawn services, and spines shiver to Laurence Binyon and the Last Post. As if Alan Seymour’s classic 1960 play, The One Day of the Year, had never been written, war books and television documentaries keep the bayonet cliché alive, ready for the next war. So do Australia’s overseas representatives: in Paris in July last year, in the vast public space of the Harry Seidler-designed embassy, the only display was of brochures in English for Australians visiting World War I battle sites.
Our cultural and public diplomacy may have its deficits, but that does not inhibit our export of the bayonet cliché. The first Australians ever encountered by the people in several Asian countries were in uniform, whether they came as enemies or allies. The same was true, of course, for Indigenous Australians, and for many people in Africa and the Middle East. Australians have taken part in some 19 wars, and only once in defence of Australia.
Putting on military uniforms so often has hereditary consequences for the national mindset. Writing from Malaysia in 2000, Vin D’Cruz and William Steele detected a “militarist streak in the Australian psyche”. That impression was powerfully reinforced, lest we forget, by the Iraq invasion, in which Australia was observably the only country in our region whose troops were there from the start. Howard’s threat in November 2002 to make first strikes against terrorists in neighbouring countries was widely noticed in Asian capitals, as were reports that he saw Australia as the “strong man of Asia” and the United States’ “deputy sheriff”.
But Howard merely confirmed what many in the region already knew from experience of Australia. Japanese surveyed at the time of the Iraq invasion saw Australia as a militaristic nation, more so even than heavily-armed Japan. Many Indonesians remain convinced that Australia is a military threat (just as some Australians see Indonesia), poised for invasion. Chinese official media have asked whether Australia thinks it is a bat or a bird – an independent country or not.
Far from seeking to dispel such impressions, the Rudd and Gillard governments have opened military bases in Australia’s north to United States marines, with no clear explanation of their purpose, no sunset or review clauses, no clarity about whose law will apply to them, and no assurance that they will not make Australia a target in a future American war. Worse, the notion is now being dribbled out that the Cocos (Keeling) Islands may take the place of Diego Garcia and become a permanent United States base on Australian soil.
Successive Australian governments have progressively degraded our sovereignty, widening the scope of the ANZUS treaty far beyond its intent, allowing Americans to choose our wars and our enemies for us, and thus undermining what little independence we have in defence and foreign policy. They are circumscribing our trade policy and our economy too, since one of those putative enemies is China, Australia’s biggest trading partner. Yet prime ministers continue eagerly to send Australians to war, and then, as always, line up for the cameras when the bodies return. Their hope of winning khaki elections, it seems, eclipses any thought of seeking peace in our region, or of representing Australia as a conscientious party to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation – which, in apparent conflict with ANZUS, forbids its parties to threaten or use force.
Australia has, Gareth Evans once said with masterly understatement, “something of an image problem”. That was in 1991. To this day, ignorance, negativity, irritation and even hostility towards Australia persist in several of our neighbours and important trading partners in Asia – and for good reason. So militarised is Australia’s widespread image that the children’s puzzle book, Where’s Bin Laden? identifies Australians in London by their old army uniforms and slouch hats. Take away the bayonet cliché, after all, and what would be left to distinguish Australians, in their current Afghanistan gear, from Americans?
It makes sense for any country, finding itself in this situation and hoping to improve the image it has created and exported, to address the perceptions held by others, the reality of its own behaviour, and the deficiencies in its self-representation. If it is true that Australia’s national narrative is clichéd, static, anachronistic, and damaging, then it needs revision, and when better to do this than now, in what’s being called the Asian Century? What better time than when Australia is seeking a seat on the UN Security Council?
An alternative Australian narrative is available, if we choose to use it. Paradoxically, it’s unfamiliar to many, because mainstream historians and cultural commentators have traditionally ignored it. It’s the story of Australia in Asia, and it not only makes better sense of our evolving national experience than my five clichés, but also illuminates what distinguishes Australia from all Western countries.
For a start, it drops the notion that Australians don’t know or care about Asia. It dispenses with the notions of the “isolated outpost”, the “tyranny of distance”, and the “Asian hordes”. It recognises that in the mid to late 1800s people from China, Japan, India and other Asian nations joined the multicultural mix that was Australia, and that many Australians were also travelling to, living in, and learning from Asian countries, as they still do today. It acknowledges that many of the Australian connections that flourish within Asian societies are not new and strange, but centuries old and, if we read our history, familiar.
There have always been Asian Australians, and “Asia-literate” Australians, many with far-sighted views that deserve more credit than they usually get. To cite only one example among many, in the early 20th century, Griffith Taylor, Professor of Geography at Sydney University, challenged the White Australia policy by pointing to the advantages of intermarriage between Australians and Chinese, and in 1923, proposed relaxation of immigration restrictions. He foresaw an “unprecedented amalgamation of peoples in the next few centuries”, urged Australia to develop closer contact with Asia, and well ahead of his time, anticipated China becoming a great power.
Whenever business opportunities beckoned, Australians hurried to Asian capitals. Culture, tradition, and religion lured others, and after World War II more Australian travellers, journalists, and writers developed a fascination for Asia. The Colombo Plan in the 1950s, and the Whitlam government’s burial of the White Australia policy in the 1970s, enabled more Asian collaborations. The first tentative moves were made towards an Asian forum that would seek collaboration rather than confrontation or containment. The long peace after Vietnam, and the ascendancy of Northeast Asia, enabled Hawke to foster APEC, and Keating to engender more Asia-enthusiasm. But opportunism is transient, and peaks turn to troughs whenever we have wars, economic crises, terrorist attacks, or mass movements of migrants.
Today, acceptance of Australia in Asia remains a work in progress, both among Australians and in Asian countries. Asian regionalism is a large house whose inner sanctum is reserved for ten Southeast Asian nations. Three Northeast Asian ones inhabit the outer rooms, and three more occupy the veranda – Australia, India, and New Zealand. Who’s invited and who isn’t will be decided by those inside, and certainly not by Australia, as Kevin Rudd found when he suddenly and unsuccessfully proposed an Asia Pacific Community in 2008. As a result, Australia lost its one chance of renting a room in an all-Asian house: allowed to mount the front steps, as it were, were two new guests, the United States and Russia. An American presence lurking inside Rudd’s Australian Trojan horse had been widely suspected, and the compromise was to offset that by inviting the Russians as well.
In the discourse, whenever something is called “Asia-Pacific”, that means it includes the United States, legitimised by their Hawaiian islands and Pacific West coast. The founders of APEC, remember – who originally conceived a forum for Australia and free-market economies in Asia – were pressured in 1979 to include the Americans, and then Canada and most of Latin America as well. And it was Robert Gates, as Defense Secretary, who declared in 2010 that any Asian regional organisation had to include the United States, which he said was “an Asian power”, “a resident power in Asia”.
What then are we to read into the omission of “Pacific” from the title of the Gillard government’s 2012 White Paper on the Asian Century? Does it distance itself from the United States? The Prime Minister has cultivated the United States and supported the alliance even more assiduously than her predecessor, and nothing she’s done suggests she is seeking defence or foreign policy independence: quite the opposite.
The idea for the Asian Century study was clearly a retirement brainchild of Ken Henry, and its terms of reference have economics all over them, with only passing references to defence, culture, or Australia’s national reputation, or even to our place in the regional architecture. There appears no acknowledgement at all of the fact that the discussion began in the late 1900s about an Asian Century, continued through the 20th century, and culminated in a Singaporean author’s advocacy in 2008 of the “new Asian hemisphere”. No doubt submissions to the committee will remind them of all that, and point out as well that our region is not solely about trade and investment.
The White Paper presents an opportunity for the Prime Minister to consider a new Australian way of thinking about Asia, one that draws on the past, but whose terms should now change radically. It requires rethinking of what Australia is for. There can be no better time to free ourselves of anachronistic clichés, put an end to peaks and troughs of Asia-enthusiasm, make the most of the rich variety of cultures that make Australia unique, and ensure that our society evolves in harmony with our neighbours. If this reconsideration results in Australia being seen in our region and around the world as an interesting, relevant, useful, independent country, and in our becoming the best informed people in the world about the affairs of Asia, it will have been worth doing.