So the new British government feels that the UK-Australian relationship needs to be "strengthened". Upon arriving in Australia last week, the British Foreign Minister, William Hague, and the British Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, advertised their mission objective in a politically declarative article published in The Age. With all the political sensitivities of veteran parliamentarians, they kindly describe Britain’s relationship with Australia as that of “cousins on the opposite sides of the world.”
In other words, the British government has elevated Australians from "penal progeny" to "commercial cousins".
The diplomatic duo also highlight a “common history”, a “shared language and common ideals” as well as to the awkwardly phrased “people-to-people ties” that bind Australia to the United Kingdom. Perhaps it is due to the famous British sense of the ironic – or the condescending – that they chose the week before Australia Day to gild over the relationship Australia has to its legal parent. "Cousins", typically, have different parents.
Australia Day of course marks the moment when the British first raised the flag over the inconveniently inhabited continent. (It is controversially referred to as "invasion day" by those sympathetic with the plight – both historically and currently – of the indigenous community.) That the British ministers should make overtures of wanting to "strengthen the alliance" tactfully avoids the embarrassing truth: the Union Jack which was first hoisted on the shores of Sydney Cove in 1788 continues to occupy the upper left corner of the Australian flag in 2011.
How can one seriously consider a relationship "bilateral" when the two countries share the same constitutional custodian? Or when the governing charter of one country was "permitted" by the parliament of the other? This is all of course understated in the euphemistic sentence: “So our relationship is built on powerful historical connections.” Is it due to “powerful historical connections” that Australian intellectuals seem to gravitate towards Britain in some kind of atavistic trance? I’m thinking here of Clive James, Germaine Greer, John Pilger, etc.
Through favourable immigration policies, Britain continues to supply Australia with its largest source of migrants, a fact which compromises the conception of Australia as a bastion of multiculturalism. It is, but no more than any other liberal democracy. Yet in the last federal election both Australian candidates were born in the United Kingdom. Hague and Fox point to the fact that “a million British nationals live in Australia”, many of whom, one imagines, are retirees enjoying a little Britain in the sun (if it was a merely a question of climate, surely Spain or Greece would have sufficed).
Interestingly, the British are a far more diverse society yet they don’t advertise their dedication to multiculturalism as stridently as Australians do. The British do not suffer from an identity crisis, nor do they harbour existential angst in the wake of the collapse of empire. They have, in effect, reinvented themselves.
In contrast, it is Australia who clings to the colonial contract; it is Australia who continues to salute the imperial enterprise through its reverence to an anachronistic political structure; and it is Australia who feels the need to compensate, loudly, for its inability to adequately cut the “people-to-people” cord from its progenitors.
I can easily imagine the parliamentary pair privately snickering about such an absurd and incestuous arrangement when reflecting on Australian society, not to mention the political redundancy of making the trip in the first place. The ministers confess to a neglect of Australian foreign relations by citing the fact that no British Foreign Minister has visited the country in over twenty years. Yet this disclosure only serves to reinforce Australian political adolescence: where else could Britain get away with such diplomatic casualness? Were it not for Britain’s interest in the “emerging economies of the east and the south”, this largely perfunctory trip would not have been made at all.
Those who think this is merely a sign of a healthy mutually respectful relationship are fooling themselves: Britain does not take Australian relations seriously. Who could blame them? It isn’t as if the Commonwealth of Australia has yet given them a reason to do so.
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