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On the beach: selling Australia as a land or as a people

By Andrew Jakubowicz - posted Friday, 11 June 2010

We often hear that Australia stands at a crossroads … And most of the time whenever we need to take a major decision two different if unclear futures compete for our attention. Yet it’s rarely the case that two government campaigns launched within weeks of each other so starkly frame different visions and representations of “the nation”.

May 14 and the “export” focused Austrade “Australia Unlimited” campaign is launched by Trade Minister Simon Crean. He announces that the bold new image (an Australia “book-ended” by stylised boomerangs) heralds a new aggressive multicultural presence. “Being the ‘quiet achiever’ is not going to cut it in an increasingly competitive global market. We need to make ourselves better. Australia is known as a great place to have a holiday but it is also a great place to do business. We should be better regarded as a dynamic and creative nation, a good global citizen and a strong business partner. We want great recognition of our many achievements.”

The promotional video focuses on our greatest asset, “our people”, and then flips through the real diversity of contemporary Australia (hijab, but no burquas or niqabs: you can’t have everything).


Fast forward two weeks. Tourism Australia launches “Nothing Like Australia”, and if you’ve seen the Australia Unlimited video then you’ll understand how accurate the Tourism Australia campaign label really is. Addressed, it is claimed, to prospective tourists (and to be aired in the UK, the USA, New Zealand, China and Japan), it is nothing like the Australia that Australia Unlimited paints for our international business partners. An Aboriginal kid in a billabong (again!) and a Chinese girl in an SUV churning up a high country meadow chasing kangaroos. Then it’s all Euro-Australians, overwhelmingly blond and young. Very attractive, fit and powerful, but only marginally like the real Australia.

Now it could be argued that tourism advertising is all about the fantasies that are created in the jaded imaginations of big spending foreigners on package tours, and hundreds of thousands of young Europeans arriving to back-pack, have unprotected sex and save the rural fruit industry.

No one is really expected to believe everything here, and the adverts should not be expected to contain anything that might put off prospective money spenders. This includes any reference to non-Indigenous black people, women in Muslim head gear, and large Pacific Islanders. The last major attempt in 2006 to attract foreigners used Lara Bingle to convince them that Australia was a place for drinking, sexual excitement, and unbridled self-indulgent fun. And it too was free of any sense of cultural diversity.

So here we have two major multi-million dollar campaigns, each at the sharp end of key industry sectors, in a world that increasingly and mistakenly views Australia as a haven for racism and intolerance. They are both funded by the Australian taxpayer, and managed through national government corporations. They both consciously decided to represent Australia in very specific though, as it turns out, quite contradictory ways. Is that a problem or just a case of horses for courses?

Just before the Australia Unlimited launch, the government’s “The people of Australia” report from its Multicultural Advisory Council recommended that a firm whole-of-government position should be endorsed, with strong national leadership. The report was clear in identifying cultural diversity as a critical component of our social cohesion, creativity and productivity. While lacking an overarching strategy, the report was clear on one issue - after 15 years of obfuscation and denigration there now had to be a clear sign-on by state and federal governments if rising racism and social exclusion were to be addressed.

The situation gets curiouser and curiouser. Let’s look at Tourism Australia, and its Minister Martin Ferguson. Its former chief executive is Scott Morrison, also a former New South Wales Liberal Party director, and of course now the MP for Cook and the shadow Immigration spokesman. Morrison has taken the vanguard position on the new Opposition policy to bring back temporary protection visas etc, etc. Throughout Morrison’s TA stewardship the agency produced very “whitebread” images of Australia, to a continuing low rumble of criticism. So there’s a trail of continuing cultural homogeneity associated with his presence. But he has since left, and under the new regime one might have expected a move forward. But the new government didn’t have a policy here either, so TA was left floating in a policy-free zone, with no sign that Martin Ferguson even recognises that there is an issue.


At the TA launch one of the cheer-leaders was Chris Brown, managing director of the Tourism and Transport Forum, chaired by Morrison’s predecessor in Cook, former MP (and recently retired Institute for Cultural Diversity chair) Bruce Baird. Baird has a seriously positive track record in defence of human rights and cultural diversity, being one of the small minority of the Howard government party room to stand up on asylum seekers. Under the Rudd Government, he has been charged with chairing the Refugee Resettlement Council and has run the successful review of international student services in the face of the Indian student-bashing furore. So inside the tourism industry it could be said that there is an awareness that cultural diversity might be an issue. Yet even though Tourism Australia insists on an Indigenous Director, it manages to survive quite well without anyone from a diverse cultural background as a director (a government decision that is replicated across the board - look at the ABC, the High Court and so on). The Tourism and Transport Forum also is essentially made up of Anglo-Australians. This means that there really is no quantum of support for making cultural diversity a priority in tourism promotion.

Shift across to Austrade, and something rather different is apparent. While the Austrade Board was abolished in 2006 (a decision criticised by the ALP at the time but not reversed by Simon Crean) the DFAT culture is more sensitive to the perceptions of Australia in the international environment. At the 2020 Summit in 2008 the foreign affairs cell was the only group that mentioned cultural diversity as a plus for Australia. DFAT/Austrade have had to deal with the fall-out from Pauline Hanson, the asylum seekers’ fiascos, the Indian students’ affair, and so on. They are the focus for discovering how the rest of the world feels about us, as they negotiate to get Australia a UN Security Council seat.

While the capacity to juggle two mutually opposed positions in the air at once may be a sign of flexibility and extraordinary co-ordination, it can also be a symptom of a total lack of attention to detail and a pattern of cynical utilitarianism. It’s very hard to find any overarching government position on cultural diversity. Apart from the portfolio ministers Chris Evans and Laurie Ferguson and Stephen Smith in his Indian adventures, none of Labor’s senior ministers has made a single speech extolling the values of cultural diversity in terms of their portfolio responsibilities: not in Education, Health, the Arts, Industry, Media and Communication (except for Stephen Conroy when talking to SBS). Kevin Rudd has only spoken on cultural diversity in very delimited contexts - to ethnic small businesses and by video recording to an ethnic communities conference.

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First published on the author's blog on June 2, 2010.

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About the Author

Andrew Jakubowicz is a professor of sociology at the University of Technology Sydney. He blogs for the SBS program CQ:

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