A new, 21st century Dame Edna Everage has appeared to amuse the nation. Moreover, she has quickly commanded international attention, if not always in a manner that may reassure her audience.
Who would have believed that, at the mature and retiring age of 76, John Barry Humphries would have seen all of his brilliant, earlier work in etching the essence of the Australian suburban character upstaged. Even as one who revelled in disrespectful Barry Humphries’ stories at Melbourne University in the 1950s and 1960s, I could never have anticipated the stunning appearance of Dame Edna Everage II on the global stage, in a costume exquisitely updated for the times.
Having boldly declared in Brussels her disinterest in the preoccupations of global statesmen, and her implicit lack of respect for their self-importance, Dame Edna II has accepted grimly the burdens of her office and is now mixing with similar bunches across Asia, starting in Hanoi at the East Asia Summit. In Hanoi, this was eased only by the company of a soul mate in Hillary Clinton, whom she was scheduled to welcome soon at home to ensure that all Australians would be reassured that they were well defended for any foreseeable future.
Of course, armed with the certainties of suburban Melbourne, she had travelled to Asia with clear goals in mind, like the mitigation of the prison sentence of Schapelle Corby in Indonesia and the mobilisation of regional support for a refugee detention centre in East Timor. She was no doubt gratified by the courteous manner in which she was received, if a little mystified by the fact that her no nonsense approach yielded few practical outcomes.
Dame Edna II will no doubt star at the forthcoming G20 meeting in Seoul. She will be untroubled by the obscure manoeuvrings of polite, if disturbingly unfamiliar, foreign gentlemen who seem strangely upset by the fact that Australia’s friends, the Americans, have been printing a lot of paper money. After all, the value of the Australian dollar is going up, the cost of repaying bank offshore borrowings is (presumably) going down and the Chinese will always pay generously for something Australia can get out of the ground.
If only the world could be understood in such simple, comforting Melbournian terms we could simply all sit back, applaud and enjoy the way in which the nation’s attention has been switched from the Comic Book Kevin 07 to the Comic Dame Edna II.
Sadly, other forces are at work. The serious players in Seoul, who may leave Dame Edna II feeling vaguely uncomfortable, will be busy working out their respective challenges and opportunities in a world where the coming collapse of the US Dollar changes all the ground rules of the global community. But, of course, the reassurances of Kevin 07 on this matter are almost as comforting as memories of Melbourne.
This is all a little unfair to Dame Edna II. Australian media and academia have largely shunned any serious treatment of such an unpleasant development. After all, modern Australians have only ever known a world where global norms have been defined from either London or Washington. It might be unsettling to be prompted to reflect on the possibility that China and its Confucian neighbourhood of over 2 billion highly productive people might take over that role. Moreover, there is no one in Australian politics, government, media or business who would have a clue how to behave in such a world.
Surely, it is enough for our Prime Minister to conform to widespread community ignorance and rely on the US to be able to keep on printing and selling its paper money to maintain its grossly overextended global military activity. After all, no one could believe that the Chinese might have been able to back their growing wealth with some sort of superiority in military technology.
Having been in charge of the education revolution during the Rudd government, Dame Edna II knows how hard it is to do anything serious in lifting educational standards. She can be relied upon to readily dismiss warnings from those who might refer to the fact that China graduates larger numbers from its universities each year than America and India combined, that Chinese graduates are often the best at other peoples’ universities and that there are more Chinese military officers studying in US universities than there are American military officers - as Tony Corn reports in a piece on Grand Strategy with Chinese Characteristics.
It is difficult not to sympathise with Dame Edna II. Why should she have to bother with these tiresome problems to which no one in Melbourne pays any attention? Indeed, thanks to the Australian media and academia, there are very few Australians who display any concern about them. Moreover, if anyone steps out of line, like that inconvenient Hugh White, there is no shortage of voices eager to highlight his failings.
So, if only the important people in China, Indonesia, Turkey, Iran, Russia and India could spend a little time in Melbourne with Dame Edna II’s friends, it might be possible to do away with these overseas trips that distract from the multiplying problems at home.
Unfortunately, the time may not be far away when it has to be explained to Dame Edna II that she, like Kevin 07, has had her time (admittedly somewhat more brief) and that the party of Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating has to be put into the hands of someone less comic, perhaps Greg Combet or Bill Shorten, for the sake of the party - and of the nation.
In its 200-year history, Australia has never before found itself addressing such major global realignments of power, with the possible disintegration of Anglo-American global order and its associated post 1945 international institutions and values The fact that, fundamentally, this is being driven by increasingly transparent inadequacies in the US political system rather than by overt external aggression does not make it any less serious. So some thoughtful persons may just have to take Dame Edna II aside and explain that the nation can no longer afford her type of entertainment.