Nine months in Australia has forced me to re-examine my preconceptions of this country. In the past I viewed Australia as a warm Canada. Like us, you were a former British colony which adopted a system of Parliamentary democracy. Like us, you have a version of universal health coverage. The similarities, I believed, were numerous.
I’ve come to realise, however, that our paths have sharply diverged.
There has never been a more exciting time to be a Canadian. If you haven’t been watching over the last few years, you would have missed an entire nation coming out of its shell, when a trifecta of events occurred in rapid succession on an unsuspecting, and generally delighted, public. Somehow, we avoided participation in the misbegotten Iraq war; a few provinces have decided not to send people to jail for smoking pot; and the government will not prohibit anyone from marrying the person of his or her choice. It’s so good that some Americans disaffected by the re-election of their President have threatened to immigrate to my "home and native land", although, despite the best efforts of marryanamerican.ca, few of them will.
Whether or not these events are the result of cynical manoeuvres by an outgoing Prime Minister to agitate his rival, they have given Canadians something that we’ve been lacking for a good portion of our history: a sense of identity. In the past, we were known for our cold weather, the threat of Quebec separatism, and perhaps our universal health system. To a nation suffering from self-doubt, this recognition was better than nothing, but it wasn’t good enough. And though these identifiers have by no means disappeared, our new, emerging identity has created a sense of poise never seen before.
The assertiveness has not gone unnoticed. Conservative American pundits find Canadian criticism of their leaders’ policies to be insufferably smug. Pat Buchanan, a failed Republican presidential candidate and current host of a cable news and current affairs show, created front page news in Canada by calling the country "Soviet Canuckistan”. While in the past this kind of criticism would have damaged our self-esteem, we now revel in the attention. After all, they are only pointing out the first and most basic description of Canadians: that we are not Americans.
I think that what has helped Canada in this long journey (if it is a journey and not, as I fear, a short-lived phenomenon) has been our greatest threat: our proximity to the United States. Decades of living in constant fear of cultural annihilation and a century of political acquiescence has left us sensitive to the whims of the world’s superpower. If, as former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously stated, “Canada is a mouse next to the American elephant”, then we have learned exactly where to move when the elephant rolls over.
When I met a young Australian while teaching English in South Korea, she asked what my impressions of her compatriots were. "Confident," I told her. My perception was formed not by any hard evidence or first hand experience, but by Australia’s formidable distance from both its coloniser and the US. I thought - how could Australia grow to be anything but its own country? In an age of satellite and the Internet, this seems like a quaint presumption.
I won’t pretend to understand all the values, cleavages and idiosyncrasies that make up Australian political society. Still, in my experiences as a temporary employee in a variety of workplaces, by living with Australians, and by virtue of having endured one of your federal elections, I have gained some insight into the Australian frame of mind.
The world is shrinking: for all intents and purposes, every country now borders the US. Large distances do not inoculate remote countries. The Americans press their interests wherever they are able. In the end, it is of no consequence that Australia is a conservative country. The real issue is - will Australians grow disaffected with their government as they see crucial policy decisions made based on appeasing a foreign power?
In the short term, probably not: The result of the recent federal election showed that Australians are generally happy with the status quo. The economy is still doing well, and Australia is only in the peripheral vision of terrorist groups. Furthermore, the social safety net, as Canadians call it, has not been weakened by years of budget cutbacks.
Australia also receives protection from the US. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, since 1997, Australia’s most important trading partner has been the US. In 2003, Australia exported $14.2 billion of goods to America, and imported $26.7 billion of goods. In a sentence, Australians are healthy, wealthy, safe and satisfied, and a break from the US could put that in jeopardy. Asserting a national identity is not worth the risk.
Despite Howard’s victory, I sense in Australians an undercurrent of uneasiness about the degree of American influence. Look, for example, at the boost Mark Latham received when he moved to alter key sections of the FTA. Australians were keen to reward a leader who took a stand for their interests. Australians want a leader who takes a stand for their interests.
They simply don’t have one.
If we wait long enough, there will come a time when the economy begins to sour. Furthermore, due to the stance Australia has taken in relation to terrorism, terrorists may set their sites on targets here. This would then transform the perception of the United States as friend and protector to a serious threat to national interests, forcing Australia’s leaders to re-evaluate the relationship. These are not events I am hoping and waiting for. I am not eager to see Australians suffer.
I am not arguing that Australia is weak. Neither am I arguing that Australians do not have a unique identity. What I am saying is that, by not asserting its national identity - and this can mean protecting Australian culture or healthcare or your ideas of what constitutes a security threat - Australia has put itself in a position where policies are made which are not necessarily in the nation’s interest. It is possible to reverse this trend, and when you do, you will feel better for it.