When I read last year that the Labor Party’s new leader had studied Chinese language and history at Australia National University and spoke fluent Mandarin, I wondered: could a new day be dawning?
I recalled the country’s longest-serving prime minister, Robert Gordon Menzies, who ignored Asia, thought “the world” meant Atlantic Rim nations only and visited Britain as often as possible, seeing his own country as isolated, unpalatable and insignificant.
Australia and the world are much altered since Menzies stepped down in 1966, yet remnants of his attitudes remain. Now that Kevin Rudd is prime minister, will Australia become a team member of its Asia Pacific region?
Given that the country’s current prosperity is largely due to trade with China and a few other countries in the area, this would seem logical though it’s much too early to tell. At a time when Australians by the dozens are writing about what the new administration may bring, perhaps the views of a foreigner may be in order, one who became interested in your country, spent a decade studying its past and present and wrote a book about it.
On my initial visit in 1991, two aspects of Australia intrigued me. As an American who has long thought my own country puts too much emphasis on “rugged individualism” and getting rich, it was refreshing to find another Land of Opportunity, one where the paramount goal was not making a lot more money than anyone else. I was also impressed to find a multiethnic nation that made the transition from a highly restrictive immigration policy to one that accepts people from around the globe, and did so with remarkably little violence.
Its policy of cultural pluralism, first articulated in the 1970s, which encourages immigrants to retain their traditional cultures while also becoming loyal Australians, seemed a model that other nations might follow to their advantage.
Yet paradoxically, I would learn, in America and in many nations, Australia is seen to this day as an essentially British nation with a sprinkling of Indigenous people. At home in Berkeley, whenever I told people about Australia’s multiethnic population, they expressed amazement. But how would they know that Australia in 2007 is not the same as it was in 1927 when all they ever hear about are its athletes and animals?
An unknown but palpable number of Australians still downgrade their country as Menzies did and look westward for models. Nor has the nation projected an image abroad that includes its achievements. Many observers have noticed this.
Travel writer Bill Bryson said: “One of the oddest things for an outsider to do is to watch Australians assessing themselves. They are an extraordinarily self-critical people. You encounter it constantly in newspapers and on television and radio - a nagging conviction that no matter how good things are in Australia, they are bound to be better elsewhere.”
Within the country, journalist Paul Kelly wrote: “The repeated impression left by senior overseas visitors to this country is their admiration for our achievements and astonishment at the complacent devaluation of this achievement by the host community. Australians are trapped in a contradiction - too reluctant to grasp their successes outside sport, too willing to overlook genuine national progress as a role model.”
People in Britain and other English-speaking Commonwealth nations know the most about Australia, including its multiethnic makeup, yet some harbour egregious stereotypes passed down from one generation to the next. A columnist for the London Sunday Telegraph wrote in the 1990s: “There is a kernel of truth in the view of Australians as somewhat simple minded folk. Originally settled by the detritus of 18th and 19th century Britain, Australia has the distinction of being the world’s only entirely proletarian country.”
A Scottish friend I asked about attitudes towards Australia said: “The British see Australia as a land of beer-drinking macho men, a place of little value whose people have no depth.” And in December, 2006, an article in London’s Financial Times about social and political divisions in Australia had this lead: “One doesn’t think of Australia as having a culture war: indeed, as the old joke goes, one doesn’t think of Australia as having a culture at all.”
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