Australia: The consequential Country
- 31 August 2011
- From the section Asia-Pacific
"The land down under" has always been a colloquialism dripping with inconsequentiality, and reaches back to a time when the tyranny of distance brought with it the felony of neglect.
It provides a fitting title for Bill Bryson's best-selling book on Australia, a portrait, sweeping in its broad brush strokes, which focuses on what the author perceived to be this country's sheer irrelevance.
Before making the long journey to Australia, Bryson sauntered the short distance to his local library where he conducted a fruitless search of the New York Times index for 1997. Australia merited just 20 mentions. Albania, by contrast, got 150.
If anything, 1997 turned out to be a glut year. Over the following 12 months just six stories were considered ripe for publication. Ending his travelogue, Bryson left readers with a departing thought that was as melodramatic as it was melancholic: "Life would go on in Australia," he opined, "and I would hear almost nothing of it."
Published on the eve of the Sydney Olympics, Bryson's conclusion sounded implausible then, and seems absolutely ludicrous now.
No longer can it be said that Australia suffers in any way from a national form of relevance deprivation syndrome. Quite the opposite. Few peaceful nations with a population of 22 million or under receive such close attention. As the economic locus of the world shifts from the Atlantic to the Indian and Pacific oceans, that trend is set to continue, and accelerate. Australia is a major component of that story.
Just read the New York Times - in the past few months alone, it has published 16 stories from its Sydney-based correspondent. On what might be called the NYT index - or perhaps the Bryson scale - Australia is fairing exceedingly well.
In recent years, other major news organisations, like Sky News and al-Jazeera, have also established bureaus here. The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times and Bloomberg all provide a steady and comprehensive stream of coverage.
Much of the reporting of Australia is highly favourable. Sometimes even envying. Inevitably, the success of a seemingly recession-proof economy gets this country a very strong financial press - even if, as we noted a few weeks back, the talk over the coming months will be of whether it has been infected by the "Dutch disease", an over-reliance on the booming resources sector that is having a distorting effect on the economy as a whole.
On the commercial front, companies like BHP and Rio Tinto have become Asian bellwethers, and thus also global bellwethers. So, too, has the shopping mall giant Westfield, whose results provide insights into the economic health not only of Australia, but America and Britain as well.
Soon, Brazil, that South American emerging giant, will be added to the list. Rather like the length of the queue of coal ships outside Newcastle, the world's largest coal export port, Westfield's retail results are fast becoming a global barometer.
Macquarie Group is another Australian company always worth watching, not least because it is estimated to be the single largest non-governmental owner of infrastructure in the world.
In the arts and entertainment, as we have noted many times before, the cultural cringe has been superseded by a cultural creep. Just read the adulatory reviews whenever Cate Blanchett takes a Sydney Theatre Company production to New York or Washington, or when Peter Carey publishes a new novel.
Doubtless, vestiges of the cringe still exist. I'm regularly amazed, for instance, at the overly-deferential welcome reserved for visiting writers, scholars and polemicists, some of whom are granted a star status here that they could never hope to achieve at home. The "what do you think of Australia?" syndrome is evident still, especially in the quality press and on ABC.
On the lifestyle front, Australia remains a global superpower. The food. The beaches. The staggeringly beautiful countryside. The coffee. It's all happening. Only this week, The Economist judged Melbourne, that great over-achiever, to be the world's most liveable city. Sydney, Perth and Adelaide joined it in the top 10.
If further proof of Australia's lifestyle clout is needed, just venture into a bookshop in London and see how many homegrown chefs and interior designers are offering coffee-book-table advice on how to replicate the Australian way of life. Then see how many people are buying them.
For all that, the reporting of this country regularly returns to some strong negatives, as well. Still shocking to outside observers is the chasm in living standards between white Australia and black Australia. However, this is not an urgent national priority, nor is it likely to become one.
Sometimes, I wonder what would have happened if, say, the independent MP wielding the balance of power in the House of Representatives had come not from Tasmania or New South Wales but been an Aboriginal MP from the Northern Territory (by the way, the first and only Aboriginal member of the House of Representatives is a Liberal from Western Australia). Alas, indigenous voters do not comprise a significant voting bloc in federal elections, and never will. Politically speaking, the first Australians are largely ignored.
The asylum seeker issue is another area where Australia continues to incur reputational damage. Numerically, the problem is comparatively small from an international perspective. Politically, the problem is disproportionately large. For the BBC, this is not a numbers story, but a reaction story. A boatload of, say, 37 Sri Lankan asylum seekers is never our headline. Rather, it is the Pavlovian response to each new boat arrival from both sides of politics that gives us our story.
Were there more news around or were the economy in worse shape, perhaps the problem would not loom so large. The press and the politicians would have others things to hyperventilate about. On a number of levels, then, the boat people issue is what might be called a successful nation problem.
Asylum seekers want to make their futures here for obvious reasons. In the absence of major economic headaches, politicians are looking for "wedge" issues and other points of divergence. The press is in need of stories - especially ones that come with such strong pictures, which helps explain why "boat people" asylum seekers attract more media attention than those arriving by air, who come in far greater numbers.
Tellingly, both of these negatives involve race. But we are not talking here of a redneck nation. Rather, I have always thought that the big racial story over the past 50 years has been one of successful multiculturalism and assimilation.
Sure, this is a country which gave rise to Pauline Hanson and where there is a still a lot of racial insensitivity and low-level racism. But the larger story is one of racial success and inclusiveness, especially given the massive demographic changes that have overtaken this country since World War II.
My final negative concerns Australian politics. In the most recent past, I have always written with great affection about a country that I love, but it has been hard to summon much enthusiasm for politicians on either side. There is something very dismal and second-rate about the quality of politics and politicians in Canberra. Indeed, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott seem to revel in their parochialism, and reinforce it in each other.
When Julia Gillard stated that foreign affairs was not her passion, the rest of the world responded, justifiably, with the same indifference. She has been nowhere near as newsworthy as her recent predecessors, Kevin Rudd, John Howard, Paul Keating, Bob Hawke. Tony Abbott has also expressed a preference for being a "stay-at-home prime minister". Indeed, he turned it into a campaign boast. Both the major parties then are led by figures whose limited ambitions are happily accommodated within these shores.
That is why I have found it so hard to report on Canberra - in recent times, it has made a mockery of the sophisticated, modern and relevant country that is evident elsewhere.
The anger and hostility is currently being compared with the mood in 1975 during the Gough Whitlam dismissal crisis. But it also has a late-60s feel - a post-Menzies, pre-Whitlam interlude when the country appeared to be treading water, and waiting for something to happen.
Certainly, there is something stultifying and stalled about the national life right. In my final week, the headlines came from David Hicks, John Howard, asylum seekers and the governmental response to climate change. In other words, pretty much the same headlines which predominated when first I arrived.
So my advice to any new arrival - and, in particular, my successor Duncan Kennedy - would simply be this: don't judge Australia by its politics. It is a far more clever, sassy and consequential nation than that.
You were very generous in your comments at the end of the last blog - too kind - and I hope that many of you will stay in touch via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Twitter (@nickbryantoz).
Certainly, this country will forever be a major part of my life. As the regulars know, my wife is a beautiful Sydneysider, and our fabulously cheery son does indeed come from the land down under. Australia is writ large in my family's DNA.
But in this space, I have tested your patience for long enough. So a quick leave-taking.
There is, after all, a recent journalistic precedent. And that is simply to say: thank you and goodbye.