When people talk about Asia, they do not generally mean Australia. After all, it is the largest part of a theoretically separate continent, Oceania, and its people are white and British in origin for the most part.
However Oceania is a cultural term as much as anything. It refers to places where there a mix of native Polynesians and white European settlers, and English is the language of the educated, and more prestigious than native languages. As a functioning entity, it has no meaning, so Australia, which should be taking the lead as the largest country in that continent, has to be part of something else to serve any purpose.
The Australian national flag, like that of neighbouring New Zealand, famously includes the British Union Jack in one corner, and an astronomical feature, the Southern Cross, which is visible in that hemisphere but not from the British Isles. Regardless of what it officially represents the message is clear: this is both a southern outpost of the British race, and a place which takes its lead from the Old Country, rather than those nearer to it in the Asian continent.
Brexiteers have been routinely maligned for turning their backs on the European Union, a few miles away, and trying to forge new trading partnerships with countries much further afield, despite the higher costs and lower volumes involved. Australia has always operated this way, and not done badly out of the arrangement.
But as years have gone by, Australians have grown tired of being treated as inferior forms of British – eternal colonials – on the international stage. With reluctance they have looked towards Asia, and peoples either linguistically different or “coloured”, in an attempt to gain any credence for themselves and their needs in an increasingly globalised marketplace.
Coven of сolonies
This shift has taken various forms. Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating maintained when he was in office that the flag needed to be changed if Australia was to be a serious nation. The response of cartoonists was to show Keating hoisting a new flag with the Japanese flag in the top corner, leading the country away from its colonial past to its new colonial future.
But all of these attempts have floundered in the same way the campaign to make Australia a republic failed in 1999. On that occasion, Australians of all backgrounds chose to retain the Queen of the United Kingdom, who lives tens of thousands of miles away, as the Head of State rather than elect one of their own, who lived there, to rule their country.
The slogan of the No campaign was not “No Republic Ever” but “No to THIS Republic”. The British monarchy is something Australians know and understand, even if they dislike it. Any alternative model would leave Australians not knowing who they are, and who their natural friends and enemies should be, and thus diminish both their international standing and their aspirations to become a major nation.
All this has left Australia in a position where it is never happier than when it is being exploited. Not by others, but by itself. If others do it, the local spirit rises and the country strikes back, though temporarily. But if it exploits itself, it doesn’t have to resolve its identity crisis and play the major world role it should, because it can always cry about the consequences of this lack of real character.
Red in tooth and bore
Last month Australia held a parliamentary election which resulted in a surprise win for the Labor Party. This is one of the two traditional parties of government, so the win didn’t represent a great change. But Labor doesn’t win majorities too often, and doing so now has reopened a lot of debates the politicians assumed the public didn’t want to engage with.
The key to Labor is the way it spells its name. It used to be called the Australian Labour Party, using the English spelling of the word, although both spellings were used interchangeably for a long time. The American version eventually prevailed because it was used alongside the word Australian: Labor was very traditional and nationalistic, like labour parties anywhere, but saw its nationalism as progressive rather than a sentimental attachment to the past.
Labor is still in the old mould of a trade union based, industrial working class party, focusing on the usually ultraconservative concerns of the working man rather than the theoretical radicalism of the intellectual left. This fact has often been used against the party, most famously in a photo of another former Prime minister, Gough Whitlam, peering through the doors of a party caucus meeting from the outside waiting to be told by the union men, not elected MPs, what his policy was.
But it also means that wherever Labor goes, so does the losing side of the argument. When that side wins, all the shibboleths get dragged up again: republicanism, relations with the indigenous peoples, how a party of the left should behave, and above all, who Australia’s friends should be.
New Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is a man of the system, who has spent all his working life within the party, generating favours and calling them in. Yet he is also one of the more leftist members, and despite his history of promoting party unity is already getting every dismissed radical idea stuck to his name, the assumption being that a new broom must want whatever most Australians don’t want.
Albanese is a man who can’t even decide who to pronounce his own name, just like Georgia’s Salome Zurabishvili can’t decide how to spell hers. He is whatever it suits him to be to effect the change he is looking for. But he has as much chance of changing Australia as Zurabishvili has of being taken as anything other than a rich foreign spy.
Every nice idea Albanese might have will vanish into thin air because he cannot lead Australia to a better relationship with its Asian neighbours, where its future lies. It is too different a place, and the most progressive ideas won’t solve that. But his main problem is that Australia will never be a major country because it isn’t even a fully sovereign state.
Australia has chosen to put itself in a situation in which its old alliances create an improbable dependency, but the only answer is to replace this with even greater dependency. It may not want to be seen as the rude, boorish, slang-speaking bastard cousin of the still-prestigious British and Americans, but it will never be anything else, however unfair the stereotype, unless it can develop an Australian identity and then put it into practice.
Very old kid on the block
Australia has made several attempts to become a real country. None of them have worked because they don’t know what that means. It is difficult building relations with your neighbours when your every move tells them you are too scared to know who you are.
The aforementioned Gough Whitlam was removed from power by the Governor-General, the Queen’s representative in Australia, for embarking on a collision course with parliament which resulted in him being unable to guarantee supply, i.e. that the government would have the money it needed to run. At least that was the official version.
The unspoken truth was later revealed by the legendary John Pilger – that the US and UK wanted him out because he was withdrawing Australian troops from Vietnam and trying to gain control of Australia’s defence facilities, which were effectively under US and UK control.
Other countries with US bases in them are effectively controlled by the US, but they are not mature democracies of long standing, led by English speakers with deep ties to the homeland. Only Australia had put itself in this position voluntarily, because it was desperate to prove it belonged with its old friends, regardless of the rhetoric about Australia being the last domino expected to fall to Communism, an ideology which has no meaning or relevance there.
Australians themselves failed to re-elect Whitlam in the subsequent election, preferring to be dependents. Now they have brought in a new government which is supposedly in the radical mould of Whitlam’s, but has achieved power in strangely similar circumstances to those which removed Whitlam.
Outgoing Prime Minister Scott Morrison became seen as boorish and out of touch partly because he reneged on a submarine deal with France, preferring instead to develop a new arrangement with – you’ve guessed it – the US and UK to provide nuclear submarines. Emmanuel Macron claims Morrison negotiated secretly to dump his deal and join the new Aukus Pact, Morrison denies this and the other parties say they don’t know who’s telling the truth.
But the end result is that Australia has ended up further tied to its old friends, but able to say it is more open to the French, who were particularly congratulatory of Albanese, seen as their man. This puts Australia in an exact replica of the US position towards the UK and EU at the present time.
Maybe it would have come to this position as a fully independent state, with a mind and purpose of its own. But the similarity of these events, fifty years apart, suggests no one wants us to ever know.
There are many other examples of Australia selling itself down the river because it doesn’t know which river it should be sailing on. The country is famous for its wool industry, and is the world’s leading exporter of this commodity. The sheep shearer is as iconic to Australia as the cowboy is to the US, and unlike cowboys, many of the shearers remain natives.
If Australians want this high quality wool, they have to import it back again, paying a premium to obtain what only exists through their labour. These are the economics of a banana republic, even though they have produced First World levels of development.
Many Asian countries can tell you what happens when you have one resource to rely on and sell it all to the rich countries. Australia cannot provide leadership regionally or domestically if it does what Third World countries do to dig themselves an ever deeper hole.
Australia has an on-going problem with police corruption. There have been a number of cases of senior officers working hand in hand with criminals, effectively running their own crime empires from behind their badges. These in themselves are distractions from well documented police involvement in drugs, prostitution and other forms of exploitative crime which can only exist if the authorities turn a blind eye.
This again is considered a Third World characteristic, and derives from the same problem: people don’t respect or believe in the state they live in. As an institution of the state, the police should represent a higher value than the general population, not a lower one. If the police themselves don’t care about values, no one else will, and a country which cannot resolve such problems is in no position to join regional forums whose purpose is to improve things in their neighbourhood.
Loud noises non can understand
Due to its origins, the white British former colony of Australia has a perspective it can offer other nations. But it is not one most are interested in, because they can get the same from the US and UK, in both its positive and negative dimensions.
The new Australia expected of Anthony Albanese will have to be a country which offers a positive difference to these countries, enhancing the good elements and eschewing the bad. The good elements include its democratic traditions, economic stability, English (therefore global) cultural roots and the outward looking nature of the population, great travellers due to the country’s relative isolation. But these will not add up to anything unless they create something different which others can’t get elsewhere, not a begging bowl version of the same.
Australia will only do this by creating deeper integration with its regional neighbours from very different cultural traditions, as the UK once thought it should with Europe. The one thing above all which Asian and Pacific countries have in common is having overthrown foreign domination. But most of them have made significantly more progress in doing so than Australia, for whom the UK is only nominally foreign and the US is the preferred colonial master, and they know this.
Asia represents the future for Australia, but only if it can develop sufficient identity to stand alongside the nations of that continent, however poor and obscure some of those may be. The Albanese government will be expected to provide that, but only for as long as is comfortable. When it goes too far along that road, and finds nothing, it will sell itself to the devil once again – and will remain too scared of that lack of identity to admit there is a price.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.