Mate, Just Look At Yourself!
By Nick BryantApril 25, 2012
Australia has a better story than its lazy clichés would suggest. The wonder from down under needs a linguistic relocation.
Midway through 2009, when Kevin Rudd looked still like a leader who would one day have the word 'era' attached to his name, a select group of young Australian historians received calls from the Prime Minister's office in Canberra asking if they would participate in a series of meetings in Sydney.
Mr Rudd's chief speechwriter, Tim Dixon, explained that the government wanted a "smarter engagement" with Australian history, and that Labor was losing the culture wars debate to conservatives. The Rudd government wanted to produce an alternative national narrative that went beyond the foundation story of Gallipoli popularised by John Howard — one which had more of a progressive, and less of a militaristic, slant. The Prime Minister was particularly keen to explore how core Labor principles, such as egalitarianism and fairness, could become more resonant. "The left had embraced the black-armband view of history," says Tim Dixon, "and lost the thread of a positive story for Australia."
Soon after, some of the country's leading historians, along with a number of progressive thinkers, gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel in Sydney's CBD. There, they took part in two, day-long discussions that had the freewheeling feel of academic seminars but which also had a political purpose. Ideally, the thinking that emerged from these gatherings would be crystallized in a series of prime ministerial speeches.
"There was a strong feeling that we were losing the big-picture narrative," says David Hetherington from the think-tank Per Capita, who took part in one of the sessions, "and that Howard had wrenched the debate away from us. We weren't prosecuting the big culture war battle strongly enough."
ANZAC revivalism was a case in point. In the trenches of Gallipoli, the right saw the kind of rugged individualism that matched their conservative philosophy. Instead, Labor wanted to highlight mateship under fire and the fierce egalitarianism of Australian diggers.
During one session, Dennis Glover, a speechwriter for a number of leading ALP figures, presented a paper on how Labor could rewrite the narrative of Gallipoli and move beyond the notion that mateship was exclusively male and Anglo-Saxon.
There was a discussion on the role of women in Australian society, long an area of historiographical neglect. Tim Dixon was also particularly keen to focus on how, since its earliest days, Australia had been a laboratory of social reform — pioneering a living wage, old age pensions and female suffrage. Why, Australia had even voted in the world's first Labour government.
Soon after, in August 2009, Kevin Rudd delivered a speech which distilled many of these ideas at the launch of Thomas Keneally's new historical study Australians: Origins to Eureka. Most notably, Rudd called for a "truce" in the history wars and "to leave behind the polarisation that began to infect every discussion of our nation's past".
Not only was the Sydney dialogue indicative of Labor's problem in advancing a narrative but also of Australia's as a whole.
As Kevin Rudd argued at the Keneally book launch, the culture wars of the past decade have led to the politicisation of history — the appropriation of national stories, including Gallipoli, as much as their articulation. Countervailing, politically-charged narratives — mateship against individualism, collective endeavour against personal independence — have stood in the way of the emergence of a more cohesive and consensual national story.
As for the more recent success story of Australia's economic exceptionalism — its adeptness at avoiding the past three global recessions — the hyper-partisanship on daily display in Canberra has served again as an obstacle.
Labor has found it hard to acknowledge the contribution of John Howard and Peter Costello, much as Howard failed to give due credit to Paul Keating and, less so, Bob Hawke. The great reform era, stretching from opening up of the economy under Labor to the introduction of the GST under the Coalition, has been a shared enterprise, which both the right and left can look back on with pride. But politicians have found to hard to bring themselves to fairly apportion the credit.
For Labor, the ouster of Kevin Rudd has added an extra layer of complication.
Julia Gillard has preferred to erase her predecessor from the picture altogether, as she did at the ALP conference last December when she omitted his name from her honour roll of former Labor prime ministers, rather than salute his successful economic stewardship in the wake of the global financial crisis. Labor cannot even settle on a take of its four years in office, let alone trace a broader arc.
Nor has the Liberal leader Tony Abbott yet come up with his own big-picture speech — even though, as he showed in his book Battlelines and in a thoughtful essay on national identity that he penned for the Bicentenary edition of The Bulletin in 1988, he is more than intellectually equipped to do so. Instead, his leadership has come to be defined by sloganeering and negativity, while his imaginings of Australia appear sepia-tinted, rather than blue sky.
Into this void have stepped two of the country's leading political journalists, Peter Hartcher, the political and international editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, and George Megalogenis, a columnist with The Australian. Both have produced fresh national narratives that go beyond the partisan. Perhaps they have even contributed to a shift in the national paradigm — although to put it in these terms is to invite the kind of piss-taking that has traditionally militated against national self-congratulation.
In The Sweet Spot: How Australia Made Its Own Luck — and Could Now Throw It All Away, Hartcher argues that Australia seemed "destined to fail" at the moment of white settlement in 1788, and that its geographic remoteness, "fragile environment", population of "criminal outcasts", and "racial discrimination and exclusion" seemed to conspire against success. In just over 200 years, however, it has become a model nation, a global exemplar.
"Australia today is closer than it has ever been to fulfilling its promise as a golden land," he writes, "even the most golden of all lands."
Strangely, however, Australia has been reticent about its attainments. "If this were a sporting triumph, Australians would have erupted in a frenzy of celebration," he wryly observes. "Perhaps we need a medal ceremony to get people's attention?"
George Megalogenis not only has christened this The Australian Moment, but spoken as well of an "Australian miracle". After nearly three decades of continuous reform, he notes, the country is "more versatile today than any other first-world nation".
Like Hartcher, however, he is struck by the lack of self-congratulation. It "does not fit with the humble story we have been telling ourselves since federation," he claims, "that we are a spoilt people in charge of a minerals-rich continent, a quarry with a view."
The "laconic side" of the national character "wants to downplay the achievement", he adds. "The insecure side assumes that we will succumb soon enough."
Then there is the "self-sabotaging streak" overlaid by an aversion to "self-reflection". Indeed, the country personifies itself in the Olympic gold medallist Steven Bradbury, the journeyman speed skater who managed to remain upright while everyone in front of him tumbled on the ice.
Yet there is another reason for Australia's disinclination to bask in its own achievements beyond the sporting realm, which relates more to its means of self-expression than a failure of self-awareness. The language, tropes and cliches commonly used to define this often confounding land are becoming increasingly obsolete. Australia has a national vocabulary that is no longer fit for purpose, and a frame of thinking that is starting to look like a derelict shell. The country will not get its narrative right until it dispenses with its dated vernacular.
The Lucky Country thinking promulgated by Donald Horne in the mid-sixties, at once so durable and debilitating, is partly to blame: this self-belittling notion that the country is undeserving of its success and owes it, in large part, to its rich endowment of natural resources. Here again, Hartcher and Megalogenis have performed a valuable service by offering a counter-narrative.
The last journalist to interview Donald Horne, Hartcher describes his book as a response to The Lucky Country. It reads, however, more like a rebuttal. He reminds us, for instance, that Australia managed to avoid two of the last three global recessions — the Asian financial crisis in 1997 and the dot.com collapse in 2000 — well before the effects of the mining boom trickled through to the rest of the economy.
"By the time the commodities boom of the 2000s began its first phase in 2004-2005," he notes, "Australia had already developed a flexible, high-performance economy that was consistently outstripping US growth." Others had noticed this, as well, he says, not least Paul Krugman, the Nobel prize-winning American economist, who observed as far back as 1998 Australia was "the miracle economy of the world financial crisis".
From George Megalogenis comes the second punch in the one-two combination aimed at Horne. "An American or a European might think it is easy for us to gloat when we are blessed with the world's biggest quarry in China's backyard," he writes. "But China didn't get us through the initial phase of the GFC. The communist stimulus only kicked in later in 2009, well after the first phase of ours had done its job."
What makes Horne's The Lucky Country so hard to knock down is not just that its title has been so frequently misappropriated, but also that its thesis has been so widely misinterpreted.
In a 1976 follow-up, entitled Death of the Lucky Country, Horne sought to clarify precisely what he meant:
"When I invented the phrase in 1964 to describe Australia, I said: 'Australia is a lucky country run by second rate people who share its luck.' I didn't mean that it had a lot of material resources … I had in mind the idea of Australia as a derived society whose prosperity in the great age of manufacturing came from the luck of its historical origins … In the lucky style we have never 'earned' our democracy. We simply went along with some British habits."
To quote from this passage is to open up all sorts of a new lines of debate, but it helps scotch the idea that luck and success automatically equate with abundant resources — what might be called the "fluro-jacketed version" of Australian contemporary history.
Just as Lucky Country thinking has long been an impediment, so too has the over-reliance on anthropomorphic language to describe Australia's national development: the linguistic corollary of being settled by the "Mother Country". Terms like "colonial upstart", "rebellious teenager" or "aggressive adolescence" imply stunted development and an inability to achieve full maturity.
Australia might not yet be fully realised — which country is? — but to describe it as immature or in some way adolescent is preposterous. As Clive James observed in 2000, when he wrote in celebration of the Sydney Olympics — an event commonly described as Australia's "coming of age" — "it was only the belief that was lacking, never the maturity".
Mother Country-speak has spawned other familial expressions. We talk of an "umbilical relationship" with Britain, of the need to "cut the apron springs" or, as Horne put it, to bring about some "final casting off". All imply that Australia is still struggling to overcome a childlike fear of abandonment. All speak of an Anglo-centric mindset which, with each iron ore shipment to China or new security arrangement with Washington, seems antiquated.
This language is particularly problematic for republicans, not only because it plays on a sentimental attachment that has buttressed the status quo, but also because it presumes that Australia remains somehow reliant on Britain performing a parental, or matriarchal, role.
Little wonder that James Curran, a historian at Sydney University and the co-author of The Unknown Nation: Australia After Empire, argues for a "rhetorical reset" in a new collection of essays on republicanism due out later this year. With dismay, he cites the 2010 National Republican Lecture delivered by Professor Patrick McGorry, that year's Australian of the Year, who spoke of emerging from "prolonged adolescence" into "the full flower of independent adulthood".
Such expressions, notes Curran, "will struggle to win new converts to the cause. Indeed, it might be a requirement for all future republican advocates to swear that they will henceforth dispense with these tired, creaky old anatomical metaphors. The republican debate need not be permanently riddled with this strain of rhetorical arthritis."
Rhetorical rigor mortis is perhaps the way to describe the language of Australian remoteness. Given the shift of the global locus from the Atlantic to the Pacific, terms such as "antipodes", which grew from being at the opposite end of the earth's surface to Britain, and its popular derivative the "land down under" which first appeared in the 1880s, seem especially redundant.
Indeed, the "land down under" tends now to be used mainly when Australians are trying to make their country intelligible to Americans, as with tourism advertisements. Or, when Julia Gillard addressed a joint session of Congress last year, and told US lawmakers: "You have a true friend Down Under."
As for "The Tyranny of Distance," the title of Geoffrey Blainey's landmark 1967 study, it is very much a relic from the bush telegraph and steamship age.
"Australians don't think of themselves as being down under anymore," says Joseph Pugliese, associate professor of cultural studies at Macquarie University. "Nor is the tyranny of distance used in popular or academic discourse. The younger generation would not even know what is meant by it."
The vocabulary of peripheralism is also being banished from the diplomatic lexicon.
Surely it no longer requires "very good peripheral vision to see Australia on the world map", as Owen Harries, the former planning head at the Department of Foreign Affairs, suggested during his ABC Boyer lecture in 2003.
Nor is Australia the "strategic backwater" that Kim Beazley described (a recent article in the New York Times located the country in China's "strategic backyard"). Surely, no future prime minister would ever say, as Paul Keating did in a private conversation with Bob Hawke prior to entering The Lodge, that Australia is at the "arse end of the world". Instead, Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan talk about being in "the right place at the right time", a formulation that is starting to take hold.
Besides, a new vocabulary is already emerging that reflects the nearness of Australia. Tim Harcourt, the self-styled "Airport Economist", talks now about the "power of proximity". Recently, during a discussion on the Arab Spring at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, a fellow insisted on referring to the Middle East as West Asia, which speaks of the global reorientation. Bob Carr, the new foreign affairs minister, has started to use the inelegant phrase "Asianised" to describe the country he now represents abroad.
Even internationally, where old clichés die hard, the phrase "down under", with its imputations of isolation and irrelevance, is less commonly used.
In a cover story last year, The Economist dubbed Australia "The Golden State" (in an accompanying 13,000-word special report, the words "down under" did not appear once).
Signing off after a five-year stint as the BBC's Australia correspondent, my final dispatch was entitled "The Consequential Country" (although, confessedly, I often found it hard to resist the phrase, "the wonder from down under"). In the wake of the Obama administration's Asian pivot, Charles Emmerson, a scholar at Chatham House in London, referred to "the pivotal country".
Just as the conversation about national success is changing, so, too, are attitudes towards personal success.
Perhaps it is to also time, then, to rethink the Tall Poppy Syndrome, a phrase that was not used until 1979 but which has since become the laziest of journalistic fallbacks.
After all, in the past 12 months, Australians have rejoiced at the achievements of their compatriots, whether it came on the Champs Élysées in Paris, with the yellow jersey success of the cyclist Cadel Evans, the courts of Flushing Meadows in New York, where the tennis player Sam Stosur won the US Open title, or the Stockholm Concert Hall, where Brian Schmidt — or CosmicPinot, as he is known to his followers on Twitter — received his Nobel Prize for Physics.
Geoffrey Rush, one of the country's more exotic flowers, has proved a popular winner of the Australian of the Year, while Michael Clarke, a one-time victim of the national scythe, has blossomed as a batsman and a captain.
Is not a celebration of the individual evident in the popular success of the Archibald Prize in Sydney or the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra? Or the literary and other cultural awards that, until recently, proliferated? Nor were Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull victims of the tall poppy syndrome. Approved of by the public, it was their party rooms that cut them down — and well before the point of full flower.
Like the Tall Poppy Syndrome, the cultural cringe tells us more about slothful journalism and tired commentary than any lingering pangs of inferiority. In any case, the cringe long gave way to the cultural creep, Australia's mounting artistic influence abroad. Nor does "She'll be right," a phrase that made its debut in the Adelaide Mail in 1940, seem to fit a country that has worked so industriously and creatively for its success.
Yet, as the database at the Australian National Dictionary Centre in Canberra reveals, "She'll be right" gets at least two outings a week in Australian newspapers, while "Tall Poppy Syndrome" has been a weekly fixture for years. As the Centre's director, Sarah Ogilvie, notes: "People are still using phrases which to an outsider seem anachronistic."
The irony is that words and new expressions are the first indicator of cultural change and that academic lexicographers usually have to race to catch up.
Australia at present seems to defy that lexicographical rule. So much of its vernacular describes the old Australia rather than the new — an assumed country rather than the real thing.
So the time has come for renovation, for the language is lagging behind The Australia Moment.