Australia


Is Australia racist? This question comes up from time to time, both in the local commentariat and internationally. It may be prompted by an event in indigenous politics, or by the brutality of off-shore detention for asylum seekers arriving by boat, or by a politician stating a person has the ‘right to be a bigot‘. Sure, these are racist moments, or have the potential to foster racism among some. But it is a different question when someone asks, ‘is Australia racist?’ The problem is that the question itself is racist. It assumes that Australia has a known identity, which is white and derived from Europe. Everyone who does not have such an identity is therefore the other against which ‘Australia’ is opposed – even indigenous people. I am reminded of a German visitor, who opined one evening in a restaurant: ‘we’re the only table of Australians; all the rest are Chinese’. Chances are that more than 90% of those he viewed as ‘Chinese’ were also Australian.

Obviously, this is problematic and indeed incorrect. To begin with, the assertion of a distinct and known identity is voiced by an increasingly vocal minority. The more they assert such an identity, the more clearly is it under question. The reality is that Australia is in the middle of a long debate concerning identity. With the demographic and geopolitical changes of the last 60 years, people argue whether to hold onto a faded colonial heritage or whether we need to come to terms with the reality of being a country in between the Pacific and South-East Asia. The latter is as much a cultural and economic fact, as it is a geographical one. The last election in 2013 was a good symbol of this, with a Chinese speaking Labor leader (Kevin Rudd) firmly focused on Asia, and an English immigrant keen to kiss the queen of England’s hand (Tony Abbott).

Other indicators of this search for a new identity may be found in the responses of many visitors. I find that visitors who come here for the first time tend to have a certain preconception that is blown out of the water when they get here. Europeans are thrown since the expected codes from home are reconfigured and indeed absent. The increasing number of first-time visitors from Asia whom I encounter keep saying to me that Australia is nothing like they expected (i.e. Western and European). Perhaps it is telling that even the BBC lists Australia under its Asian section.

Whoever uses an air conditioner is a wimp. As the real heat-waves of summer are upon us, many people in these parts flee indoors and turn on the air conditioner. At home, at work, in a car – wherever you happen to be, an air conditioner is available.

But then you miss the glorious feel of summer. The sting of the sun at noon, the smell of air that has been baked, the sweat that cleans out your pores, the indescribable feel of lying in bed naked at night, floating on the heat and drifting off to sleep. Nothing beats the sensation of going for a run or a ride on a 40 degree day. And if you spend all day blasted by an air conditioner, how can you appreciate the sea on a hot evening?

What happens if the air conditioner breaks down, or if the button gets stuck on hot? Having lost the ability to enjoy the heat, let alone tolerate it, you’re stuffed.

In the unending cycle produced by bourgeois democracy, that curious regime of conservatives and liberals in power in Australia for a little while are starting to sound more and more like a hysterical minority. The tired old game of school curriculum reform is on the agenda again, with much bleating about the curriculum being hijacked by gays, greenies, and feminists (this is news to me, as to many others). The answer: discourage critical thinking and foster the ‘Western heritage.’ To be added here is the claim that the ‘Anglosphere’ is the prime identity of Australia, which is really a code for some long-lost connection with the UK.

Like a majority of Australians, this is meaningless for me. We have no connection, whether through kinship or culture, with what these strangely deluded people are saying. So why do they do it? Apart from the necessity of hurdles that must be constructed to get in the way of some conservative utopia that they really don’t want (as I argued in Political Myth), it seems to me that the increasing hysteria is actually a signal that they are in the minority. The greater the awareness of their minority status, the noisier they become. That means it is also a signal of the long process of redefining our identity as a place in between the Pacific and Asia.

Has the French President, François Hollande, recalled a trace of socialism? The new super-tax on those earning over 1 million euro is set to go ahead. In a nice twist, it will be companies and employers who pay the 75% tax if they pay an employee over the ceiling. Of course, it is a weak measure and should really kick in no higher than 100,000 euro per annum.

Contrast the latest proposal by those ‘mean little people‘ in power in Australia, with the clueless Tony Abbott in charge. In order to save some pennies penalise low-income earners, they have proposed a $6 fee for those who visit doctors who charge only the medicare rate (and thereby charge nothing to the patient). Obviously, this targets the poor. Such vision!

People are always surprised when I mention that gypsies have been living in Australia for more than 200 years. In fact, the great Australian poet, Henry Lawson (anglicised from Larsen), had a mother with gypsy background. Current estimates put the number of people with gypsy heritage at 25,000. Three clans are represented here: English Romanies, or Romanichal (the first was most likely Lazarus Scamp, deported for ‘stealing’ a sheep in 1780), Kalderash (traditionally metalworkers from Europe, from 1898 on), and Roma from Eastern Europe after 1945 (more here). So why don’t they do what gypsies are supposed to do, according to the racist caricatures common in Europe? I mean abduct children, play piano accordions on the streets, pick pockets, beg, smuggle engage in prostitution, and so on. The fact is that the vast majority of gypsies don’t do any of that, especially here. It is more likely that you simply won’t notice an Australian of gypsy background, since he or she will be doing whatever the rest of us immigrants do.

Following on my last post about silly questions people ask about Australia, here is a list of items my grandparents brought with them when immigrating to Australia in the late 1950s (from the Netherlands). They believed that these items were not available in a wild and prehistoric country:

- Lounge and dining furniture, made of heavy Dutch oak

- Bedroom furniture for a family of nine

- Linen and curtains

- New crockery and dinner set

- Cutlery, especially a large meat and vegetable cutter

- Several sets of thick Dutch clothing for the whole family

- Nylon stockings

- Large wooden washing machine

- Lamp shades

- A whole chest of Omo (washing powder) and a vast supply of pot scrubbers.

The whole country was of course deeply indebted to my grandparents for bringing these items of civilisation, for until then people had lived in the trees. (ht cb)

Does Clive Palmer express the truth of bourgeois politics? For those not in the know, Clive Palmer is the billionaire miner who leads a brand new political party called PUP, the Palmer United Party. Formed only 12 weeks before the elections on 7 September, he managed to snare a seat for himself in the lower house and two or maybe three members of his party will be senators. In the senate his party may well end up with the balance of power. All legislation will need his personal approval. But the gargantuan Palmer, who made his billions through mining, is also sponsoring a rebuilding of the Titanic, and is constructing the world’s largest animatronic dinosaur park on the Gold Coast. Some have dismissed him as a clown, but others know that he is a pretty cunning operator.

So how did win so much power in such a short time? Money. He pumped millions into all sorts of election campaigning, even side-stepping the media ban four days before the election by running ads for his Coolum resort (where the dinosaurs are headed) on the Gold Coast. And publicity. He knows how to keep his message out front, both by buying media time and by giving the message bite. And manipulation. With the votes in his own seat coming down to the wire, his party put immense pressure on the Australian Electoral Commission, questioning more than half of the almost 90,000 votes twice. Analysts suggested this was a calculated abuse of the process in order to get the desired result. And disillusion. For many traditional Labor and Liberal voters, he provided that authentic edge: an outsider taking on the grey establishment. With Palmer and his sidekicks in parliament for the next three or more years, he’ll make sure the politics will be colourful, since he has promised to give Tony Abbott a hard time.

So how does he express the truth of Australian, and thereby bourgeois, politics? It’s simple, really. The big capitalists have always manipulated results to their own liking. The difference is that the main parties have traditionally hidden behind the screen of electoral commissions and such like, desperately creating the illusion that they keep the influence peddlers at arm’s length. Palmer has openly shown his disdain of the electoral commission as an unnecessary encumbrance. Money is the obvious one here too, but with an intriguing twist. Of course, money always buys elections, but the parties pretend it doesn’t through the ludicrous system of ‘donations’. This sets up the entrenched pattern of corruption, with ‘donations’ channeled in all sorts of ways to avoid scrutiny. By contrast, Palmer has abolished corruption in one simple move. The mining tycoon no longer needs to ‘donate’ to a political party; he becomes a political party himself. He is donor, lobbyist, and politician all rolled into one.

I ask this question as one who has a foot in Europe and a foot in Australia – in terms of ancestry, personal life, religion, and writing. I spend a reasonable amount of time in both, and definitely know how to enjoy myself in either place. But what is it about Europe?

To begin with, I suggest it is the thinly veiled barbarism of Europe that I find so attractive, a backwardness camouflaged as civilisation. It shows up at all sorts of levels. If you pay attention to the way people carry their bodies, to the way they walk and stand, how they are in the world, then a distinct awkwardness begins to show. Clothes seem like a recent encumbrance, frequent washing is still an imposition. Think of the peasant who has unexpectedly fallen into some money.

Second, there’s a deep-seated tribalism that masquerades as cosmopolitanism. People from the same ethnic group, in the same countryside, unaccountably hold long antagonisms to each other. Norwegians and Danes, Dutch and Germans, Serbs and Croats, Macedonians and Bulgarians … the list is almost endless. This tribalism is appealing in a curious way, like visiting a relic from the past.

Both the backwardness and tribalism manifest themselves in that rather amusing European habit of international arrogance. One can only admire the sheer bravado of assuming the superiority of European culture, politics, medicine, technology, scholarship. But it makes sense when one realises how recent this empty superiority is. No wonder those of more ancient civilisations – such as China or Australia – smile knowingly and shake their heads when encountering such Euro-arrogance.

Perhaps the most appealing aspect is the way Europeans are so often completely thrown by places like Australia. Expectations and preconceptions are not met; codes of living are scrambled; judgements are made hastily; not a few respond defensively and become Australophobes. I think here of a professor from those soggy isles on the western fringe of Europe who loudly proclaims – in good colonialist fashion – that the place is an absolute shithole and that he has come here both to bring enlightenment and to get out as quickly as possible. Or of the immigrant who is afraid of the bush and has not been outside a city for more than twenty years. Or of the wife who is unable to settle and demands a return “home” after thirty years, or simply walks out because she is unable to adjust. Much earlier, I have encountered it in the “explorer” journals, as the colonists desperately tried to map and claim and make sense of the place – usually to no avail.

I discussed this last point with a European who has come to Australia more recently – Christina. It is not merely the easy point that Australia is home to the oldest continuous civilisation on earth, making Europe look like a recent upstart. More has to do with the extraordinarily subtle production and negotiation of space. This is geographical, mental, and psychic. Obviously, it shows up in big skies, fierce light, vast seas, subtle seasons, and so on. It appears in the fear that so many Europeans have felt and feel in Australia: no wonder the settlers hugged the shoreline; no wonder the animals and bush fill them with trepidation (of course, we like to tell tall tales of everyday dangers). But it also shows up in the way people’s bodies negotiate that space, giving each other plenty of room. Intellectually, as Christina points out, there’s an almost intangible sense of openness, room to develop thoughts that are not constrained by the worn-out and mind-numbing structures of Atlantic places.

So it is always thoroughly engaging to see how visitors and new arrivals manage that space. Europeans always seem to struggle, unless they have always craved that very different and complex production of space. My father was one of these. The litmus test here is New Zealand: if someone from Europe feels at home in those two islands across the Tasman, then it is because the smallness and manageability of the space resonates. If New Zealand is a let-down, then they have already begun to feel their way in Australia. But I have noticed (and one of my daughters verifies this), that people from eastern Asia somehow “get” Australia in a way that others don’t. For anyone who has spent time in Indonesia, the two places feel similar on the skin. And the many that come from China, for all sorts of reasons, seem to take to Australia in a way that I still find fascinating. I suspect the experience is mutual.

As for me, I look forward to my next dose of European barbarism and tribalism, and seeing how the next batch manages this place.

Not so long ago, most of the necessities of life were pretty cheap in these parts. A trip overseas meant haemorrhaging money and then returning with a debt to make your grandchildren’s embryos blanch. Now all that’s reversed, for visitors here, returnees from long voyages on the seven seas, and home dwellers all know that we pay among the highest prices on the planet – even surpassing Norway for many things.

Why? Many theories have been put forth:

1. Transport costs. This is crap, since transport covers about 7% of costs, as I am told by a recently retired head honcho in the world’s largest shipping firm.

2. Taxes. Nope. The goods and services tax is a measly 10%. This hardly explains the 100% markup (and more) on many goods from overseas. For instance, I can buy my favourite (and only) pair of shoes at less than half the price on the internet than in the local shoe shop.

3. High wages. True enough to some extent, since Australia has one of the highest average wages in the world, and a decent minimum wage. Hence the high cost of coffee, restaurant meals and so forth. But it still doesn’t explain everything, like those shoes.

4. High dollar. We’ve slaughtered the US dollar, the Euro, the pound. Great when you are on the road, but now it supposedly pushes up prices here. Not sure I can see how that obtuse argument works, for does it not push down the price of anything you buy overseas?

5. What transnational company executives think Australians will pay. There seems to be a bit more in this one. Music, software, computers, mobile phones … the list is long indeed. They all cost more here relative to prices overseas. Why? Because people keep paying for the damn things at the prices listed. Infamously, there is some software that costs more here than the airfare overseas and its purchase price somewhere else combined. Since some idiot will pay for it, the companies charge it.

That said, being a somewhat stingy bastard, I can say it is possible to live very cheaply indeed in the land of Oz. Less than $50 per week is no problem at all.

An exciting new kid on the block: POPCAANZ (Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand)

Call for Papers (due 1 April):

Papers that explore popular culture and the everyday in relation to issues of religion and secularism are invited for the Religion Area at POPCAANZ’s Annual Conference. The conference will take place June 24-26, 2013 in Brisbane Australia.

Please submit a 200-word abstract and short bio to: religion@popcaanz.com by 1 April.

For further information go to the conference website: http://popcaanz.com/conference-information-2013/

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