Then, after Rudd’s impeachment, Julia Gillard told the ABCs 7.30 Report that she preferred talking to children in classrooms rather than international leaders at summits seemed to indicate her willingness to operate well within the national comfort zone of prime ministers not seeking the global spotlight.
Malcolm Turnbull, another assertive internationalist, suffered from the same wariness as Rudd. There was always the suspicion within the Liberal Party that he felt more at home in the West Wing than in the western suburbs.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese seems to have reached a level of influence more in line with Australian thinking: being respected and liked by his international co-leaders, but not becoming a hot ticket in Davos. If it ever had a Prime Minister with the global star power of a Jacinda Ardern, I’m not sure how Australia could handle it.
The national vocabulary still emphasizes remoteness, with an unimportant subtext, even if the point of reference is the geography of times gone by. The “antipodes” made sense when Britannia ruled the gulfs as well as its distant colonies. The “land down under” implies that the land is still defined by another obsolete expression, “the tyranny of distance”. Given its proximity to China, proximity really should be the watchword.
That beloved national mantra – “punches above its weight” – is also self-deprecating as it implies bantam status rather than middleweight. Surely it is better to think in terms of Australia packing a punch in proportion to its weight as one of the world’s most influential middle powers.
As for the anthropomorphic language of national adolescence? Please. The ludicrous notion that this country is still in the throes of its teenage years detracts from its status as one of the world’s most mature democracies and detracts from the way First Nations people have occupied this continent for some 60,000 years .
What explains this self-mockery? Why do Australians enjoy their success in international sport, the favored arena of global validation, but underestimate their impact in other spheres of influence? The stock answer, I think, is narrow-mindedness, but I don’t quite believe that. This is a land of wanderlust travelers and one where nearly 50 percent of the population has a parent who was born abroad. Internationalism is imprinted in the multi-ethnic DNA of modern Australia.
Perhaps there are spasms of cringe, a cultural tendency to think the Australian product is inferior. Then again, don’t most people here now have a sense of the superiority of their standard of living and appreciation of the country’s global cultural influence, whether it be delivered by Cate Blanchett, Hannah Gadsby, the Australian Chamber Orchestra or Bluey?
Sure, the national penchant for pissing sets in, along with an aversion to the grandiose. It’s almost as if the tall poppy syndrome has been applied on a national level, where Australians mow their own land to size. The question of consistency is where so many outdated national clichés intersect.
My suspicion is that many Australians live in a state of happy detachment, a form of contented isolationism supported by all those decades of recession-free prosperity. It helps explain why Australia was able to close its borders during COVID – preventing its citizens from leaving and its expats from returning – without sparking major public outcry. Australia’s leniency undoubtedly played a part, but so did the help of a cocoon from a threatening outside world.
However, what is happening in Australia is of international importance, and at this particular moment in history it is particularly worth emphasizing that point. In terms of climate change, this power plant really has a chance to become a renewable energy superpower. The Voice referendum, as I wrote earlier in these pages, must also be placed in an international context, as a no vote would be catastrophic for the country’s reputation and soft power.
During a phase of democratic decline, when the US and UK are in the doldrums, but the health of Australia’s political body has undoubtedly improved after Scott Morrison’s departure, there is also an opportunity to become something of a global paragon . This is worth bearing in mind when the Albanian Government’s Democracy Enhancing Task Force begins its work.
The task force draws on a rich tradition of democratic innovation that is often overlooked. Developed here in the mid-1800s, the secret ballot became known as “the Australian ballot” when it was adopted in America and Europe. Australian women gained the right to vote nearly 20 years earlier than American women. Another proof that what happens in Australia rarely stays in Australia.
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