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January 13, 2005

That Antipodean Identity Problem: Lincoln Allison reflects on the reasons for not living in the Antipodes

Posted by Lincoln Allison

A "thought experiment": suppose you just didn't know that Australasia existed. That is, you knew a reasonable amount about the other 99.7% of the world, demographically speaking, but not that there existed an island-continent, physically as big as the USA, but with the population of the Netherlands or Bombay. It is a place of pubs and fish and chip shops, speaking English in a raucous, down-to-earth kind of way and obsessed with sport. It gives every appearance of being, as Douglas Jardine described it, as a paradise for the working classes who escaped. When you have just come through Egypt and South Africa, places where life crackles with tension and uncertainty, sitting in the pub in Perth waiting for the quiz to start and trying not to eat too many chips seems a distinctly cosy experience, more like home than home is.

And when you've filled in the forms and dealt with the officials in the other countries, not least the embittered Gestapo rejects who man the immigration barricades in the USA, being accosted by an aged hippy in shorts who says, "G'day, mate. Sorry about all the bollocks" makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time. Admittedly, the more intimidating part of the bollocks seems premised on the idea that a half eaten sandwich could destroy the entire Australian eco-system.

It gets more extraordinary. Beyond this vulgar and exotic paradise, this land of pies and boomerangs, is a country at least as strange, a place of flightless birds and Anglican cathedrals, of vast mountains covered in lupins and rainforests which nestle up against glaciers. Here the most serious debates are about that grand old thirst creator, Rugby Union, and stress is in such short supply that they spend their time inventing forms of fast-stress such as jet rafting and bungee jumping. If Jonathan Swift had described a visit by Gulliver to either of these lands you might well criticise him for stretching our credulity too far!

I jest in this way towards a couple of points, but mainly to insist that when we talk about problems in the Antipodes we are not talking about them in the sense in which they exist in the USA or the UK, let alone in Egypt or South Africa. But I do want to discuss the core problem of both Australia and New Zealand. As a problem it is neither menacing nor urgent, but it is transcendent: it is the question of identity, national, cultural and moral. What is it to be an Australian or New Zealander? And how can it be justified?

Let me put this subjectively. The first time I went to Australia it was as part of a round trip which had taken me through several Asian countries. The first time I went to New Zealand it was also part of a round trip, though this time I had come through Africa. On the Australian occasion my furthest point from home was a stay in Ormonde College, Melbourne and when I arrived young men in cricket sweaters were warming their bottoms in front of a fire while a law tutorial could be heard through an open door. In the New Zealand case we drifted shortly after arrival into choral evensong at Christchurch cathedral, so well sung and well attended that Robert Godley, the High Anglican founder of the city must have been beaming in his grave. The phrase "more English than England" comes to mind in both cases. On both trips I visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, which is also a war museum, a combination which seems as obvious as it is unusual. And on both occasions I found what young men from Wagga and Mildura had done at Gallipoli and in Burma for an empire which must have seemed very distant and abstract more moving than any memorial I had ever seen nearer home.

All this seems obvious and would barely be worth saying if it were not so diametrically opposed to the Australian elite world-view which was dominant in the 1980s and 1990s and which remains entrenched in large parts of the political and educational systems. This view said that Australia was an "Asian" power, historically a victim of Britain, which must put its racist and imperial past behind it. Its leader was Prime Minister Paul Keating and its institution the Australian Labour Party, but it drew also on a major strain in the high culture of the country as represented by such writers as the Anglophobe Patrick White, the only Australian to win the Nobel Prize for literature, and a plethora of TV and film, most notoriously Breaker Morant which lied resolutely in the interests of portraying an Australian war criminal (in the second Boer war) as a victim of British imperialism.

Fortunately, in my opinion, this view of Australia has suffered a number of thudding blows in the last few years. The most obvious was the rejection by referendum in 1999 of the proposal for a republican form of government. Seen as a mere setback at the time it now looks more like a turning of the tide. The dominance of John Howard's Liberal-National Coalition at the federal level, which in 2004 secured a majority in both houses for the first time, is even more important because it has turned Australia back into a western power with an important role in the liberation of East Timor, troops in Iraq and a reassumed imperial role in the policing of Papua New Guinea. Not the least nauseating thing about the ALP was its long term propensity to cosy up to disgraceful governments, especially in Indonesia.

There has in the past been a common sub-marxist assumption that culture is determined by geopolitics and economic power. Australians can look on the fall of Singapore in 1942 and New Zealanders on the UK's entry into the Common Market in 1973 as the precise date at which it ceased to be possible to be British and Antipodean because the defence relationship was definitive of Australia and the trading relationship of New Zealand. But culture does not conveniently follow geopolitics and Australia seems to me to have actually become more British over the last fifteen years, for all that it has no serious defence or trading relationship with the "mother country". But the movement of young tourists, the shared TV experiences, the common culture in sport and humour and continued immigration (the proportion of immigrants into Australia from the British Isles was back up to 57% in 2003) have all brought us closer. We share, so to speak, both the royal family and the Royle family. If we are celebrating the heroes of a revived imperial unity we should certainly mention Billy Connelly and John Cleese. Also David Beckham: fifteen years ago many Australians called football "wogball", but now the English Premiership is covered and discussed everywhere.

And George Bush and Osama Bin Laden. I was astonished in both Australia and New Zealand at the extent to which people detested both America and America's enemies. There were already at least two aspects of America which were incurring increasing fear and loathing before "9/11": its sole superpower status and its cultural tackiness. Since then its paranoia and fundamentalism have dramatically affected perceptions in the English-speaking world. Conversely (and perhaps paradoxically) the "cultural cringe" and hostility to Britain has steadily diminished. Sure, Poms are still decried, especially in a sporting context, but Britain is identified with Basil Fawlty and accorded the affection due to an eccentric relative, whereas the US is identified with George W. Bush and thoroughly disliked.

The other aspect of the identity problem takes us into a whole symptom of problems which concern the natural environment and indigenous peoples. Both countries are littered with placards apologising for Pakeha (to use the Maori term) theft and environmental destruction. Australians are being educated to believe that their essential identity is that they are the usurpers and destroyers of an idyllic harmony with nature. They are being asked to worship, so to speak, the worshippers of dirt and death. On my first visit to Australia I became mildly obsessed with my hostility to this crazy green world-view, promulgated by such sages as Richard Sylvan and Val Plumrose who had changed their names to something suitably green and David Suzuki who blithely announced that the coming of Europeans had been an unmitigated disaster for Australia. They probably weren't worth taking seriously, but a version of their views does permeate much official language and it is premised on a kind of denial of what Australians actually are. We found ourselves muttering "Get over it" and imagining a Britain littered with notices in which the Celts apologised to the Picts, the Romans to the Celts and so on.

Although the problem is similar in the two countries, the differences are probably far more important than the similarities. It is interesting to compare the Alice Springs area, where Aboriginals are in a majority, with Rotarua, which has a Maori majority. The first aboriginal we saw hurled foul-mouthed abuse at us, while we watched others wholly inactive or fighting, getting arrested and literally never doing anything productive; the aboriginal problem is small, but it is vicious, nasty and insoluble. By contrast, we stayed in a Maori motel in Rotarua and liked Maori music enough to buy a CD. There is no self-esteem problem; the synthesis of two races seems to work, symbolised by the haka, which, in its modern form, combines a Maori ceremony with an English game to create a national symbol of enormous power.

No Pom of means can look at Sydney or South Island without asking, "Why aren't I living here?" The food, the weather, the opportunities for ownership and recreation are all better than at home. The reasons for not living in the Antipodes are a great deal more subtle than the reasons for doing so and they have to do with identity. As both of the excellent popular historians of Australia, Robert Hughes and Frank Welsh, point out, for all the charms of the Antipodes there is also an inescapable sense of being peripheral. Thus the obsession, especially among the young, with "overseas" and the current New Zealand concern with the "brain drain" and negative immigration.

One symptom of not quite knowing who you are is that everything seems to be an issue defining identity. We attended the New Zealand parliamentary debate about "Civil Union" (aka "gay marriage"). I was accosted about the issue outside the parliament by a young man who demanded to know my views. Because he was young and scruffy I mis-guessed his; he was actually an apostle of "family values". When he realised I was a tourist he gesticulated at the parliament and said "They aren't real New Zealanders . . . come to where I live and you'll meet real new Zealanders". On the other side I heard a caller to the radio saying, with no consciousness of the contradiction he was making, that "homophobic" and intolerant people had no place in New Zealand at all. I think it is the lack of an identity problem, the joyful acceptance that one can loathe many of one's compatriots without ever denying that they are compatriots which would remain one of my most serious reasons for living in the old country.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick.

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