Letter From Australia: Answers to Mysteries About the Country 'Down Under'
I arrived in New York in 1976 intending to spend a few weeks investigating the role Washington had played in the downfall of the Australian government the previous year—and got waylaid for 37 years in America. A lot happened over those decades: I met a feisty New York labor activist named Cydney and we had two children, the CIA’s contribution to the overthrow of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was exposed, and I was elected president of the Neighborhood School’s PTA in the East Village. But by 2010 my marriage had ended and New York had lost its edge for me, so I returned to Australia, and an Aussie writer named Kate and I resumed a relationship we had started back when we wore flowers in our hair. We now live in a subtropical paradise near a town called Mullumbimby, 90 minutes south of Brisbane on Australia’s eastern coast.
When I left for the States in 1976, Australia had 15 million citizens who enjoyed the ninth highest per capita income in the world. The nation’s wool, meat, and wheat provided the largest share of export earnings, followed by mineral ores and coal, both of which were firmly controlled by multinational corporations.
Today the population is 25 million and Australia is fifth in the world rankings of Gross National Income per person (the United States is eighth). Minerals and carbon-based fuels dominate export earnings, just ahead of tourism and educating foreign students, while agricultural production has shrunk due to competition from low-wage regions of the globalized economy. Global finance, meanwhile, has moved in, led by Goldman Sachs and American Express, and so have the internet behemoths Google, Facebook, and eBay. All these megacorporations are expert tax avoiders, though none surpass News Corp, the propaganda empire run by Rupert Murdoch, who has dudded his fellow Australians out of untold millions in taxes.
The passage of time has also dramatically changed the country’s trading partners: the top five export destinations in 1976 were Japan, Europe, the United States (10 percent), New Zealand, and the Soviet Union—China barely rated, at 2 percent. Today, the top five are China (32 percent), Japan, South Korea, the United States (5 percent), and India.
Equally dramatic are changes in who lives here. Australia now has twice as many people born overseas, by percentage, as the United States (28 percent versus 13 percent). Our new citizens immigrated from—in order of magnitude—England, New Zealand, China, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Italy.
While 82 percent of Aussies called themselves Christians in 1976, only half of us did so in last year’s census, while 30 percent declared no religion, and another 10 percent declined to respond to the question. A mere 2.6 percent checked Islam (the same proportion as Buddhism), but that hasn’t stopped the One Nation Party, dedicated to “making Australia white again,” from railing against a Muslim invasion. The party founder-leader, Pauline Hanson, recently took her seat in Parliament wearing a burqa in symbolic protest.
Most of my Aussie friends, old and new, are generally cheerful about the major shifts in the country’s social mix, but some mutter disconsolately about how Sydney’s commuter trains and buses are full of Asian students. It took a while for me to adjust to the fact that these teens, who looked foreign in the Aussie context, mostly talk “Strine” (which is how the word “Australian” sounds when spoken with a virulent form of the nation’s accent). I heard an exchange among Chinese, Pacific Islander, and Somali kids strolling along, bouncing Australian Rules footballs: “Aw no, mate, it’s your shout ’cos I paid at Maccas yesterday arvo.” (Translation: You must pay for today’s food since I paid the MacDonalds bill yesterday afternoon.) And in reply: “Yeah, but you just did that to show off to the spunk from the servo.” (You were impressing the good-looker who works at the gas station.)
Aussies of all ethnicities retain a cynicism toward things political, though the tone has shifted from amused tolerance to anger, because even though Australia survived the global financial crisis in 2008 with less carnage than any other wealthy nation, both major political parties have followed the neoliberal agenda of “liberalizing” economic controls and reducing social spending, making corporations and individuals wealthier and regular citizens poorer.
Since World War II, the two business parties—the urban Liberals and the rural Nationals—have copied American big business ideas and practices, and from the 1980s on, the Labor Party adopted the same “globaloney” policies. The current Labor leader, Bill Shorten, previously a union boss more prone to schmoozing than breathing fire and brimstone, understood his job as a battle with Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for “the sensible centre” of the electorate. At least he saw it that way until last year when he witnessed Bernie Sanders and British Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn winning over people under 35 with their old-school social democracy—and voters young and old rejecting “free trade” deals that mostly set multinationals free to make more money. Nor was it lost on him that many of Trump’s 63 million voters chose him because he said he’d ditch those not-so-free trade deals.
Shorten’s Laborites are now running against the worst excesses of neoliberalism and Trumpism, while Turnbull and his shaky coalition of businessmen and conservatives keep trying to give themselves tax cuts. Turnbull has a hard time dumping on neoliberalism given that before becoming prime minister he made $50 million running the Aussie office of uber–finance dealer Goldman Sachs. He isn’t finding it any easier dealing directly with Trump. Their first phone chat, which went viral, was detailed in Jonathan Chait’s New York magazine article titled “Australia’s PM Slowly Realizes Trump Is a Complete Idiot.”
Just before the election, at a Politics in the Pub event at my local in Mullumbimby, I said that Trump could pull off a razor’s-edge victory. The well-informed crowd was aghast.
Around that time, Australian Labor leader Bill Shorten opined that Trump was “barking mad,” an assessment widely cheered across the nation. Since then, we’ve watched the meltdown of the Trump circus with shock and awe, but most scary to all of us in the outside world are his face-off with a nuclearized North Korea; the escalations in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan; and the expansion of drone assassinations across multiple borders. These and future military ramp-ups could sour Australia’s relationship with the United States more than anything since G.I.s came here on their R&R break from fighting in Vietnam.
A Pew poll in June revealed that over 70 percent of Australians are not confident that Trump will “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” and over 80 percent said he was dangerous. Almost 60 percent said they believe China is already the largest economy on the planet—and 64 percent have a favorable view of China, versus 48 percent for the USA.
Just before his death in 2015, former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser reversed his long-held belief that Australia was existentially dependent on the U.S. alliance and the cooperative “five eyes” arrangement among U.S., U.K., Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand spy agencies. Fraser’s last book, titled Dangerous Allies, argues that the time is up for Australia’s policy of being the idiot ally of the United States in all its military and spycraft misadventures. This from the man who, as Minister for the Army, sent Aussie troops to join the Americans in Vietnam.
Fraser itemized the many U.S. military and intelligence bases on Australian soil, the most crucial of which is a spy base called the Joint [U.S./Australian] Defence Facility Pine Gap, located in the heart of Australia’s vast red desert. Its NSA code name is RAINFALL, and NSA documents from Edward Snowden published on August 20 this year spell out what Fraser and all Australian spy-watchers already guessed: that this base downloads electronic data from U.S. spy satellites to guide possible attacks on targets such as major Chinese military facilities, and to locate the cell phones of individuals selected for drone assassination.
Since Trump and his generals took charge, another former prime minister, Labor’s Paul Keating, has spoken out against U.S. destabilizations, assassinations, and invasions—past, present, and future. The United States under Trump has “pawned its crown,” says Keating, and that crown will never again command its prior value.
Beyond former prime ministers, the liveliest signs of political life hereabouts come from the fringes. The Greens (that’s their whole name) have seven of the nation’s 76 senate seats and one member of the House of Reps, plus numerous positions in state and local governments. (They run my local Shire Council quite well.) Greens’ policies include leading the drive in parliament to recognize same-sex marriage, which a faction of the conservatives are attempting to sabotage by holding a nonbinding vote via the Australian postal system, on the doubtful assumption that young people don’t know where to buy a stamp.
There are more campaigns for change percolating up from people’s movements, most notably to follow the lead of the state of Victoria in banning fracking, and a drive to have Australians whose ancestors came here in the last 230 years—that’s 97 percent of the population—sign a treaty recognizing the rights and legacies of the indigenous people whose ancestry dates back, at latest estimate, 70,000 years. There’s also renewed enthusiasm to declare Australia a republic and install an Aussie head of state to replace the Queen of England, who still stares out from all the coins and the $5 notes, frozen in her 1950s visage.
Whatever else happens, we hope that our quirky version of preferential voting will keep producing our most unlikely politicians, such as a bloke named Ricky from the Motoring Enthusiast Party (sadly now defunct) and a sheila named Fiona in the Victorian state parliament from the Sex Party (sadly now renaming itself the Reason Party).
Though it’s always rewarding to glean truth from the margins, I’ll give the last word here to ex-PM Keating, who has reminded us that Australia lives in the Asian hemisphere, and we cannot be linked to a U.S. government that treats China—and the whole world except Saudi Arabia and Israel—like contestants in a TV show dedicated to their humiliation.