Beyond the clichés of US colonisation of Australia

The 51st State
Dennis Altman. Scribe, 2006.  ISBN: 1920769986. RRP $22

51st StateIn my field of medicine it always seemed that Australian doctors arranging overseas postings for further experience, or hospitals establishing linkages, tended to look either to the UK or the US in roughly equal numbers, depending on reputation, past connection, personal inclination and history. The cynic might also say that sentiment and history favoured the UK, and resources the US. Anyway, they seemed to take the best from both countries, not to feel beholden to either, and the relative influences tended to balance each other in Australia.

51st State is a long essay, in the style of the highly successful Quarterly Essay series, on the relationship between Australia and the USA. Dennis Altman is a political scientist from La Trobe University, the home of a number of this country’s most influential public intellectuals. He has extensive experience in the US, where he has held a number of senior academic appointments.

The thesis set up for analysis by Altman is that Australians, particularly on the left, tend to blame the US for many of the contemporary economic, social and political trends that they dislike in their own country. The all-pervasive presence of American fast food chains, music and films, the war in Iraq, the coalition of the willing—all these are mobilised at dinner party tables as evidence of a remorseless destruction of Australian identity, and a creeping destruction of political and business life, as well as many local norms and icons.

This book aims to undermine that cliché, without underestimating the influence. It is most of all a clarion call to Australians to move away from an over-emphasis on American (or British) influence and adopt a more diverse ‘global’ view, with more engagement in foreign aid and other middle-sized countries all over the world. Altman pushes for a retreat from nationalist worldviews, and a move towards a more genuinely internationalist role in world affairs.

The text that it is apparently intended to rebut is ‘Rabbit Syndrome’, by Don Watson, which was published in Quarterly Essay in 2001. In this piece Watson points to the limitations of both American and Australian imaginations, but is pessimistic about Australia; he argues the latter has submitted to being ‘engulfed by this great and powerful friend because the mental process is already so advanced’.

Whilst Altman also does not trumpet the US cause, neither does he share Watson’s rather gloomy view of Australian identity—instead, he shows that an American influence has been operating in Australia from the earliest days. He notes that in many areas where US influence is suspected of being the main force for modern change, there are in fact distinctly Australian institutions and traditions in play. Since 1996, for example, the federal coalition government has emphasised the need for both the voluntary and church sectors to increase their roles in social service delivery. They have also favoured privatisation of many core services. All of this would seem to point to US Republican Party influence—yet despite a desire for the US model of limited government intervention, neither the Liberal nor National Parties have been willing to go any further than that with which the Australian public is comfortable. Furthermore, Australians have consistently shown that they want a social security safety net, public services that work and most importantly, a publicly funded health service to fall back on.

Whilst John Howard and members of his government and party have flirted more with religion and religious groups than their predecessors, they are acutely aware of the dangers and limitations of this in the eyes of the Australian public. Despite the undoubted influence of churches in Australia, they do not (yet) appear to have the same power and influence as the religious right in the US.

A measure of any country’s role and status in the world is how much influence it has on the rest of the world. Manifestly America has a ‘trade imbalance’ with nearly everywhere else in this respect, including all the countries of ‘old’ Europe—particularly in the areas of TV, media and music. The notion that Australia is particularly vulnerable due to its youth and fragile identity does not look so persuasive when you consider that both Canada and France have frequent debates about stemming the inwards flow of US culture, business and politics—Canada for geographical reasons, and France for cultural reasons. Interestingly, the French left often refers to most neo-conservative or ultra-liberal ideas, particularly in economics and social affairs, as ‘idées anglosaxones’, thus blaming all the English-speaking countries collectively for these perceived evils, although the main targets are the US and the UK.

Altman points out that despite the Howard government’s enthusiastic adherence to the 'coalition of the willing', and wearing accusations of being the US deputy sheriff in its own region, the Prime Minister has also worked hard at maintaining relationships within the Asia-Pacific region. Humanitarian military interventions in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, better relations with China, and Indonesia (in trying times)—these are efforts on the part of the Howard government that show a willingness to act with some independence.

Prime Minister Howard would be likely to argue that the alliance with America is well-defined—a choice that every Australian government has made since the fall of Singapore. In a dangerous world you are safest with the dominant super-power. Surely the good news is that Australia really can cherry-pick the world for influence, alliance and engagement. Most of all, it could check out of the ‘war’ on terror and work for world peace by bridge-building and mediation instead; it could aspire to be the Switzerland of the Asia-pacific region, rather than US deputy sheriff.

Altman surely rightly suggests that Australia should be broader in its frame of reference, and needs to cast the net of influence to many more countries around the world whose cultures and approaches to common issues may be useful to study. Altman contrasts the French and Australian responses to industrial relations reform; whilst both countries took to the streets, in France the size and sustained nature of the public protests led to a retreat by the government. He muses that perhaps the French have a healthier understanding of the balance between state and citizen than the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ countries, but perhaps they just understand the need for quality of life, and the importance of reducing economic and social pressure on people.

I recall seeing a senior member of the French medical profession, who remarked that he felt very at home because Australia understood the importance of quality of life, much like the French. This was in contrast with the US, he said, which he had recently visited, where the food was awful and nobody got any holidays.

This is a thoughful essay by Denis Altman which poses many questions, provides some answers, and gives food for thought to the reader, as any good essayist should.



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