Family ties

With respect to Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, my three tales of 21st-century Toronto demonstrate how distant Canada and Australia have recently grown from one another.

June 2003—on a warm early summer’s day, sitting in a taxi in Toronto, I strike up a conversation with a Somalian taxi-driver. He’s a refugee and he’s fascinated by global politics. We discuss Australia and Canada and the conversation turns to political parties. I make the point that John Howard is the leader of the Liberal Party in Australia. He turns his head sharply and snaps, ‘John Howard’s no ­liberal. Now Jean Chrétien [the Canadian PM], he’s a liberal.’

September 2, 2002—at the 175-year-old University of Toronto. One of the contending heirs to the Canadian prime ministerial mantle (soon to be vacated by Chrétien), former Finance Minister Paul Martin, stands before an audience telling them that Canada is poised to become the world’s first ‘postmodern nation’.

What he meant was that as a diverse, independent and enriched nation, Canada understands the need to govern ourselves on this planet as ‘one humanity’. That globalisation means that we have to ‘come together to try to figure out how in fact in an age of migration of peoples, the ­migration of disease, the migration of environmental problems, we as a world begin to govern ourselves.’ (The Globe and Mail, 3 September 2002) June 11, 2003—splashed across the front page of Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, is a gay couple kissing in the first official gay marriage ceremony in North America. That day the Ontario Court of Appeal had ruled that gay marriages are legal. Only a week later Canada’s Attorney-General, Maurice Cauchon, says he’s proud to be a Canadian as the Canadian federal government decides that it will not appeal the Ontario decision.

Just as Maupin’s Tales encapsulated the essence of San Francisco as the most progressive and liberal culture in the US from the late 1960s onwards, so do these three vignettes capture the spirit that is modern Canada.

And they drive home another point. If Canada and Australia were once frequently compared—because of the ­political and social heritage and diversity they shared—these days, most of the once positive
comparisons have ended. Canada is indeed becoming the world’s first ‘postmodern’ nation as Paul Martin said it would, and in doing so makes Australia look a fawningly colonial, closed-minded and embittered country that resents being geographically situated in Asia.

The similarities between Australia and Canada have become less visible, in part because neither country’s media reports much on the other. But both countries are federations built on the Westminster ­tradition with the British common law legal systems. There are many opportunities to reflect on the way Canada and Australia respond to societal and cultural trends. Both our nations have had to deal with the consequences of massive postwar migration. For example, Toronto and ­Sydney are today in the top five
cities in the world in terms of the range of ­languages spoken by their residents.

And both nations are dealing with the legacy of the appalling treatment given to the original owners of the land—­particularly through the growth of native title law and government policy to deal with the fact that in both Canada and ­Australia, the health and education standards of indigenous peoples are well below that of the white population.

Canada’s and Australia’s foreign ­policy constructs have, at least up until the ­election of the Howard government in Australia, contained a dual commitment to support multilateral processes of ­decision-making and global security.

Australia originally based its universal health care system on the Canadian model and both societies have now claimed it as a core social principle. Human rights jurisprudence and legislation grew at the same time in both countries, empowered by progressive modernising political leaders such as Pierre Trudeau and Gough Whitlam.

The public sponsorship of Canada’s contemporary creative arts has propelled them into the international market place. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and the government’s art-buying agency, were models that the Whitlam and Fraser governments drew on to enhance the ­nascent creative talent in Australia that was waiting for a wider audience.

Indeed, when the Howard government came to office in 1996 Canada and Australia had similar policy outlooks on a number of issues. However, in the ­intervening seven years, the two ­countries have diverged in extraordinarily unexpected ways. An image that springs to mind is of the progress of two teenagers who have left home. Canada and Australia walked out the door of the conservative, Anglo/American political and historical ‘house’. Australia left home in 1972 under Gough Whitlam. And its journey into the uncharted waters of international adulthood gave it a sense of independence and self-confidence and compassion that had been unthinkable when it was at ‘home’.

Australia recognised the importance of integrating with Asia. It finally said ‘no’ to the US Vietnam folly and helped to build the Asia Pacific Economic Community (APEC) trade and diplomatic grouping. It began to remove the vestiges of the colonial past by abolishing appeals to the Privy Council and beginning a debate on a republic. It led the international ­condemnation of apartheid in South Africa, hammered out a deal that saw independence for ­Zimbabwe and began to support the micro-states of the Pacific by standing up to French nuclear testing.

And while all this was happening offshore, Australians also decided that human rights needed protection. Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser ensured that we signed up to the UN agenda and implemented our own human rights regime. Whitlam, Fraser and Paul Keating ­pursued the cause of Indigenous land justice through Land Rights legislation and then through the implementation of the High Court’s 1992 Mabo decision.

Suddenly, Australian creative arts were becoming visible in Paris, ­London and New York. From John Gorton’s ­establishing the Australian Film Commission to Paul Keating’s gargantuan ­‘Creative Nation’ funding, the political process understood how crucial it was to Australia’s identity to be read, heard and viewed by the world.

Meanwhile the Canadians—who’d ‘left home’ in the early 1960s when Prime Minister Lester Pearson, a decent and ­progressive internationalist liberal, warned Lyndon Johnson that Vietnam was unsustainable morally and politically—were emerging from their own Anglo and conservative Catholic French stupor. Pierre Trudeau championed the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that has given ­Canada pride of place in international human rights circles. Canadian foreign policy was driven by the principle that its role was to act as mediator and peacekeeper and to ameliorate the excesses of its southern neighbour, the US.

Somehow it was assumed that ­having left home, Australia and Canada would develop in the same direction. But ­Australia has regressed considerably. In a realignment of foreign policy Australia has lined up with the US on a controversial war in Iraq, supported the US’s ­military court for prisoners held on ­suspicion of being terrorists, and abandoned its leadership role in APEC. This Australia has snubbed its nose at the United Nations’ role in world security and as a human rights watchdog.

On the domestic front, the Australian federal government has begun dismantling the authority of the Human Rights ­Commission with a vengeance—by ­forcing it to gain the government’s permission if it wants to intervene in legal cases. Australia also presides over the developed world’s only mandatory detention of —refugees policy. Cultural institutions like the ABC have been shamelessly stacked with hidebound conservatives like writer Christopher Pearson, former Liberal Party officials Tony Staley and Michael Kroger, and even a critic of Indigenous policies, Ron Brunton. In the area of welfare the primary driver is to ‘shame’ the recipients of welfare through a policy of ‘mutual ­obligation’. Harsh penalties have been introduced for minor breaches like —missing an appointment with —Centrelink, and the ‘Work for the Dole’ project is simply a public works scheme that does nothing for participants preparing for a sophisticated technologically driven world. Mr Howard has not acknowledged the spiritual and emotional suffering of Indigenous Australians by formally apologising to them. The issue of the ‘Stolen Generation’ was also dealt with insensitively when its findings were challenged in the courts.

By contrast, Canadian Prime ­Minister Jean Chrétien tells the world media that he doesn’t need to attend a Texan ­barbecue to assert Canada’s robust ­relationship with the US. Canada refused to join the Bush Administration’s ‘coalition of the ­willing’ in Iraq, preferring to send troops to Afghanistan to help rebuild that ­shattered country, when the rest of the world seems to be neglecting it.

Last year, Chrétien announced his intention to quit politics in February 2004. He was determined to implement his own ‘legacy agenda’, which includes:

• A new plan and funding to reform the country’s health care system.
• A new ten-year investment in cities and transportation infrastructure.
• A long-term investment plan to help poor families escape welfare, including new money for early childhood programs.
• Protecting the environment, including ratifying the Kyoto protocol and creating ten new national parks and five new marine conservation areas.
• Improving the lives of aboriginals, including help for kids and combating alcoholism.
• Doubling foreign aid by the year 2010, with half of that going to Africa. (Nahlah Ayed, ‘Grits lay out lofty social agenda’, CNEWS, 30 September 2002)

Canada is no longer a teenager, it’s an adult, and it has no intention of ‘going home’. It wants the rest of the world to see it as a leader in improving the lot of its people. Canada’s actions on the ­domestic and international fronts are consistent with those objectives.

If one is inclined to the view that the differences between two post-colonial nations of similar size and heritage are exaggerated and can be explained by the political leadership each has had in the last ten years, then think again. Post-John Howard Australia is faced with leadership by Peter Costello, Tony Abbott or even Brendan Nelson. Labor presents Simon Crean, Kevin Rudd or Mark Latham. None of these individuals seems remotely interested in radically repositioning Australia. Their political road maps are stamped with the word ‘caution’. There’s no Australian ‘Paul Martin’ arguing the case for ‘postmodern’ leadership and no excitement at the possibility of setting off on new innovative social adventures domestically and internationally. There’s no interest in pursuing a Bill of Rights for Australia, and little interest in the issue of an Australian republic. Whereas Canada’s prime ministerial rivals Martin and Manley promise to do so.

And does it matter that the two nations have diverged so markedly? The Somalian taxi-driver thinks it does: ‘Australia used to be a paradise, but now I think Canada is. It has welcomed me and my family but Australia seems so hostile.’ 

Greg Barns is a Hobart-based writer and lawyer. He is a former senior adviser to the Howard government and now a member of the Australian Democrats. Greg’s book What’s wrong with the Liberal Party? will be published by Cambridge University Press in October.



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