|Martin Davies image. www.daviesart.com|
“Obviously, my perspective of Australia is filtered by time and distance, and maybe my view is coloured by the emotions of flight and nostalgia: the baggage of immigrants and exiles. But I believe that my view, like those of the other million Australians who live overseas (that’s a diaspora the size of Adelaide), may contribute something worthwhile to our national introspection. The view of Australia that I have as I write here in Hong Kong may be clouded by many personal feelings. However, it seems that my view is shared by many others. And sadly, this view seems to do neither Australia, nor its people, justice.” Expat Chris Baker
G’day. Webdiary will sign off next Friday until the end of January so I can write my bloody book. Latham’s elevation has thrown yet another spanner in the works and I’m a in a bit of a panic, but what’s new? Heh Polly Bush, I hope you can come up with your anual Pollywaffle awards before deadline! I’m angsting over a Latham column for Sunday’s Sun Herald at the moment, but was struck by an email from expat Chris Baker. He wrote:
I am Australian freelance writer and educator living in Hong Kong and I’ve written a piece on international pereceptions of Australia. I argue that in the three years since Australia secured an incredible amount of international goodwill with the 2000 Olympic Games, we have squandered much of the enviable cachet associated with the brand name ‘Australia’. As a result of our policies on asylum seekers, the war in Iraq, our diminished interest in our neighbours and our disregard of international covenants, the international perception of Australia is no longer one of a country that prides itself on its tolerance, openness and fair play.
The article is not simply a narrative of Australia’s diminished international goodwill. It is also a very personal account of the things that I love and miss about my homeland: the sound of laughter in people’s voices; the easy mix of the urban and the natural, and all the things celebrated on the day the 2000 Olympics began. Its my conclusion that the view which much of the world currently has of Australia, does neither the country, nor its people, justice.
So here’s the take of Chris, on Webdiary debut, on us.
The view from here
by Chris Baker
�O wad some power the giftie gie us, To see oursel’s as others see us.� Robert Burns
On 15th September, 2000, like millions of others around the Globe, I was deeply moved by the spectacle, beauty, wit, and inclusiveness of the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics. When a statuesque Cathy Freeman, the ceremony�s archetypal goddess, invoked the elements of fire and water to preside over the evening�s climax, I was, like most other Australians, moist-eyed and speechless.
In its evocation of the wild magnificence of our natural environment, the dignity of our indigenous people, the diversity of our cultural heritage, and the exuberant creativity of our artists and performers, the Opening Ceremony was an unqualified triumph and cleverly projected an image of Australia that broke far beyond the stereotypes of a sports-mad nation. The ceremony proclaimed an image of Australia that was enviable from many perspectives and self-confidently asserted that we were fit but sexy, playful but sophisticated, technically savvy but happily self-deprecating.
Intoxicated by the effortless brilliance and cultural depth of the occasion, I congratulated myself on how clever and wonderful and lucky I was to be an Australian and to be able to claim some cultural ownership of these dazzling, golden, remarkable few hours.
The following morning, I swaggered into work and like a proud parent waving a child�s Straight A report card and idiotically reminded the international group with whom I work with here in Hong Kong that I was an Australian.
They generously agreed that the previous evening had been an incomparably wonderful show and suggested that the three hour ceremony (and its years of planning and millions of dollars) had bought Australia a lifetime�s supply of goodwill and the sort of positive brand recognition that public relations gurus and advertisers rarely dare to dream of. Asians and Westerners alike, had, it seemed, been suddenly, but most definitely, seduced by the word �Australia�.
In the three years since the Sydney Olympics, the brand name �Australia� seems to have lost some of its enviable cachet. If anecdotal conversations with the Chinese and International communities of Hong Kong are any indication of the global perceptions of our country, the reservoir of goodwill also seems sadly depleted.
Many of my friends and colleagues in Hong Kong delight in visiting Australia. They express a deep affection for our country, and many have strong personal or professional ties to Australia. However, in the last year or two, many of these people have also been asking me some shockingly pointed and challenging questions. Sadly too, the tone with which they ask these questions resembles the tone of an addled, disappointed teacher whose Straight A student has suddenly become the class bully.
Some of their questions are focused on specific domestic or foreign policy, while others are more general lobs at Australian �values�. Why does Australia imprison refugees in the desert? Are Australians frightened of Muslims? Is Australia really racist towards Asians? Why did Australia support the war in Iraq without the support of the UN? Why did Australia close its Parliament to the public during the visit of George W. Bush? Why does Australia admire its sportspeople more than its thinkers? Why aren�t teachers respected more in Australia? Why did Australia ban the movie �Ken Park� (which ironically was screened here uncensored and without much comment the same week that half a million people took to the streets to defend civil society and free speech)?
Most of these questions have left me absolutely gob-smacked. Initially, I was affronted by these prickly political and cultural probings, believing that they were simply borne of cultural misunderstandings and of stereotypes based on the international press� gloss of complex national issues. However, as I reflect more deeply on the salience of some these questions, I now view them as the legitimate enquiries of curious but emotionally removed cultural observers. Furthermore, I am now starting to ask myself many of the same questions.
To provide a coherent, let alone persuasive response to questions such as these requires much thinking on the spot, especially when they are casually asked over the photocopier or on a bus ride home. I have stammered lame replies such as �we�re really not racist� or �the Australian Government does not always speak for the Australian people�, but increasingly I find myself reluctant to defend our country with such platitudes. Instead, I prefer to look to the Australian press and to the international media for ammunition with which to counter my friends� and colleagues� good-natured but merciless interrogations. What I find in our press is generally not helpful.
In most Australian newspapers, I see little deep and thoughtful debate of the bi-partisan political support of the forced detention of people fleeing torture and trauma in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria or Kosovo. Nor do I see much consternation at many of the practices associated with this forced detention. Why, for example, wasn�t the use of water cannons to �control� detained refugees in Woomera a national scandal?
I also see no outrage at the Federal Government contracting out the running of its detention centers to companies such as Wackenhut Inc, a multinational private security corporation that also owns Third World utilities, banks and factories and whose Board of Directors has included a former special agent of the FBI, and a former Under-Secretary of the US Air Force. I have seen no irony expressed at the image of boatload full of Australian sheep (a �sheep of fools�?) not being able to find safe haven in Middle Eastern ports.
I see no studied or serious cultural unpacking of what it says about Australia that its most popular television program in 2003 was about home renovation. Yet I do see almost daily references to �Our Nic�, to Kylie, and to our sports people.
As I read the Australian media, I ask myself whom most Australians might regard as the nation�s prized intellectuals. Who are our cultural heavyweights and our social visionaries? Who are our contemporary dissidents, our satirists, our polemicists?
The international media seems an equally barren source of ideas for supporting my defense of Australia�s international prestige and goodwill. Asian English language papers such as the South China Morning Post, The Straits Times, The Jakarta Post and The Nation have all pitched stories that paint Australia as suspicious of Islam, intolerant towards Asia and Asians, and subservient to the foreign policy aims of the United States.
Does this anecdotal evidence from the press of our closest neighbours (and some of our key trading partners), suggest that like America, Australia is becoming internationally resented?
Is Australia represented more favourably in the media of its �allies�? Not much, it seems. The BBC World Service�s reporting of Australia in 2003 has focused on cricket matches and the Rugby World Cup, Australia�s participation in the �Coalition of the Willing� and the odd story or two about a crocodile hunter.
In the American press and in globally distributed publications such as the International Herald Tribune, little, if any reporting of Australia actually occurs, even though purportedly we are the United States� �staunchest ally�. A search of �Australia� in all the New York Times� 2003 headlines yields just six news stories related to our domestic politics or foreign policy (compared to seven stories about Australian tennis). To supplement its one hard news story about Australia every two months, The Times also features several stories about traveling and dining in Australia: a �good value� tourist destination where the Green Back still enjoys a favourable exchange rate.
Excluding references to our exported entertainers, our holiday spots, our low costs and good exchange rates, and our sporting achievements, we generally don�t seem to rate much of a mention in the rest of the English speaking world.
Australia, however, does seem to be increasingly talked about in non news media publications. A quick glance of the titles of some of Amnesty International�s recent reports on Australia reveals that the word �Australia� has been collocated with phrases such as �Shirking responsibility�, �Picking and choosing human rights standards� and �Offending human dignity�. Similarly, the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights has urged the Australian government to ensure that detained asylum seekers �enjoy a secure legal status and humanitarian assistance in accordance with international law� while Human Rights Watch has criticized Australia’s �failure to tackle human rights issues�.
Is this the press that we want to have, and is the image that we sought to project to the world on that September night in 2000? Rather than projecting an image of tolerance, openness and fair play, we suddenly seem to be a belligerent international pariah with a deteriorating human rights record.
From where I look, the view of Australia is not rosy. I believe that the international criticism and indifference that we are receiving is not only valid, but also necessary. To my eyes, we�re not living up to the image that we projected 3 years ago, nor are we living up to our promise as a dynamic, sophisticated, generous nation that is compassionate to the human dramas in other parts of the world.
There seems to be have been little rigorous domestic debates on issues such as our international good standing, our obligations as good global citizens, and the need to honour international covenants on issues such as greenhouse emissions, border controls and human rights. There also seems to be little domestic concern that our regional goodwill is withering. If international criticism or indifference does not arouse concern for how we look to others, what will? Are Australians aware that we�re not universally loved and respected and that people in other countries� unemotionally associate us with words such as �racist� and �repressive�?
Obviously, my perspective of Australia is filtered by time and distance, and maybe my view is coloured by the emotions of flight and nostalgia: the baggage of immigrants and exiles. But I believe that my view, like those of the other million Australians who live overseas (that�s a diaspora the size of Adelaide), may contribute something worthwhile to our national introspection.
I see Australia in many of the same ways that I see my family and friends. Like the daily personal emails that keep me abreast of what is happening in the lives of loved ones, my daily visits to the Australian press give me a general sense of what�s happening �back home�. But obviously, since I�m no longer living in Australia, many of the nuances of the country�s changes pass me.
When I return every six months or so, I not only notice taller teenage nephews, hair on babies� heads, or recently formed crow�s feet on relatives� laughing faces. I also notice changed details on Australia�s beautiful, diverse and sun-damaged face.
Australia looks older (fatter around the hips and a bit overworked) but I�m not sure if it looks wiser. It looks more affluent but I�m not sure if its smile is as generous as the one I left. It�s more sophisticated and wears a cosmetic sheen, but I�m not sure if this sophistication includes a worldly sensibility that makes it aware of what�s happening in other chic (and not so chic) parts of the world.
Australia is definitely more of a homebody and despite a decade of unprecedented positive economic indicators, it seems more scared of its neighbours, reluctant to go outside and disinclined to invite the new bloke in for a drink.
I like to think that that I�m not an expat �knocker� -a breed of �er� nouns that is on a par with �wankers� and �dobbers�- but no doubt some people who read this will react by saying �if you don�t like Australia, why don�t you stay in Hong Kong�. Unlike the many people who are currently in Australia�s detention centres, I had the luxury of choosing the circumstances and timing of expatriation, and hopefully, I will likewise be able to choreograph the happy occasion of my repatriation. I can indeed stay away, or if I so choose, I can also come home.
The point is I do like Australia. It�s the place of my birth, and it�s my childhood, my education and the bulk of my adult life. Australia is more than a word on the front page of my passport. It�s where most of my family live and friends live and the sum of many things physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual that create my inner landscape. I love the sound of laughter in people�s voices; the easy mix of the urban and the natural and all the things that we so grandly celebrated on the day the 2000 Olympics began.
The view of Australia that I have as I write here in Hong Kong may be clouded by many personal feelings. However, it seems that my view is shared by many others. And sadly, this view seems to do neither Australia, nor its people, justice.