Australians, easy-going? Not so fast

The author challenges the popular idea of Australians as being carefree, plain speaking and easy-going.

The Aborigines were persecuted by the immigrant nation of Australia [EPA]
The Aborigines were persecuted by the immigrant nation of Australia [EPA]

Ask an Australian to describe his or her fellow nationals, and you’re likely to hear such words as “easy-going”, “carefree” and “plain-speaking”. Well, in most examinations, one out of three would be regarded as a fail, so let’s see how this answer “stacks up” (to use a sample of Australian English).

 Australians pride themselves on their sporting prowess. Opponents – from South African rugby players to English cricketers – will acknowledge that, but are more struck by how intensely serious, even fierce, Australians are as competitors. Easy-going? Nothing could be further from the truth.

Carefree? This trait is harder to measure, but in 2007, a landmark survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that one in five of the population between ages 16 and 85 had experienced a mental disorder in the preceding year. Professionals working in mental health agree this figure is unlikely to be lower today.

Plain-speaking then? No dispute there. But underneath the typical outspoken swagger of the Aussie lies a surprisingly uneasy soul.

The basic reasons for our national insecurity – you read it first here – date back to the foundation of the European settlement two-and-a-quarter centuries ago.

When 23 million people inhabit nearly 8 million sqr kms, it’s a common enough assumption that others must be tempted to invade and conquer this wealthy land.

The irony – some would say hypocrisy – of such a stance is this is exactly how the Europeans came to claim the sixth continent exclusively for themselves.

To give an idea of how thinly populated this vast land is, you have only to compare it with the most crowded corner of the Middle East. Bahrain’s population, for example, is 530 times more congested than Australia’s.

Perhaps Aussies would feel more comfortable “in their own skin” if their forebears had been less contemptuous of the dark-skinned inhabitants who arrived here up to 60,000 years before them, but whose prior claim to the land they legally denied until barely 20 years ago.

Not so friendly

Aborigines, as the world knows and white Australians ignored for a long time, arrived here across what was then a land bridge from what we now know as Indonesia. On the mainland they were subjected to occasional massacres and frequent debilitation from imported diseases, such as smallpox, and products such as alcohol, both previously unknown here.

The Tasmanian blacks were subjected to these plus systematic genocide. By the late 1830s, the last Aborigines in that island colony were rounded up by a human dragnet and forced back into a confined area, one large concentration camp, if we’re not too precious about the language. The last Aborigine, a woman named Truganini, died in 1876 – and her head was removed to Scotland where, for the next century, it was put on show, supposedly for better scientific understanding, but really as an exotic curio.

All this background is useful to keep in mind when trying to understand just why Australians consider themselves a welcoming people – nearly half the population was either born overseas and migrated here, or their parents did – despite the common image of them abroad as xenophobic.

The truth is more complex, if hardly more flattering. Major political parties have discovered what radio talk-back hosts long since knew: There are more votes to be won by pandering to voters’ fear of new arrivals than by displaying compassion.

Observers of European and US politics would recognise that in this respect Australians are no different from their cousins in other prosperous lands. Racism has its constituency in France (where more than one-third of the population recently described themselves as racist) as it does in The Netherlands, South Africa and the US halls of Congress.

After World War II, the national mood was different. A people grateful for their liberty, and requiring manpower for national development, opened its doors to immigrants from beyond the old British domains. Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs and others poured in.

New bogeymen

In the 1990s, while Prime Minister Paul Keating made integrating the country with Asia a cornerstone of his foreign policy, his successor – the arch-traditionalist John Howard – seemed to want good economic relations without deepening personal ties between Australians and their neighbours.

Late in 2001, Australia’s identity crisis collided with two historic events that have shaped the nation’s self-image and its portrayal overseas ever since.

Price of Passage Australia [Al Jazeera]

The first, in late August that year, occurred when a boat carrying refugees got into distress in the waters north-west of Australia, and a Norwegian ship’s captain, obeying international maritime law, rescued them.

As this occurred during an election campaign, the nationalist Howard was struggling to win, he immediately saw the vote-winning potential of looking strong on what he described as “border security”.

Disregarding the fact that Australia was a founding signatory to the UN Refugee Convention in 1951 which obligates it to consider refugees’ claims to asylum – Howard memorably said: “We will decide who comes here and the circumstances in which they come.”

Then 9/11 hit, and Howard invoked the US alliance first forged in World War II when the Americans defended Australia against the threat of Japanese invasion. The 2001 poll was a moment for closing ranks, closing minds and closing hearts.

Howard won re-election, which taught the progressively inclined Labor Party that to be seen as “soft” on refugees was going to alienate the most insecure and susceptible portion of the population, who equated their security with turning back asylum-seekers.

In the past three years, after the Labor Government wound back draconian legislation their conservative predecessors had established, the number of “irregular arrivals” by sea increased – as did the number of desperate people who drowned in these pathetic attempts to reach these golden shores.

Showdown with Indonesia

The growth of demand fuelled the so-called people-smuggling industry that now thrives along the southern coast of Java. Indonesians watched the opposition conservatives, under Tony Abbott, warn of a return to hard-line rejection of what it loved to call “illegal arrivals” – and Jakarta made known loud and clear its objection to Abbott’s most populist promise: Once in power he would “turn back the boats”.

What Abbott ignored was that you cannot use the Australian Navy to escort often unseaworthy vessels into Indonesian waters without infringing on that country’s sovereignty.

The stage was set for a confrontation, even as political leaders on both sides of the Arafura Sea insisted they valued warm and cooperative ties.

Within three weeks of the Abbott government taking office in early September, it had drawn a veil of secrecy over its newly styled Operation Sovereign Borders, using national security as the pretext for withholding most information about boat movements, from the media in what is supposed to be one of the freest countries in the world.

Maybe the prime minister and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono would have resolved their differences behind closed doors, but then a month ago Edward Snowden, the renegade US secrets-buster holed up in Russia, dropped one of his many bombshells.

Snowden revealed that Australia’s intelligence services had hacked into the phone calls of not just the President and his inner circle but those of his wife.

While relations between these two powerful nations are in limbo, the conservatives continue to reveal next to nothing about boat movements.

Tragedy has now given way to farce. Abbott went to the country on a three-word slogan: STOP THE BOATS. Maybe everyone misheard him: It seems what he really meant was STOP DEBATES.

But, as a plain-speaking type himself, he is widely seen as lacking the diplomatic skills to attain either objective.

Most Australians are the offspring of boat people themselves. Yet they have this distinction in their minds between migrants (legitimate, business-suited, respectable, skilled people we want) and refugees (poor, paperless and objects of pity so long as they stay home, or homeless, in the Philippines, in which case big-hearted Australia will dispatch goods and rescue teams to their aid; but huddled masses yearning to be free?)

Ken Haley is a journalist and author of Emails from the Edge.

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