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Australia: Entrenched Phobias, Illusory Protections

Australie : phobies bien ancrées, protections illusoires.
Michel Pérez


Pour des millions de jeunes Européens, l’Australie est un pays de rêve, avec ses grands espaces variés, la terre rouge de ses déserts et ses milliers de kilomètres de plages idylliques. C’est aussi un pays de liberté avec un énorme potentiel économique, sans parler de son mode de vie détendu et décontracté qui constitue son principal atout.

C’est pourtant également un pays inquiet, comme le démontre amplement son histoire, passée et récente, une nation remplie de contradictions qui ne font que renforcer ses peurs ancestrales et la mènent à rejeter toute forme de différence. C’est à ces craintes que s’intéressera cette étude.

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1Around the world, Australia is perceived as a young and modern country, a rich enclave of the North —with a high standard of living— in the Southern Hemisphere, a nation endowed with a vibrant democracy and a relaxed way of life.

2All of this is accurate, to a large extent, but there is much more than simply meets the eye. A country cannot be reduced to the quality of its political institutions or to its economic power and, in the last resort, the best way to understand the soul of a nation and its people is through their geography, their history, and also their literature.

3Now, in the case of the island-continent, geography, history and literature suggest otherwise and disclose a country that does not feel so comfortable. Australia has an anxious, disquieted soul, and the best leading thread to understand her delicate collective psyche is through the notion of fear, a fear that has always been omnipresent, sometimes more, sometimes less, since the beginnings of British colonisation in 1788, that is over two centuries ago.

  • 1 In its ideological orientation, the Liberal Party corresponds roughly to the Conservatives in Brita (...)

4This is so true that Alan Renouf, one of Australia’s most experienced diplomats, published in 1979 a book of note whose title is telling: The Frightened Country. Renouf who passed away in 2008, at the venerable age of 89, was the head of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs from 1974 to 1977, before being sacked by the Liberal1 Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and “demoted”, so to speak, to the status of Australia’s Ambassador to Washington and then to Paris.

5In his political essay, Renouf posits the idea that Australia is a land of contrasts and contradictions, peppered with lies, shame and guilt, a land that is quick to reject otherness and any form of difference, official proclamations of multiculturalism notwithstanding. Renouf also holds the view that fears, sometimes rational but mostly irrational, lie dormant at the core of a childlike —and sometimes childish— Australia that seems to suffer from a syndrome of abandonment.

6It may thus be worthwhile having a closer look at these fears that stretch back to the very beginnings of modern Australia, that is “White Australia” as distinct from “Aboriginal Australia”.


7Uneasiness is distinct from fear, but both notions are close and the former can easily pave the way for the latter, in particular when contrasts become too striking.

8Sigmund Freud once asserted that “anatomy is destiny”. In much the same way, it could be said that “geography is destiny” too. The fact is that Australia has long felt displaced in her region, misplaced at the bottom of Asia and in the vicinity of insular Oceania, cornered in a region where she did not belong. And in the present many Australians still perceive the evolution of politics in their part of the world as a threat to their tenure in their large island.

  • 2 Though the Irish Catholic element has always played a major part in the history, and politics, of t (...)

9To start with, Australia still is —at least for the foreseeable future— a predominantly white country, and by white what should be understood is White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant2, close to nations in Asia and the Pacific where skins are yellow or brown. Hence a feeling of estrangement and isolation.

10Besides, Australia is virtually empty —a bare three inhabitants per square kilometre—close to overpopulated nations. China and India, the two demographic giants of the planet, are not so far away in this era of fast communications. As for Indonesia, practically next door, it has a population of two hundred and fifty million inhabitants. By comparison, Australia’s twenty-three million inhabitants pale into insignificance as there are roughly eleven Indonesians to each Australian. Demography is also destiny, as people know full well in the United States where White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants will be outnumbered by the late 2040s and thus lose their domination and supremacy (Passel and Cohn, 2008).

11Finally, in a southern hemisphere traditionally regarded as the poor Third World, Australia has always emerged as a wealthy nation, an exception surrounded by developing nations.

  • 3 Australia shifted from the sterling to the dollar zone in February 1966.
  • 4 The common nickname given to Australians in the Asia Pacific area, and within Australia.

12Of course, such a statement has to be qualified today with the spectacular economic rise of several countries in Asia. But it should be noted that Australia has resisted economic crises and recessions remarkably well in the past ten years, much more so than Europe or even the United States. And the fact that the Australian dollar has been on a par with the United States dollar3, that is the worldwide reference currency, for most of the year 2011, represents a major source of pride for many Aussies4.

13All these elements explain why Australia still clearly appears as the odd man out in the Asia Pacific area, and the strenuous efforts made by successive labour or liberal-national governments to turn the island-continent into the odd man in have all met, so far, with mitigated success.

14Anyway, whether odd man out or odd man in, Australia continues to be perceived as odd and weird in her part of the world, and being different from the others is a cause of discomfort, and uneasiness, an uneasiness that easily verges on fear.

15Perhaps more worrisome than contrasts are contradictions, and countries, just like individuals, are all filled with them. But when the gap becomes too wide between the theories, proudly announced and publicised, and the down-to-earth and selfish practices, then uneasiness inevitably ensues, an uneasiness that generates anguish. Rather more so than many other nations, Australia is, par excellence, the land of contradictions. And indeed, contradictions abound in the history of the country. Two examples, among many others, will suffice to illustrate this point.

16Thus, conservative politician Robert Menzies, first as Attorney-General and then, from late April 1939 as Prime Minister, persisted in allowing the export of pig iron to Japan well into the early months of 1941, on the grounds that the Empire of the Rising Sun was not at war with Britain. This was done in spite of the adamant resistance of waterside workers who feared —correctly, as was to be seen later— that the ore could easily be turned into lethal weapons and used, later, against Australian cities, as was already the case against China (Blainey, 1971). His staunch attitude was to earn him the nickname of “Pig-Iron Bob” among his opponents.

17Indeed, on February 19, 1942, only four days after the easy fall of British Singapore, the so-called “impregnable citadel”, the Japanese Air Force bombarded the small harbours of Wyndham and Broome, on the Kimberley Coast of Western Australia, but also Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory. In this attack, twenty-one boats were sunk and twenty-three planes destroyed but, more to the point, two hundred and forty-three innocent civilian victims were killed.

18But on the other side of the political spectrum, prospects looked no different. Already in May 1938, when a partial ban on some exports to Japan had been announced by conservative Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, Labour leader John Curtin protested:

I do not welcome proposals for the restriction of exports from Australia. I acknowledge that iron ore may be used for the manufacture of munitions and for aggressive purposes by warlike countries, but I warn the country that the economic solvency of Australia depends largely on the maintenance of our external trade.” (Roach, 1996, p. 26).

  • 5 The spelling “Mururoa”, made famous by the French military, is incorrect. Moruroa adequately means (...)

19Another major political contradiction springs to mind. Forty years later, in the 1980s, Labour Prime Minister Bob Hawke adopted an inflexible anti-nuclear stance while still selling uranium to France. In a devious face saving exercise, Hawke tried to explain that the strategic ore was shipped to Électricité de France, which, according to him, was not at all the same as France. Yet, nothing guaranteed that it would not be used for the nuclear tests in Moruroa5. In the South Pacific, no one was fooled and an Oceanian official, who preferred to remain anonymous, asserted: “They go about bragging about the [South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone] treaty and then they sell uranium to the French […] Do they think we’re stupid and can’t work out what’s going on ?” (Mangnall, 1990, p. 14).

  • 6 The major island of the Cook Islands.

20As for the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone, adopted in 1985 by the Treaty of Rarotonga6, and for which Hawke loudly claimed paternity, its northern limit was set on the Equator so as to embarrass France for its nuclear activities in French Polynesia as much as possible. At the same time, it gave the United States a completely free hand in Micronesia, north of the Line, to test their nuclear warheads and improve their armaments for the Star Wars programme under President Ronald Reagan.

21Again, the subterfuge deceived no one in the region. Rawdon Dalrymple, Australia’s Ambassador to Washington in those days, acknowledged: “The treaty was carefully drafted to take account of United States strategic interests and Australia’s alliance obligations. […] It helps to preserve a favourable security environment characterised by United States strategic pre-eminence in the Pacific theatre” (Dalrymple, 1987, p. 145). Harsher criticism was expressed by an Australian academic: “[Australia] wished to insulate fundamental American and Western strategic interests by promoting a fairly innocuous but well-publicised form of regional antinuclearism” (Albinski, 1989, p. 23). As for David Lange, the Labour Prime Minister of neighbouring New Zealand, he went straight to the point: “It was plain that the Australians did not take the South Pacific nuclear-free zone too seriously. Indeed, Bob Hawke’s anxiety at Tuvalu to claim paternity of it suggested that its appeal lay firmly in the realms of political expediency”. (Lange, 1990, p. 171).

22Contradictions, when they become blatant, are not the best recipe for serenity. Many other examples could be given in the field of politics, but the focus here will bear on the environment.

23Australia is at the vanguard of conservation and most Australians are deeply concerned with the protection of the environment. And yet, Australia remains, to this day the worst polluter of the planet per capita, ahead of China and the United States, owing to its heavy reliance on coal (Vidal, 2007; Lauder, 2009). Besides, she was one of the rare nations to resolutely refuse to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on the emission of greenhouse gases until December 2007, ten years after it was adopted, even though Canberra had already been granted the right not to decrease, but to increase its emissions of carbon dioxide by 8%, something exceptional among developed countries (Wilkinson, 2007). An independent environmental group, Climate Action Network Australia (CANA), hammered it in: “Australia’s Kyoto target is one of only a few in the industralised world to increase pollution. Australia pushed for a target in Kyoto well short of the emission reduction effort proposed by most industrialised nations. The Government threatened to walk away from the treaty unless its target was accepted. As a result Australia can increase its greenhouse gas emissions 8% above 1990 levels by 2010. Most other industrialised nations committed to targets to reduce their pollution below 1990 level” (CANA, 2011). It is also worth noting that Australia did so essentially by buying back the polluting rights of her small South Pacific neighbours whose emissions of carbon dioxide are quantitatively low.

24Again, the gap between theory and practice leads to embarrassment and uneasiness.

  • 7 The wild, uncivilised, desert-like areas beyond the Bush.

25In the same way, contemporary Australians praise the beauties of the central deserts, with their clear blue skies, they celebrate their close contact with nature and enjoy the wholesome life of the Outback7, amid plants and animals. And yet, most of them continue to cling to the shores of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, in a small coastal fringe between Brisbane and Adelaide that barely extends more than fifty kilometres inland. They still huddle along this “useful Australia”, useful in so far as it covers their essential nutritional needs, but the impression remains that they are still somewhat afraid of the other-worldly interior of their continent. In this respect, they simply reproduce the pattern adopted by their British ancestors.

26The fact is that the early British colonists came either as convicts, that is not of their own accord, or as free settlers who wanted to escape the dire poverty of a fast industrializing Britain and for whom Australia was only a second best. And they had nothing to rejoice at when they first arrived in the island-continent. They found an odd flora and weird environment that was totally different from the one they were used to in their native British Isles. In those days when agriculture and pastoral activities were the only means of survival, all they could see were barren, arid or semi-arid soils that they could not cope with. They were surrounded by trees, plants and flowers that increased their feelings of estrangement. As amply shown in the Australian literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it is no wonder that the uprooted and frightened colonists tried to recreate at the far end of the world a “Britannia of the South Seas”, a familiar and reassuring environment, by getting rid as much as possible of native plants, uprooting them in their turn, and replacing them with others imported from the British Isles.

27Alas, apart from Tasmania and Victoria where these imports could eventually adapt and grow, it was rarely possible in the rest of the country for climatic reasons. Besides, the vegetable kingdom tends to colonise, just as much as human beings, and some of the imported plants developed at the expense of native ones, thus increasing erosion in an already fragile environment, perhaps the most fragile in the world. An attitude that their contemporary scions would undoubtedly frown upon.

28As for the fauna they met with, it was just as disheartening. They had no names for these strange animals, many of them dangerous, as they were quickly to learn, and they were bitterly disappointed as they could make nothing with these untameable —and therefore, in their eyes, useless— animals.

29To make up for these frustrating realities, early colonists introduced European animals into Australia, but this came with mixed blessings. Camels from Afghanistan did help in the exploration of the interior of the continent and merino sheep from Spain soon became the first economic asset of the colonies, ensuring their viability. But this came with a high cost in a delicate environment where erosion works havoc. The imported animals destroyed many of the native ones and developed beyond control, the most famous case being that of rabbits.

  • 8 Australian director Phillip Noyce drew an interesting parallel between the rejection of rabbits and (...)

30To keep Western Australia free from rabbits and other agricultural pests, three rabbit-proof fences were built between 1901 and 19078. Yet, though they stretched more than 3,000 kilometres altogether, they proved insufficient to contain the rodents, and they cost the state government and the farmers millions of dollars in damages over the following decades. To make up for this environmental disaster, some colonists advocated bringing in foxes because they were the natural predators of rabbits in Europe. Alas, the foxes apparently preferred to prey on local wallabies, which they found quite to their liking, thus endangering their very survival. Seen from today’s perspective, there is a certain irony, if not a blatant contradiction, in introducing vegetable and animal species that have sped up erosion and destroyed native plants and animals alike in vast quantities. Contradictions make for uneasiness, and the outcome is anguish, but also shame and guilt as will be seen now.

Shame and Guilt

31Beyond simple uneasiness, there also exist clear examples of shame and guilt generating fears. And at the core of these feelings lie the two heavy pains of modern Australia, namely the convict system and the sorry plight meted out to the Aborigines, the “natives” as they were called in a derogatory way in those days.

32Many people, both in Australia and outside Australia, routinely make comparisons between the United States, the current world leader, and Australia, the regional leader in the South Pacific, and they are quick to point to the cultural similarities between two close strategic partners. After all, Australia was the only ally, with Britain, in the English-speaking world, to take part in the military invasion of Iraq in 2003, while Canada and New Zealand, for example, turned down the offer to participate.

  • 9 Millions of Latin Americans, and even Canadians, object to the use of “American” to refer exclusive (...)

33And yet, there are also enormous differences that tend to go unnoticed. Millions of United Staters9 today are very proud to be the descendants —whether true or false— of those who came on the Mayflower to the shores of New England in 1620, courageously crossing the Atlantic Ocean to escape religious persecutions at the hands of the Church of England and their henchmen. However, those who came to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788 to lay the foundations of modern Australia in Botany Bay and in Port Jackson —that is present-day Sydney— were in their vast majority convicted felons from England and their very first activity on reaching Sydney Cove was to engage in a huge orgy: “That night [February 6, 1788] the sailors asked for some rum to make merry with upon the women quitting the ships. Soon, as one observer put it, they began to be elevated, and all that night there were scenes of debauchery and riot which beggared description. To add to the confusion, a thunderstorm drenched the revellers” (Cathcart, 1995, p. 8). Convictism is nothing to be proud of for the descendants of these “First Fleeters”. There was nothing equivalent to the Pilgrim Fathers in their genealogy and many archival documents were deliberately stolen or burnt throughout the nineteenth century to erase any trace of those disreputable ancestors. For generations and generations, shame generated guilt and guilt resulted in fears. It is only recently, in the past thirty years or so, that being the descendant of a “First Fleeter” has come to be proudly vindicated as a sign of genuine Australianness.

34Even more anguish was to come from the embarrassing presence of Aborigines in the land. Upon being annexed to the British Crown, first by Captain James Cook in 1770, and then again by Captain Arthur Phillip in 1788, the colony of New South Wales was officially declared terra nullius, a land belonging to no one before the arrival of the British. The first colonists were thus comforted in the idea that there was no harm in despoiling the natives and dispossessing them of their best hunting, fishing and gathering grounds.

35Yet the Aborigines did exist and the early settlers did not know what to do with a population with no apparent hierarchy, with no recognizable chief that could be won over to the British views and way of life. For nearly two centuries, the Aborigines —who belonged to a totally distinct paleolithic culture, based on hunting, fishing and gathering— remained a fundamentally and radically different “Other”.

  • 10 The phrase “soothe the dying pillow” (sometimes also “smooth the dying pillow”) was repeatedly used (...)
  • 11 It should be noted that, from 1831 to 1836, Stokes served on board HMS Beagle, during which time he (...)

36According to most —but not all— colonists, the best thing to do was simply to get rid of them as quickly as possible, and help them, if necessary, to disappear swiftly from the face of the earth. And for those who persisted in surviving, it was enough to “soothe their dying pillow”10 and wait until they came to their inevitable extinction, as the social Darwinist theories had it throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, Australia pays homage to Charles Darwin11 in the name of the capital of the Northern Territory. No other place in the world is called Darwin, except for a small village with a bare three hundred souls in Uruguay.

  • 12 Windschuttle, however, has been dubbed a “negationist” by many critics.

37This logic led Australia to witness repeated massacres that amount to mass genocide. The last large-scale slaughter of Aborigines, known as the “Coniston Massacre”, took place in August 1928 in a remote place of the Northern Territory. In one of the most violent shooting rampages in Australian history, seven white Australians murdered at least 31 — but probably more than 60— members of the Warlpiri, Anmatjere and Kaytetye people. In the case of Tasmania, the genocide was total, the only such example in the history of mankind (Reynolds, 1982; Reynolds, 1995. For a completely contrary view, Windschuttle, 2002)12.

38It is to be noted that Aborigines appeared so weird to the first settlers that in the original version of the Australian Constitution they appeared as totally dehumanised and were included in the chapter dealing with the fauna and the flora. And they were not included in population censuses until 1967 when they were, at long last, acknowledged as human beings.

  • 13 In 1869, the colony of Victoria enacted the Aboriginal Protection Act. Through the Protection Board (...)

39No sustained effort was ever made to integrate Aborigines into the texture of Australian society, and yet there is one exception that confirms this rule. It is the process known as the “Stolen Generations” whereby, from 1869, officially13, and well into the late 1960s, Aboriginal half-castes, those with a lighter complexion, were stolen, or rather snatched, from their tribal homes and sent to white families or institutions to be educated like White Australians.

40All traces of their origins were deliberately erased so that there was no going back, they were mixed with other Aboriginal children who spoke different languages so that English could easily be imposed as the sole possible means of communication, and finally cases of maltreatment, and even sexual harassment, abounded in those educational institutions.

41In other words, the physical genocide was accompanied by a cultural genocide as well, as this “forced assimilation” amounted to no less.

42Today, Aborigines are celebrated as the custodians of the land, regarded as a source of cultural pride, and all this is to the credit of millions of Australians who fought for this belated, but welcome recognition and acceptance of their difference. But even so, in one of the two referendums held in 1999, a new preamble to the Constitution was suggested and it focused on the invaluable legacy of Aboriginal culture for modern Australia. Now, in a country where voting is compulsory, it was flatly rejected by 54% of Australian citizens. It is difficult to say whether the outcome would be different today, some fifteen years later.

43The moral pain and guilt engendered by the long list of Aboriginal massacres has led to a double-edged reaction in contemporary Australia.

  • 14 She was, disparagingly, nicknamed “Queen Truganini” (sometimes Trugernanner or Trugernini) and died (...)

44Some suffer from a sort of “Truganini complex”, after the name of the woman widely accepted as the last surviving full blood Aborigine in Tasmania14. They are ready to indulge in a form of mental “self-flagellation” —as some call it in Australia— but this reaction is barely productive and serves no real social purpose, not even to advance the welfare of the first inhabitants of the island-continent.

45But guilt can also lead to aggressiveness, in particular with outsiders. Thus, many others assert their converse opinion that Australians should not be held responsible for all these wrongdoings perpetrated by the British in colonial times. Such an answer, alas, is neither satisfactory nor convincing, for outside observers, on at least two counts.

  • 15 Familiar nickname given to Britons, especially those living in Australia.

46The “Pommies”15 may be blamed, but they were simply the ancestors of present-day Australians, and if no individual should be answerable for acts he or she never committed, all true-blue Aussies still bear a part of responsibility as members of a cultural group long involved in the process of colonisation and despoiling. But exactly the same could be said for Western Europeans, North Americans and Arabs, to mention but a few, all of them also very active in the past in the fields of colonialism and even slavery.

47Besides, the Coniston massacre took place in 1928, long after Britain had granted Australia dominion status with full powers of self-government, and thus the maintenance of law and order. Yet, the court of inquiry asserted that the shooting down of the Aborigines was fully justified. It should be mentioned that among the seven white Australians involved was a World War I veteran, that is to say an untouchable icon of national pride.

48Now, if some escape in illusions, the new Labour Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was more realistic, and courageous: in 2008, he acknowledged, on behalf of the Australian nation, the sufferings inflicted on Black Australians for two centuries.

Rejection of Otherness

  • 16 Among dozens of possible examples, here are two endearing ones: Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimm (...)
  • 17 A common nickname for Australia.
  • 18 In 1939, more than 90% of the people living in Australia were either born in the country, or were t (...)

49Australian literature is replete with examples of a stern rejection of “otherness”16 by early British colonists living “down under”17. Apparently, they could not feel secure in their new country unless they deleted all possible forms of difference, whether vegetable, animal or human, unless they destroyed anything that was at variance with their beloved British norms and customs. This is probably what urged them to acquire a whole continent for one nation, and one nation for a whole continent, and a very homogeneous nation at that, reserved for the “Antipodean Britons”18, as the phrase went well into the 20th century.

50Integration has never been Australia’s forte and, owing to immature fears of the unknown, the country has always preferred to revel in the reassuring and cosy comfort of sameness.

51All the newcomers to the island-continent were long perceived as outlandish aliens and similarly suffered from exclusion and segregation.

  • 19 By the turn of the 20th century, 36,000 Chinese had been forced to leave the country

52Thus, the first Irish settlers, though present in Australia from the very start of British colonisation, were mistrusted until the turn of the 20th century owing to their Catholicism and radical political ideas. The Chinese came at the time of the early gold rushes in the 1850s and their numbers reached 41,000, mostly men, in the 1880s. Their business acumen and dynamism were felt as a threat for they adumbrated, it was thought, a wholesale invasion of Australia by massive “Asian hordes”, a phrase recurrent in the press of the time. Anger at their very presence led to the adoption of restrictive racist laws in all the colonies. This deliberate exclusion of a group that never accounted for more than 3.3 per cent of the total population, at its peak, was confirmed and further developed at federal level by the Commonwealth Government from 190119. These measures came to be known officially as the “White Australia Policy” and they were enforced long before the notorious quota laws of 1921 and 1924 in the United States.

  • 20 Though Germans were present in Australia from the 1840s and Italians from the 1860s.

53Other reasons for concern came after the Second World War, at a time when the island-continent desperately needed workers to exploit the vast economic potential of the country. For the first time in her history, Australia accepted, from 1947 onwards, immigrants who did not come from the British Isles but from Continental Europe20. But again, the newcomers were supposed to relinquish their original identities, adopt Australian mores, and become “Australianised” as quickly as possible. The fear of Otherness went very far for these Europeans were regularly frowned upon when they dared say a few words in their own language in the public sphere. Today East Asians and people from the Middle East are regarded with the same suspicion, and boat people —most of them from Iraq and Afghanistan, often entering Australia as clandestine immigrants— end up in detention centres where some are kept for years on end.

54Political catchwords in the present may focus on the “Australian Salad Bowl” and on a vibrant multicultural society, but the day to day reality is still “multiculturalism, ma non troppo”. An excellent illustration of this came at the time of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney which brought much fame to the whole country. Mary Kostakidis, a famous broadcaster on Special Broadcasting System, the multicultural television channel, and whose surname is more reminiscent of the islands in the Aegean Sea than the hills of Kent or Surrey, preferred to withdraw from her role as Master of Ceremony of the opening venue of the Olympics rather than speak French —which she does fluently— before English, as required by the set protocol of the International Olympic Committee (Peatling and Verghis, 2000). It seems that Australia wants to have it both ways, rejecting difference on the one hand, but wishing to be accepted —and even loved, or at least admired— on the international scene. Combining the two trends is extremely difficult and, at all events, political maturity involves making choices, sometimes difficult and painful ones.

Australia as a Frightened Child

  • 21 The phrase was first used by Sir Henry Parkes, the premier of the colony of New South Wales. At the (...)

55Australia may be located in the Asia Pacific area, but from a cultural point of view she is clearly the daughter of Britain, and historians, when referring to the very special ties that bind Australia to Britain, often speak of the “crimson thread of kinship”, a phrase that evokes an uncut umbilical cord21.

56And indeed, in many respects, Australia looks like a child stranded at the far end of the world. Contemporary Australians assert high and loud their nationalism and independence of spirit and say that the childlike dependence on mother Britain is a thing of the past. Yet strong symbols remain, symbols that most Australians are dearly attached to, and they are telling.

57Again, a parallel with the United States is interesting. First, what United Staters celebrate on the fourth of July, that is on Independence Day, is the deliberate cutting off of all political ties with Britain, whereas what Australians celebrate on the 26th of January, Australia Day, is the arrival of the first British convicts, that is the beginnings of British colonisation. Then, when Australian historians refer to the highly symbolical date of January 1st, 1901, that is the date when Britain granted the island-continent the status of Dominion, they never speak of independence, but of federation, the federation of the six British colonies of Australia into a single self-governing entity. And they are perfectly right since major political powers, in particular defence and diplomacy, were to remain under the control of London for many years thereafter. Finally, much more recently, in one of the two 1999 referendums, Australians citizens were asked whether they preferred their country to adopt a republican system. In all six states and the two territories, a clear majority of roughly 52% democratically expressed their preference for the maintenance of the monarchy. In other words, if Queen Elizabeth II is Queen of the United Kingdom by the grace of God, she is Queen of Australia because Australians wanted it so. This is, clearly, an all-too-easy shortcut, but it holds a grain of truth…

58Like any forlorn child who feels abandoned and needs security, in a geographic and human environment perceived as hostile. Australia, too weak by herself, has always turned, throughout her history, to great and powerful protectors.

59The United Kingdom assumed this role until 1942, when Britons were defeated by the Japanese in Singapore, thus displaying their limitations. But Britain was replaced overnight by another member of the family, so to speak, the United States. The ANZUS Pact, a military alliance signed in 1951 with the United States and New Zealand, gradually came to be seen by millions of Australians as the cornerstone of Australian foreign policy, an institution in its own right that should not be criticised in any way and has even become, as Renouf put it, “the equivalent of the Bible in foreign relations” (Renouf, 1979, p. 115). To this day, most Australians remain convinced that Washington will automatically come to their rescue, should they need military assistance. And yet, the ANZUS Pact, when read closely, guarantees nothing of the sort.

60If Australia turned to protectors, it is because she has always feared an external invasion, falling prey to jealous aliens that coveted her vast, empty spaces and rich resources. And this is why she has spent much of her time, and energy, scrutinizing the horizon for some potential foe.

61In colonial times, the French in New Caledonia and then the Germans in north eastern New Guinea were perceived with much suspicion and anguish as they had settled too close to Australian shores. In the late 19th century, many Chinese gold diggers were persecuted for they were thought to represent the vanguard of a lethal fifth column, but the “Yellow Peril” was to come much later, in 1942, with the Japanese Imperial Forces. During the Cold War, communism was resented as highly noxious, and it was an Australian Secretary for Foreign Affairs, Percy Spender, who first coined, in 1950, the phrase “Domino Theory” whereby when one country falls in the grip of Marxism, the ill automatically spreads to its neighbours, one after the other, like dominoes falling. The phrase was made famous by President Eisenhower but only in 1954, four years later.

  • 22 The film was directed by Stuart Beattie. Though Marsden’s novels carefully avoid any possible ident (...)

62Today, the fear of alien masses persists in the Australian collective unconscious, lingering just below the surface, and many citizens insist on the need to maintain a strict control of their own territory, the only way to preserve the safety of the nation. Indonesia, next door, is unstable, and if she were to fall into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists, it would represent a real nightmare for many Australians. This is clearly evidenced by the release in 2010 of the film Tomorrow When the War Began22, based on John Marsden’s best-selling collection of seven novels published between 1993 and 1999. And yet, Indonesia is no real threat. It has, in the foreseeable future, no capacity to invade the island-continent, and it would take Jakarta at least fifteen years before it comes on a par with the military equipment held by Australia.

63As for the terrorist threat, it does exist, and Australians —like all other Westerners— are easy targets. It is more particularly so in certain countries, as demonstrated by the bombings in the Indonesian island of Bali on October 12, 2002, when two hundred and two innocent people lost their lives. Among them were eighty-eight young Australians.

64But nothing of this magnitude has ever occurred on Australian soil, and the risks appeared to be limited within an island-continent that, since the traumatic experience of the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, has looked more and more like a fortress, with very watchful customs officers and closed circuit television cameras in the sensitive areas of all major cities.

65This is not to say that terrorist attacks were totally unknown down under, and a number of people even died in the aftermath. From the early 1970s to the mid 2000s, conflicts to which Canberra was in no way a party extended their violence to Australia (Croatians bombing the Yugoslav General Trade and Tourist Agency in Sydney in 1972; Armenians killing the Turkish Consul General in Sydney in 1980 and blowing up the Turkish Consulate in Melbourne in 1986; Israeli Consulate in Sydney and French Consulate in Perth severely damaged, respectively in 1982 and 1995). Specific interests were also targeted (high-ranking politicians at the Sydney Hilton Hotel in 1978; Asian restaurants and businesses in the 1980s; police officers in Endeavour Hills, a suburb of Melbourne, in September 2014). But the common man in the street did not feel directly concerned.

66Alas, all this was to change, and what was bound to happen unfortunately happened. As in New York City, Madrid, London, Mumbai, Paris, and Copenhagen. On December 15 and 16, 2014, terrorism struck right in the heart of Sydney, the major city in the country. A lone Iranian gunman pretending to be a supporter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) held hostage ten customers and eight employees of a café located in downtown Martin Place and demanded a flag of ISIL be brought to him. At the conclusion of the “Sydney Hostage Crisis”, as it was called in the Australian media, two innocent hostages had died, while three others and a police officer had been injured during the police raid. As for the gunman himself, he was shot down by police. Within Australia, emotion was intense. This time, ordinary people going about their daily business, in their home town, could fall prey to terrorism! How could such a thing take place within the country? How come the authorities had been unable to prevent it? Despite her isolation beyond the seas and the oceans, despite distance from the rest of the world, terrorism had struck in the national sanctuary. As for the great traditional protectors, the United Kingdom and the United States, they never came to the rescue of the island-continent. What could they have done, anyway, having enough on their own hands in the field of terrorism? But the outcome is there: Australia feels no longer safe.

67The perspective of Islamist terrorists roaming free, at large within Australia, is a major cause of concern. Indeed, the “Sydney Hostage Crisis” is “indicative of the threat that we now have to live with”, as put by Catherine Burn, the New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner (Feast, 2015). In early February 2015, a new Islamist plot was disclosed. The Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, seized the opportunity to reveal some of its elements in a press conference: “Kneeling before the death cult flag with a knife in his hand and a machete before him, one of those arrested said this: ‘I swear to almighty Allah, we will carry out the first operation for the soldiers of the caliphate in Australia’. […] ‘I swear to almighty Allah, blond people, there is no room for blame between you and us. We only owe you stabbing the kidneys and striking the necks’”. (Hurst, Medhora, Safi, 2015). Enough to give shudders to the general public!

68As for the absence of any obvious foe in the regional neighbourhood, it tends to increase, rather than decrease, the abandoned child syndrome still felt diffusely by many in the country. They would like to cling on to the reassuring certainties of the past, just forty years ago —less than the span of two generations—, when their identity was safely anchored in the “Anglo-Saxon” world, in sound alignment with Britain and the United States. Alas, London left Australia to her own devices in 1973, when it joined the European Economic Community and Japan, for the first time, superseded the United Kingdom as both her major supplier and main customer. As for the United States, after the terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington on September 11, 2001, and their poor showing ever since in Afghanistan and in Iraq, it appears no longer as an invincible protector. Besides, the two great allies are not exactly what they used to be, and their racial make-up has changed substantially, exactly the same as down under. But Aussies are also pragmatic people and if identity matters, so does the economy. Thus they acknowledge, though often reluctantly, that if there is any future for Australia as a prosperous nation, it lies definitely in Asia, or at least with Asia.


69Throughout her young history, modern Australia has developed strong defence mechanisms, all of them based more on segregation than on integration, at all levels: legal, military, psychological. The original goal of the official White Australia Policy was to maintain a keen sense of Anglo-Saxon identity in an alien environment. Then, from the mid 1970s onwards, came a more relaxed attitude that focused essentially on the welfare and wealth of the nation. This led to what could be labelled a “Rich Australia Policy” that favoured business migrants who could invest their money in the country, even if they came from Asia. Alas, this wider acceptance of difference was not to last. Today, the uppermost concern is security again and a sort of “Safe Australia Policy” has been gradually emerging in the past twenty-five years.

  • 23 The Bali bombings of 2002 were quickly —and proudly— described by many analysts as “Australia’s own (...)
  • 24 Hence this pithy remark expressed in graffiti in the toilets of Monash University in Melbourne: “Be (...)

70However, this Safe Australia Policy reached such unprecedented levels under Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, in power from 1996 to 2007, that it is permissible to wonder if fears were not used as a form of manipulation of the masses. Thus, the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, and then in Bali on October 12, 2002, were deftly presented by Howard as evidence that the West in general, and Australia in particular, were again under threat23, and vindicated his decision to send Australian troops to Iraq to participate in the military assault, along with the United States and Britain, in 2003. Of course, the Prime Minister had to face the anger of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators loudly protesting in the streets24 of major cities. But he was confident that the old collective phobias would soon resurface and that the silent majority would readily support him and accept the absolute necessity to keep violent Islamist groups at bay, away from home, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, or more to the point in Indonesia, next door. Today, the incumbent Prime Minister Tony Abbott, also a liberal, clearly follows suit in his clever manipulation of the national phobias. In 2014, his government had no problem in Parliament committing Australian aircraft and special forces to assist the United States in the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant. Abbott also “introduced tough new laws on foreign fighters and gave security forces enhanced powers at home” (Feast, 2015). Civil liberties are thus partly sacrificed on the altar of security.

71Australia is no better and no worse than other countries, certainly no worse than the United States in Iraq or France in the Ivory Coast in recent times. She is also very sensitive to her image around the world, maybe excessively, and cherishes the idea that she holds the moral high ground at all times. In this odd blend of insecurity and arrogance, she is reluctant to accept criticism, or simply differing views, while she does not hesitate to proffer advice and moral lessons to friends and foes alike.

  • 25 Title of a famous work by Donald Horne.

72To finish on a more optimistic note, the positive sides of Australia —and indeed there are many— should also be highlighted. She remains the “lucky country”25 or the land of the fair go, the country of mateship too, where social distinctions are much lighter than in Europe, where men, at least in small town Australia, sit at the front of a taxi with the driver, where people stepping down from a bus rarely omit to say “thank you driver”.

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1 In its ideological orientation, the Liberal Party corresponds roughly to the Conservatives in Britain or to the Republicans in the United States. The Australian Liberals have always been allied to the smaller Australian National Party, whether in power or in the opposition.

2 Though the Irish Catholic element has always played a major part in the history, and politics, of the nation.

3 Australia shifted from the sterling to the dollar zone in February 1966.

4 The common nickname given to Australians in the Asia Pacific area, and within Australia.

5 The spelling “Mururoa”, made famous by the French military, is incorrect. Moruroa adequately means the atoll of the “big secret”.

6 The major island of the Cook Islands.

7 The wild, uncivilised, desert-like areas beyond the Bush.

8 Australian director Phillip Noyce drew an interesting parallel between the rejection of rabbits and the exclusion of Aborigines (mentioned hereafter) in his famous film Rabbit-Proof Fence (also known as Long Walk Home) released in 2002.

9 Millions of Latin Americans, and even Canadians, object to the use of “American” to refer exclusively to the citizens of the United States and perceive this “inverted synecdoche” as disparaging to their own identity.

10 The phrase “soothe the dying pillow” (sometimes also “smooth the dying pillow”) was repeatedly used well into the 1930s to express the fatalistic view that Aborigines were bound to perish as they could not adapt to changing circumstances. The expression was originally coined, though in a different context, by Captain John Lort Stokes, a hydrographer in the Royal Navy in the 1830s and 1840s.

11 It should be noted that, from 1831 to 1836, Stokes served on board HMS Beagle, during which time he was Charles Darwin’s cabin mate.

12 Windschuttle, however, has been dubbed a “negationist” by many critics.

13 In 1869, the colony of Victoria enacted the Aboriginal Protection Act. Through the Protection Board, the Governor could order the removal of children from their families and send them to reformatory or industrial schools where they were housed in dormitories. The Aborigines’ Protection Board was thus established to oversee the mass dislocation of Aboriginal people from their traditional lands. But the practice had begun long before, in the earliest days of English colonisation, when Aboriginal children were routinely used as domestic servants and farm labour. The first “native institution” was set up by Governor Macquarie at Parramatta in 1814 to “civilise” Aboriginal children. By 1816, this school had already provoked signs of hostility when it became apparent that its goal was to estrange the Aboriginal children from their families and communities.

14 She was, disparagingly, nicknamed “Queen Truganini” (sometimes Trugernanner or Trugernini) and died in 1876. It is difficult to assert with accuracy whether she was the very last Tasmanian Aborigine or not.

15 Familiar nickname given to Britons, especially those living in Australia.

16 Among dozens of possible examples, here are two endearing ones: Thomas Keneally’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith and David Malouf’s Remembering Babylon.

17 A common nickname for Australia.

18 In 1939, more than 90% of the people living in Australia were either born in the country, or were the descendants of people coming from the British Isles, that is Britain and Ireland. But the ideal to be attained was still Britishness.

19 By the turn of the 20th century, 36,000 Chinese had been forced to leave the country

20 Though Germans were present in Australia from the 1840s and Italians from the 1860s.

21 The phrase was first used by Sir Henry Parkes, the premier of the colony of New South Wales. At the Australasian Federal Conference held in Melbourne in 1890, he gave a speech advocating the federation of the seven British colonies of Australia and New Zealand and said: “The crimson thread of kinship runs through us all”.

22 The film was directed by Stuart Beattie. Though Marsden’s novels carefully avoid any possible identification of the “enemy”, the film has no choice: it is more explicit and seems to point at Indonesia as characters have clearly Malay or Indonesian physical features.

23 The Bali bombings of 2002 were quickly —and proudly— described by many analysts as “Australia’s own 9/11”. Most of them were conservative journalists who, in their subservience to the United States, never thought of following the standard Australian usage (11/9), or that Bali, where Australia was directly targeted, could simply be referred to as 12/10.

24 Hence this pithy remark expressed in graffiti in the toilets of Monash University in Melbourne: “Be afraid: paranoia is patriotic”.

25 Title of a famous work by Donald Horne.

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Michel Pérez, « Australia: Entrenched Phobias, Illusory Protections », L’Espace Politique [En ligne], 25 | 2015-1, mis en ligne le 08 avril 2015, consulté le 20 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Michel Pérez

Maître de conférences en anglais
CNEP (Centre des Nouvelles Etudes sur le Pacifique, EA 4242) - Université de la Nouvelle-Calédonie

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