Nick Bryant is the author of the forthcoming book The Rise and Fall of Australia.
Australia requires a rhetorical rethink, for the language used to describe itself is ridiculously out of date. Take the vocabulary of isolation and peripheralism.
Old-fashioned constructs like 'the land down under' and 'the antipodes' are misleading because they grew from Australia being at the opposite end of the earth's surface to the country's one-time colonial master. The 'tyranny of distance', like 'the lucky country', comes from a book title that has long out-lived its usefulness.
Surely it is also time to ditch the language that routinely casts Australia as a country still in the throes* of adolescence, struggling to reach maturity. Please.
Part of the reason why national identity debates in Australia can be so tortuous and stale is because the vernacular and terms of self-reference have not kept pace with the country's changing place in the region and the world. Australia, for all its unique idioms and colourful turns of phrase, has not been very good at describing its new character. Instead, it typecasts itself in ways that comport with how the rest of the world mistakenly views it.
When Australia took on the revolving presidency of the UN Security Council last September it even placed a stuffed marsupial in the office alongside the chamber that goes with the temporary job. Australia is one of the most active and respected countries on the 15-member Security Council. Why the need for such self-denigrating props? Australia needs to escape this boxing-kangaroo way of thinking.
The phrase 'punching above its weight,' as Michael Fullilove pointed out during his excellent speech at the National Press Club, falls into this same category.
It has become a cliché shorn of meaning. Nowadays, Australia has a punch that it is commensurate with its commercial, economic, demographic and artistic clout: that of a beefy middleweight. Besides, I've always thought that the pull exerted on Australia from different and often competing directions – Washington, Beijing, other Asian capitals, Whitehall and Buckingham Palace — offers a more useful way of thinking about foreign affairs than the pugilistic frame.
I also agree with Michael about the danger of Australia getting punch drunk, and mistakenly concluding that 'if we're already punching above our weight, then there's no need for us to do anything more.' And I like the eye-catching title of his speech, A Larger Australia, and the sizeable thinking behind it.
The Big Australia debate is often framed as an argument about demographics and immigration quotas. But the Larger Australia debate should also be about the national and political mindset. It is important to distinguish between the two, because recently they have been at odds. During my six years covering Australia for the BBC, the political mindset became smaller, narrower, more inward-looking and closeted. In contrast, the national mindset, whether expressed by Cate Blanchett taking Sydney Theatre Company productions to New York or Macquarie Bank buying up more American infrastructure, was ever more expansive and ambitious.
In politics, the turning point — or pivot, to use the fashionable diplo-speak of the day – was the 2010 federal election, which followed the ouster of Kevin Rudd. For him, personal and national ambition were entwined, and both extended far beyond Australia's borders. Julia Gillard's aspirations were more easily accommodated at home. At the outset of the campaign, in a strategically placed story on the front page of The Sunday Telegraph, she signaled her preference for a Small Australia. This policy announcement, aimed squarely at Sydney's western suburbs, married with her comments on The 7.30 Report during her first overseas trip as prime minister, when she admitted she felt more comfortable in Australian classrooms than international summits. In distancing herself from Kevin Rudd, she distanced Australia from the rest of the world.
With the then opposition leader Tony Abbott also indicating that he preferred to be a stay-at-home prime minister, the 2010 campaign had a distinctly municipal feel. It was as if Gillard and Abbott were competing to become the mayor of a medium-sized city rather than contesting the leadership of an ever more thrusting and consequential nation.
The Harvard academic Niall Fergusson, who happened to be visiting Australia at the time, could scarcely believe his ears. 'It is true to say that there is a quality of Australian political debate very reminiscent of local politics in Glasgow when I was growing up,' he told the ABC's Mark Colvin. Crikey's Bernard Keane called it the 'little Australia' campaign.
The 2013 campaign was not much better. 'I don't think we should be getting above ourselves here,' said Tony Abbott during another ABC interview, when asked if Australia should support American airstrikes against the Assad regime. 'We are a significant middle power but no more.'
Gillard and Abbott, who tended to bring out the worst in each other, took the old maxim that 'all politics is local' to the point of absurdity.
It is time have a national debate of a quality, scope and ambition that is not constrained by the supposed small-mindedness of the electorate — a small-mindedness, I would argue strongly, that is overstated. Just as Australian politicians think that Australian voters are more xenophobic and racist than they truly are, they are exaggerate their insularity. This 'political parochialism' stands in the way of larger Australia thinking.
It is not just politicians who are guilty. Sections of the media are also complicit. As Michael says, it is ridiculous that the airmiles racked up by Kevin Rudd as foreign minister should merit a tabloid hatchet job. At the time of Xi Jinping's rise to power in Beijing, it was striking that an uneventful visit to Australia by Charles and Camilla was lavished with more attention on commercial television and in the tabloids. This was not only Small Australia thinking but also Old Australia thinking: British century rather than Asian century.
What also struck me about Michael's speech was that it was the kind of oration that should truly come from the prime minister. During my time in Australia I was constantly struck by the visionless rhetoric of the political class. Instead, short-termism was built into every statement, sound-bite and dreary slogan. Again, the preference is for political parochialism rather than anything more farsighted or expansive. Debate not only obsesses about the border, but also stops at the border. This is a speech, then, that the modern crop of politicians seems incapable of delivering.
Michael Fullilove says that 'a larger foreign policy is one that combines two qualities: ambition and coherence.' Alas, since the 2010 election, these are qualities rarely evident in Canberra. Australia's politicians prefer to think small.
Photo by Flickr user Andru1308.
* Thanks Mark.