Déjà Vu All Over Again

Australia Looks Back at Asia

Australia has long dithered at the edge of Asia, unsure of what ‘engaging’ the region might really mean, unaware that the consequences of indecision will be slight and that the many unknowns of history will also feature in the days and years to come. It would be no exaggeration to claim that those who lead national life – the politicians and other public figures, the tricksters and the trained – consider Asia as a commodity to be had, to examine and to discuss in abstract, and distracting, terms.

During the 1990s the presumption, or perhaps the aspiration, that Australia was a part of Asia, an aspect of how we Australians imagined and defined ourselves, took centre stage in the debate about national identity and what it yet could be. But few asked what that really meant, and if the thing we called Asia – that particular configuration, that way of understanding – could ever exist at all.

In Australia, Asia is often an unexamined state of mind lurking somewhere beyond geography, well apart from the tangible and the touchable. In a sense that shouldn’t be surprising because much of the Australian continent is far removed from the region, and only the recent decline in airfares and the advent of budget travel have made voyages beyond national boundaries widely affordable. Australia is a sparsely inhabited continent, and its major population centres have little direct contact with the peculiar cities further north.

Save for Darwin, which is as close to Indonesia as you can get before you actually get there and consequently bustles with regional interaction, the commerce of multiple cultures and the faces of many other nations, migration to Australia’s state capitals has largely failed to shift the continuum of national life away from the Anglo-Irish veneer placed so forcibly over the many indigenous cultures that welcomed Asian sojourners and traders well before the savage white people came.

So even the aspiration of an ‘Asia within’ is still largely wide of the mark. What remains is a shadow play of ideologies, a to-and-fro of assumptions about place, circumstance and destiny. After the Labor government tripped over its own hubris and fell in the middle of the 1990s, the conservative Liberal-National coalition pushed Australian perceptions of Asia back to what it imagined they must have been in the late 1940s, and the 1950s and 1960s.

But as aspirations shifted to Europe and North America, the new demagogues failed to realise that their take on history – their presumption that a nebulous notion of Asia could be shifted to the edges of Australian consciousness – was insufficient. Mirroring popular thought in early 1946, even as the horrors of the Pacific War against the Japanese were still fresh in many people’s minds, the Anglican bishop of Golburn had written that “we are not bound up with the fate of Europe, but with the fate of Asia”.

This remains the most mature of all brief assessments of Australia’s relations with the countries to its north because it presumed neither that Australia could influence Asia nor that the region was an object to be handled, inspected and ignored when necessary. Even more significantly, Asia would not decide Australia’s fate, but would determine the scope of its future. Somewhat unfortunately the bishop’s prophecy of a future Australia peopled by Eurasians and aware of its Oriental environs has never come to pass.

In its place is a sort of understanding that there must be some key to dismantling Asia as an edifice of the Australian imagination and building a realistic picture of what’s out there, just beyond those pale white shores. As a graduate student at the Australian National University’s Faculty of Asian Studies in the late 1990s and early years of this decade I was fortunate enough to work at the edges of that endeavour, limited though my effort may well have been. What disturbed me all the while was the sort of student – the type who would never become an academic – who saw this push for change as a bureaucratic effort, whereby models and catch phrases would suffice for a lack of intellectual engagement.

Somewhat unfortunately, it seems that the current Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was one of those students a decade earlier. Despite the hype about his past as a diplomat in China and his ability with Putonghua, he’s just another Faculty alumnus with the quick phrase and the hazy presumption that all else will follow. Speaking at the OzAsia Festival in Adelaide yesterday he claimed that his government was determined for “Australia to be the most Asian literate nation in the western world”.

It is entirely a matter of conjecture whether a region with a multitude of peoples, cultures and conditions could ever be ‘read’ as a single transcript, leaving aside any other connotations of literacy that Rudd might have imaged were there to be abused. He also spoke of Asia’s economic significance to Australia but performed best in mangling logic. “If you speak the language,” he said, “you understand the culture”.

Possibly, but let’s consider something that Mr Rudd really wouldn’t like. He speaks English and knows little more about English culture than I do, save what he might have learned through his millionaire wife who owns a company in the United Kingdom. And he might speak Putonghua, but many Chinese would be happy to tell him – in any of the country’s many languages – that he knows nothing of the way they live their lives.  But, of course, he’ll never meet those people. He’ll be visiting bureaucrats, who always seem to speak the same.

Kevin Rudd’s somewhat bizarre declaration is as puerile as it is disappointing. In a very clear sense it’s yet another shift back to Asia as a presumption, as an aspect of the Australian imagination, as a pressing idea but one that never really equates to a specific reality. It’s a catch-all for the new millennium, but something seems familiar.

Maybe it’s just déjà vu, all over again.


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