Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 17:58 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 17 Jul 2018 | 17:58 | SYDNEY

Australia still running from its fears


Graeme Dobell

24 May 2010 12:58

Australia is doing so well because it has been running so hard for so long. The race is to escape the twin fates of relative economic decline (becoming the 'poor white trash of Asia') and strategic isolation.

At a childish level, Australia can worry about the gravitational threat Asia poses on a map: falling down on us from the north. Add to that old set of fears a realisation that started dawning on Australia's elites several decades ago. Rising Asia was doing a much more effective economic job of Khrushchev's threat to the West: we will bury you.

These thoughts have been bumping around in my head because the other day I tried to explain the growing sense of dread in Canberra in the 1970s that exploded into a series of big reforms in the 1980s. As always, it's a case of describing where you are today by knowing where you've been.

The mud of my memory was stirred by a conversation with a PhD student writing a thesis about Australian foreign policy from 1983 till now. I find these conversations both daunting and reassuring: worrying because hacks are trained for instant analysis rather than reflective judgement, but comforting because these sharp-and-shrewd 20-somethings seem twice as smart as we were at the same age.

The really daunting bit, of course, is to describe a time before the end of the Cold War that still seems vivid to me, yet beyond dust to him. Anyone with adult kids knows the feeling.

My PhD interlocutor started with a good, simple, seeping question. And in the way of such questions, it opened up a myriad of complex answers. Why did Australia set off on the long reform march in 1983 that has led us to here? Rather than talk about the reforms of the 80s and 90s, I tried to give some sense of the slow, rising dread that afflicted much of Canberra's polity in the 1970s. Past certainties were eroding, if not vanishing.

To start with the pop culture stuff, the great social changes that swept the US and Europe in the 1960s didn't quite make it here until the 1970s. The '60s as a social phenomenon began in Oz in 1967-68. The Beatles launched Sgt. Peppers and the marijuana mushroomed; Vietnam loomed as the US exploded. By the time Germaine Greer delivered that amazing book with that stunning cover in 1970, the '60s had arrived down under.

Gough Whitlam was a 1960s politician, and Whitlam's foreign policy gift to Canberra in 1972-75 was to clear out much of the debris that had accumulated. As the Australian diplomat and Liberal Senator John Knight observed of the Whitlam changes: 'However trite it may now seem to say it, the fact was that a conservative coalition had been in power for so long and had been hoist so high on its own rhetorical petard that even it was pleased to see much of the change made by Labor.' (John Knight is one of the Liberal's foreign policy might-have-beens. He was the Liberal senator for the ACT from 1975 until his death at the age of 37 in 1981.)

The end of the Vietnam War in 1975 was the moment of strategic clarity when Canberra started to  ponder the military aspects of being home alone without a great-and-powerful ally. Almost as important was the way political, bureaucratic, academic and business elites compared Australia's economy with some of the bits they were flying over on the way to Europe and the US.

The headline version of relative economic failure was captured vividly in Lee Kuan Yew's warning that Australia could become the poor white trash of Asia. The polite way of rendering the trash prediction is to speak of Australia relative economic decline compared to the rapid growth of Asia.
When I wrote a book about Australian foreign policy a decade ago, the fear of falling behind in the economic race was one of the key thoughts offered in the first chapter:

Until the economic meltdown triggered by Asia's currency crisis in 1997, Australia had  undergone three decades of relative economic and military decline when compared with Northeast and Southeast Asia. This core reality has shaped Australian assessments. It is a key trend often hinted at but rarely stated in blunt terms. In the phrase 'relative decline' the important word is relative. Decline does not equate with decadence or internal failure. Australia can keep getting richer and grow ever more affluent. But over the long term Asia and the Indian Ocean community will be doing the same thing at a faster rate.

That's OK as far as it goes, but it fails to capture what I remember as the rising sense of economic apprehension in Canberra. LKY's pungent vision was linked to Donald Horne's 1964 christening of the lucky country, 'run by second-rate people who share its luck.' The sense of looming second-rateness was afflicting some of those running the lucky country. That is why Australia set out in the 1980s on the long march that still continues: call it liberalisation, or globalisation or just running hard to ensure we don't go backwards too fast.

This is not just a buffer's argument about the olden days. You can hear loud echoes of some of these arguments in the debates going on right now.

Photo by Flickr user darkmatter, used under a Creative Commons license.