Saturday, January 21, 2012

Saturday Morning Musings - why multicultural Australia cannot be part of Asia

This morning's Saturday Morning Musings looks at some of the threads in present Australian life and politics

Here in Australia dairy farmers have been complaining for some time about the milk wars between Australia's two main supermarket chains.

For the benefit of international readers, the two big chains have been selling milk for $A2 for two litres. They have also been selling discounted store brand bread for prices as low as $1.50 a loaf. This has actually been a godsend for the growing number of poor Australians. However, at the time the milk and bread wars began, farmers warned that the lower prices must flow on to farm gate prices. This appears to be happening.

In yesterday's very short post, Woolshed Foreglen, I said that I must write something on woolsheds. That comment was triggered by a conversation at work.

A work colleague emigrated to Australia from the UK about eight years ago. I used some phrases in conversation that led to him looking at me quite blankly. He literally had no idea what I was talking about, had no idea of the importance of wool in Australia's past. But then, why should he?

I am still learning how to make that past live, to explain in short and interesting form providing the minimum information required.

Over on the Lowy Institute blog, there has been discussion about the Government's White Paper on 'Australia in the Asian Century', due to be released in the middle of this year. For those who don't know this blog, it is very good indeed, one of the best in the world with a special focus on foreign policy.

The Henry White Paper is interesting, for it's very existence is another sign of social and cultural change in this country. The dominant frames used in this country focus on the emergence of a multicultural Australia. To many, the discussion on Australia in the Asian century is seen as a natural continuation of this. The reality is a little different.

Leave aside all the problems involved with the word "Asian". It actually doesn't exist.

Accepting that, Australia is less an Asian country today than it was forty years ago. Then there was great interest in Asia, a fascination, a desire to learn. All that has gone. The reason lies in the nature of multicultural Australia itself.

Australia is a multicultural society and that alone means that we cannot be Asian. This is not a comment on Asia or Asian countries. It is a very Australian specific comment.

In that past Australia on which I so often write, there was fear of Asia, of the risk that the relatively homogeneous Australian population would be swamped by Asian hordes. That gave us the White Australia policy. However, there was also fascination with Asia.

As Australia opened up in the fifties and sixties, the fascination grew. We discussed what it meant to be part of Asia. The young in particular interacted with Asian students, visited Asia, were attracted by Asian cultures. It's actually quite hard to explain just how strong this was, another thing that I have to learn how to do.

All that has gone.

Australia chose to be an open society that allowed migrants from anywhere. Today, we take pride in the fact that our migrants have come from every country on every continent in the world. But that, of itself, limits Australia's emotional engagement with Asia.

Each Australian migrant group retains some linkages with home. They interact with Australia on one side, with their culture and home country on the other. To a migrant from Greece, the Sudan, Chile, Iraq or Tajikistan, the old fascination with Asia has no relevance. How could it? There is no context. It's just not relevant.

You would think that the growing number of Australians coming from Asian countries might balance this. It doesn't work that way.

Asia is a polyglot place. No one really agrees on what it is or was. Chinese Australians may have a generalised concept of Asia, but they are are first and foremost Chinese on one side, Australian on the other. To the degree that they do think of "Asia", they certainly don't see Australia as part of it.

Trying to get my mind around this, I think of Australia as an open society perched on the edge of very different and relatively closed societies that span the world.

I am not being pejorative when I say this. I am trying to make an objective judgement.

I think of Australia a little like one of the Greek Islands that I was writing about in my Greece series.

They lived in a complicated world of conflicting groups. The most economically successful islands had to be open to all, to attract traders from everywhere in the ancient world. Their wealth was directly linked to their openness. Their bankers, their investors, their traders spanned widely. The products produced by their artisans and farmers were widely spread. But by their very nature, they could not be an exclusive part of anything except in broad geopolitical terms.

I think that that's what modern Australia is. We are less than two per cent of the global economy, and our share must shrink. Our global population ranking will decline. That is our weakness. Our strength lies in our openness. The price we pay is not belonging.       


Evan said...

I'm more and more surprised that Australia doesn't pay more attention to Scandinavia that exists in the shadow of a very large place - Russia and so on.

I think there must be things we could learn for our relations to "Asia" - Indonesia, China, Japan.

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting comment, Evan. You may well be right.

Rummuser said...

Let me paraphrase your penultimate paragraph to fit today's India.

We live in a complicated world of conflicting groups/linguistic and religious. The most economically successful states have to be open to all to attract traders from everywhere in the country. Our wealth is directly linked to our government liberating us from the shackles of our past. Our bankers, investors and traders span widely. The products produced by our industrialists, artisans and farmers are widely distributed within and outside our country. In other words, we are a miracle!

Population, future etc are all well known to you and I just want you to consider this comedy of not including India in Asia!

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting comment, Ramana, and for a number of reasons.

India is clearly part of Asia at one level, and yet the sub-continent gets a classification of its own that affects thinking.

Thinking about your paraphrase, my own mind set equates small Australia to a Greek Island or perhaps Venice. It's much harder for a very big country like India. There is something lurking in my mind here that won't quite come out. Another post, perhaps.