I TRAVEL extensively and when I am asked which country is my favourite, without hesitation I say ‘Australia’. Before the enforced travel restrictions of 2020, I would visit twice a year at least. I have worked there, have older relatives buried there and many cousins with whom I am in close contact. The climate is unbelievably good, the scenery is breathtaking, the wines are fine and the food is almost always of a gourmet standard. The late Clive James recalled his childhood upbringing in a country he described as ‘paradise’. Lively debates are conducted in the newspapers and their weekend editions carry excellent review and analysis sections.
Australians resist any comparison of their country to (let alone ‘with’) the United States. But visiting both frequently, I see strong parallels. Many parts of both look similar and, of course, both were British colonies. More than anything, the people seem to share the pioneering spirit of the North Americans and have established a wonderful country. But all is not well and, notwithstanding our own situation in police state Britain, the pandemic response in Australia has shown just how easy it is to crush spirits and subjugate a population.
Despite the many positive aspects of Australia there is a sinister undertone and some of this has been happening for a long time. Australia has a great deal not to be proud of. For example, its White Australia Policy extant until the early 1970s, unimaginable in the present day, and the way the first nation people – aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders – were often treated. But for decades now, Australians have been involved in a significant cultural rebound, one which must be having a damaging effect on their collective psyche.
If you deliver a keynote speech at a conference in Australia or address a large public event you will be invited to start with the ‘Acknowledgement of Country’, the generic version of which is: ‘I would like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet today and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples here today.’ It strikes me that this is, essentially, an apology for existence.
Australia has made advances in its attitude towards and treatment of its first nation people, but the problem is that advances in the lives of first nation people are not always apparent. I worked part-time in an area outside Sydney which has one of the highest concentrations of aboriginals in Australia. It was years before I ever saw any and that was one Thursday afternoon when a large group of very drunk aboriginal men and women – preceded by a distinct smell of alcohol – walked through the town swigging from bottles of wine. I learned that this was ‘giro day’ when they collected social security cheques. I never saw them again. The other problem from which the first nation people of Australia suffer is the prejudice of low expectations inflicted on them. Child sexual abuse is more prevalent in first nation communities. Health professionals tell me it is hard to report for fear of upsetting them. The fact that first nation cultures are treated with kid gloves could have something to do with it. The preface to a major report, ‘Child sexual abuse in rural and remote Australian indigenous communities – A preliminary investigation’ by Lyla Coorey in 2001, stated: ‘There is material in this report that may be offensive for cultural reasons, and because there is reference to sexual matters, to some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. No harm or offence is intended to these people.’ Can you imagine a report on a British paedophile ring being thus prefaced?
And then we have the pandemic. It was difficult to enter Australia in the White Australia policy days; it is now impossible and will be so for the foreseeable future. What is more, you cannot leave. Among civilised westernised countries, the level of brutality applied, especially in Victoria, in enforcing pandemic restrictions has been distressing to watch. Other states have been more relaxed but ready to hit the panic button at the least excuse. Western Australia declared a state of emergency over a handful of cases and Queensland introduced 14-day hotel quarantines for anyone arriving from Western Australia. Both ridiculous overreactions to a virus that is unlikely to infect, let alone kill, young healthy people. The mainstream media, of course, will omit to report any dissent and there has been some. But most of the Australians to whom I speak seem to accept their new police state with alacrity. I am not sure that Australia will remain much longer my favourite country. In any case, the point may be academic as I am very unlikely ever to visit it again.