People often ask me about Australia. It doesn’t matter where I happen to be – Vietnam, India, Morocco, South Africa – there seems to be no end of interest in the massive but tiny country that Paul Keating once memorably described as ‘the arse-end of the earth’.
For a long time, the questions were much the same: about the beaches, say, or the deadliness of the fauna. Over the eight years that I have been working as a freelance foreign correspondent, however, I have noticed the nature of the questions changing. They have become more political, more pointed and charged, lined with disappointment at best and subtle condemnation at worst.
Why, I was asked by a Moroccan man in Fes, was it so difficult for him to get a tourist visa? He only wanted to see the Opera House. Why, I was asked in Spain’s North African enclave of Ceuta – by an eighteen-year-old migrant from Côte d’Ivoire, no less – did Australia lock children up on small islands?
Sometimes the questions are tinged with concern. Is the Australian Prime Minister still alive, or was he killed in the coup?
I answer these questions as honestly as I can, the tone in which I do so largely dependent on my mood. Sometimes I attempt to explain the history of the asylum seeker debate, or the vagaries of the Westminster system. Sometimes I simply say that we’re racist. Other times, when I’m feeling more generous, I will qualify this, and say that the system is.
It is always interesting to note how much people know about what’s going on back home. Indeed, they often know more than I do. I have been mercifully absent for many of the political upheavals that have characterised Australian politics over the past decade or so, and tend to learn of the latest spill from people who have no reason to care. The idea that Australia is a little country, of minor interest to the rest of the world, has been proved incorrect on countless occasions. The idea that we are a little people – petty, barbarous and cruel, to borrow a line from Lawrence of Arabia – is on the other hand proven near-constantly.
I would prefer to ignore this reality myself, as indeed I think most of us tend to, but between Twitter and my interlocutors this has proved all but impossible. Our problems are beginning to go viral.
Distance, compounded by a mounting sense of disgust, can make it difficult to get across the minutiae of each outrage, but it does have its advantages. It allows one to take in the broad sweep of events, prevents one from getting caught up in all the insider baseball – or Insiders baseball, as it were.
From where I was sitting, Chris Uhlmann’s much-lauded jeremiad against News Corp and 2GB struck a mostly self-serving note, another salvo in the media’s internecine forever war; a sleight of hand designed to distract from the responsibility of the Australian media as a whole for the transformation of our politics into a never-ending steeplechase between leaders, in which most of the horses will eventually break their necks.
From far enough away, the Mark Knight cartoon imbroglio, which followed hot on the trail of the spill, looked less like a debate over a single cartoon, or even about Australian newspaper cartoonists in general, and more like a moment of accidental slippage in which the innate, unthinking nature of our racism was thrown into unintentionally sharp relief. While places like the US and South Africa may be seen face greater racial challenges than our own – a debatable point, in any case – they have at least taken the step of acknowledging that they face them. Knight’s cartoon, and the debate surrounding it, showed how unwilling we are to do even that. That I was forced to answer questions about it in Cape Town seemed to me rather telling, though even that wasn’t quite as embarrassing as having to answer questions about the recent ‘OK to be White’ shitshow at a birthday party in Nairobi. (We also discussed Australia’s treatment of Aboriginal people. I mean, what are you supposed to say?)
But the greatest benefit of watching the circus from afar is that one gets to see the clowns and acrobats through other people’s eyes. Many can’t believe what they’re seeing. The general sense one gets, as one travels around the world on a shoestring, is that Australia’s reputation is sliding rapidly. Of course, we already know this, having seen ourselves condemned by the UN Human Rights Council, and our ratings slip across various international indices, on matters ranging from corruption to press freedom. But it’s hearing the change in people’s voices that really brings it home.
Perhaps this was always bound to happen. Australia has never been some free-wheeling nation of welcoming, laid-back anti-authoritarian larrikins: even the briefest glance at the history books reveals us as a punitive, rather uptight people, always on the look-out for some larger, stronger country to whom we might play lapdog.
But the enduring myth of our national character – a myth, it sometimes seems, more enduring than even that of ANZAC – was once at least something that others bought into as well. That no longer appears to be the case. In this sense, even people worse off than we are, with higher and greater hurdles ahead of them, are way ahead of us: they know us better than we know ourselves. When I tell people I’m from Australia these days, hoping they’ll made some innocuous comment about kangaroos and kindly leave it at that, the feeling that comes to the surface most rapidly is not pride in, nor even indifference to, that fact. It’s embarrassment. It’s almost enough to make one cancel one’s ticket home.