It is said that it is always hardest for the fish to describe the aquarium it swims in. Whether that is so, being at a distance away from Australia, I am able to see my adopted country through different eyes. In northern Europe, the image of Australia is typically one of dangerous wildlife and the foolhardy larrikins who laugh in the face of such danger, pop open another beer can and throw another shrimp on the barbie. It may be one of bronzed, muscular surfers on white sandy beaches and it may involve red dirt and Aboriginal people living in harmony with country. It is a happy-go-lucky place where people speak English, the climate is warm and nature is stunning.
But these Lucky Country images are being disrupted. Australia is also a place fiercely fighting to keep people out in ways that seem – ehem – racist and counter to that egalitarian mateship it is so famous for.
So the Stop the Boats policy and the No Way video has been doing the rounds here in Denmark. To the astonishment of many fair-minded Danes, Danish politicians are wanting Europe to copy the military action against refugee boats in the Mediterranean. In response to a mythology that people in war-torn areas are strategically reviewing in which country they would get the best benefits as a refugee, the Danish government wants a communications campaign to advise those people of the worsened conditions introduced in Denmark for refugees.
On 24 July 2015, one of the more conservative Danish news papers, Berlingske Tidende, ran in its Weekendavisen an article by Markus Bernsen labelling Australia The Conservative Continent. Prime Minister Tony Abbott is characterised by his ‘stop policies’ – stop the boats, stop the windmills, stop climate change research, stop welfare to the poorest. Stop everything and return Australia to its former glory, even if the notion of the lucky country was meant as a warning, not a foundation on which to build a future. The black and white rhetoric is described as ‘Abbottis’ and it makes the rest of the world wonder: What happened to Australia?
The Australian columnist Janet Albrectsen – daughter of Danish immigrants to Adelaide – claims that Australians are skeptical when the United Nations criticise Australia for breaching international conventions. Australians prefer to be ruled by Australian laws. Australians simply don’t like changes to their society, she says, and for that reason gay marriage is unlikely to be a reality in Australia anytime soon. She claims to speak for the hardworking, ordinary Australian, though Bernsen cannot help notice her diamond rings and necklace which she adorns when they meet in Bronte.
Bernsen then meets retired diplomat and Sydney Morning Herald writer, David Haigh at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation – the arch enemy of conservative politicians and Murdoch newspapers like The Australian. Haigh notes how the current Australian rhetoric on terrorism and refugees reflects the language used by the South African government during Apartheid to stamp out communism. He also sees parallels with the accompanying aggressive patriotism and nationalism anchored in Australia’s military prowess during WWI, all directed at white Australia. Haigh despairs at Australia’s international reputation. The refugee policy wins Australia no friends locally and even as USA loses influence in the region, the affiliation with USA is as strong as ever, while it is Australia’s sale of iron ore to China that is of economic significance.
Finally, Bernsen goes to Newtown (‘home of artists, homosexuals and left-leaning intellectuals’) and talks to David Marr, a Catholic and author of the hopeful essay: Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott. He is disappointed that Abbott has left behind the fundamental justice principles from his catholic background – and his stint in the Australian Labor Party. Abbott broke every promise with his first budget, claims Marr. Using an Australian euphemism, Marr explains that instead of using everything it had sensibly, Australia has been pissing it up the wall by using our wealth to give the middle class privileges we no longer can afford. Abbott’s answer to this bind: to remove support to the poor and unemployed.
It is not a flattering picture of my adopted country that emerges in my mother country. It sounds like Australia is leaving behind its egalitarian, fair-go approach to life. Eyes are closed to the interconnectivity of everything (yes I have recently read Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency). Australia is punishing – or wilfully overlooking – its most vulnerable people to benefit the strongest. Australia remains a wealthy country in international terms, but fails to take international responsibilities seriously. Both humanitarian and environmental. As a respectable nation we quietly close our door so we cannot hear the domestic dispute of our neighbours. We look inward and ignore the ruckus right on our door step. We know that no man is an island: these days not even a continent is an island in this increasingly connected world. To save the Australia we know we should be helping to eradicate world poverty and do our bit to mitigate androgenic climate change.
Coincidentally, over the summer a more progressive paper, Politiken, ran a series about immigrants in Copenhagen. The first article was about 26-year-old Australian from Noosa, Thomas Coutts, who came with a working visa but is stuck in a vicious cycle of exclusion by the Danish system. Because he has no permanent address, he cannot get the Open Sesame to this country – the Central Person Register number. Because he has no the CPR number he cannot open a bank account. Because he has no Danish bank account, he cannot get a job. Because he has no job, he cannot secure a permanent address. So he lives in a dorm on Vesterbro, where he meets prostitutes and junkies on his early morning walks, limits eating to twice a day and nearly pointlessly thrusts his curriculum vitae to restaurants and bars to a perpetual shake of the head. He followed a dream to see the world. Now he is stuck in Copenhagen, where the practicality of the Danish immigrant policy seems exclusionary, mean and tricky.
Coutts is just a young Australian trying to get along overseas. The aquarium looks a bit different from the outside, doesn’t it?