Julia Gillard has found a way forward that will solidify her as the first female prime minister in Australian history. Take that, Hillary! That’s right, she’s broken through the glass floor. (Y’know, since the’yre Down Under, their floor is our ceiling.) Gillard, of the Labor Party, has been prime minister for a few months now, but that ascent came about as a bi-product of parliament taking the boot to her predecessor, more like Ford taking over for Nixon, but without the criminal cover-up. This current election, though close, offers her more legitimacy.
It’s just as well, because it looks like the guy she ran against, Tony Abbott, is not that good at math: his economic projections were off by about $10 billion. Also, his party needs to get better at naming things, such as itself. “Abbott’s Liberal Party represents the conservative spectrum in Australian politics, despite its name.” He also fondly refers to Australia as Up Above. It’s very disorienting.
While I wait anxiously to see if this new Labor government can follow through on its huge campaign pledge to undo the effect of hundreds of years of inbred British-descended bad teeth, I suppose it’s as good a time as any to write about some things I gleaned from my recent travels in Australia. (And yes, I love that while we’re still on health care, they’ve moved onto dental. Can you imagine McCain and Obama arguing about incisors and night braces?)
As two former British colonies, we are kindred spirits who have struggled with similar issues, but have also evolved into two distinct nations.
Britain has had more than its share of colonies, but we two were the most uniformly Caucasian. America was predominantly explorers and refugees, whereas Australia was a mixture of convicts, prison guards for them, and accompanying settlers. We also came into being around a similar time. While not functionally set apart from the UK until 1901 (or arguably 1986), much of the groundwork of modern Australia was laid from its settlement in 1788, not long after American independence was declared and only a year after our Constitution was ratified. Despite their distance and independence, Melbourne and Sydney felt more like European cities than anything else. Sydney was clearly modeled after London, with its own Hyde Park, for instance. The cultural cues seemed to come from London, too: in Melbourne, the professional class was dressed up in suits and ties even over working breakfasts at a cafe at 10:30AM.
We’re of a similar size, too. The contiguous US and Australia are each around three million square miles. While our sizes are comparable, our populations are not; they have about 22 million people, whereas we have about 310 million.
Further, we’ve both matured into industrialized nations. Despite our blatantly dominant GDP however, Australia has outshone us in one particularly important area: they haven’t had a recession in 20 years. Not in the early 90′s, not in the early aughts post-9/11, and that’s right, Aussieland was not in the midst of recession this last year or two. They are one of few Western democracies that avoided subprime lending and disastrous crashes. Amazingly, despite that impressive fact, the Labor Party almost lost control of the government this year.
Perhaps that’s because their campaigns are so short, barely over a month long. A well-executed opposition plan could pull off an upset in that timeframe. Especially in the multi-party environment they have. The three main players, the ill-coined Liberal, the center-left Labor, and the firm-left Green Party, all passionately debated similar issues to the US. The issue of immigration was highly contentious this year, for example. Abbott and the Liberals hard lined against more “boats,” as the locals call it when more immigrants arrive on the shores hoping for a new life. The points of contention arise around whether the nation should pursue an inviting “big Australia” policy and a cautious and sometimes overly fearful mindset that these newbies will be job thiefs or terrorist sympathizers. The Aussie populace seemed to be ahead of us on climate change however. I noticed CFL bulbs aplenty and a generally environmentally aware culture, evidenced in municipal places as well as in a myriad of advertisements.
The most striking parallel, one that I knew nothing about prior to the trip, is the common history of exploitation America and Australia share. As one-time British colonies coming of age in the last couple centuries, we each did unnatural things to peoples then deemed beneath us. If the legacy of African slavery is the US’s original sin, as they say, then the painful treatment of Aboriginals is Australia’s. For a period spanning a hundred years into the late 1960s, Australian authorities forcibly removed the children of Aboriginal families and did what they wished with them, primarily giving them to white Australian families to raise as their own, in a twisted effort to assimilate the natives into somebody’s cruel idea of a melting pot. One night in my hotel room, I watched a documentary interviewing a now 60-something year old woman, who was stolen before she was 10, told who her new parents were in another part of the country, and then later reunited by happenstance with her mother once she was in her 20s. If you want to screw someone’s head up permanently, do that. The government did at least recognize the atrocious wrongs of this policy and a formal apology was decreed in 2008 by then-prime minister Kevin Rudd. (Rudd’s the bloke Gillard took over for… and now she is hiring him back: girl power!)
Further, in learning about geography and politics over there, I found out that the area called the Northern Territory is the only part of Australia that is not officially a state. As explained to me by our guide on a terrific walking tour of Sydney, this is mainly because it is heavily populated by Aborigines and it was decided not to bestow that full title upon the area. As a result of its status, the Northern Territory has less representation in parliament than the six true states. However, I will say that there seems to be a deliberate effort to hire Aboriginals and show them respect today. Their art, now sold for thousands of dollars, is also a driver of upward mobility.
Well, that’s all I got for now on Aussieland. It was fascinating to be immersed in a far-off, yet equally sophisticated culture. Next year in Jerusalem!