Location, location, location - Page 2
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by Michael Wesley
JOHN HOWARD'S LANDSLIDE WIN in March 1996 was not the overwhelming rejection of Keating's identity agenda, that many have suggested. But at some stage in 1995 there was an almost imperceptible change in the nature of popular reactions to Keating's transformational vision. The confident, quirky self-deprecation began to be replaced by an obstinate complacency, an assertion we're fine the way we are, and to suggest we need to change is to admit that there's something wrong with the way we are. Howard picked up on this in his mall-crawls, during which he regularly fed, and continues to feed his insatiable appetite for communion with ordinary Australians. He vigorously reacted against the Keating agenda, saying in the run up to the 1996 election, ‘Much of [Keating's] rhetoric about building a so-called new Australia is built on a denigration of our past and its achievements. We are constantly told that Australia's history is a litany of intolerance, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.'[xii] Pauline Hanson's popularity simply reinforced for Howard how much messages of belligerent complacency and assertive alienation were resonating in post-Keating Australia.
Howard built the second-longest prime ministership in Australian history around stoking and shaping this national mood. He serially dealt with each of Keating's big identity issues by bringing them to a head, shaping the debate in such a way as to drive them in unresolvable directions, and then burying them, undecided, in the inevitable flows of news and elections. No solution was arrived at for any of the identity issues that Keating had raised: there was no sense of closure, nor any policy framework that promised to resolve or reconcile these issues in the future. As time passed they became too hard and therefore seen as better avoided.
Hanson provided the ideal foil for Howard to advance his long-held convictions in relation to multiculturalism and reconciliation. While Hanson railed at multiculturalism as an elite-driven Asianisation agenda, Howard advanced steadily towards a nativist reinterpretation: ‘If multiculturalism means that we are Australian before anything else, then I'm all for it ... But if multiculturalism is some kind of apology for being Australian and some kind of federation of culture instead of authentic Australian culture then I'm all against it.' In the course of a decade, Howard slowly expunged the word multiculturalism from the federal government lexicon, until in January 2007 the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs became the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. Post-millennium anxieties about transnational threats allowed greater emphasis on assimilationist mechanisms such as citizenship tests and the threat of deportation for those not ascribing to ‘the Australian way of life'. And the Hanson-charged environment allowed Howard to react to the High Court's Wik decision in a very different way to Keating's response to Mabo. Howard's reconciliation would be ‘practical', without any need for Keating's collective acts of empathy, atonement and re-imagining.
The consistent formula applied by Howard in confronting multiculturalism, reconciliation, the republic and Asian engagement was that these were issues of method, not identity. They were to be disaggregated and dealt with one by one, pragmatically, unostentatiously. And slowly, slowly, the Howard years saw the deflation of any collective sense of becoming in Australia. Keating's grand, national visions were quietly replaced with a widespread sense of individual betterment. Howard's great aspiration was not to replace the Governor-General with an Australian President, but to see the family Commodore replaced by a four-wheel-drive in large numbers of middle-class driveways.
Australians' horizons contracted, in many senses. Aspirations became stubbornly individual and short-term. Achievement was expressed in the conspicuous enactment of lifestyles of remarkable conventionality. And a slow desiccation of interest occurred about the countries to our north. Measured in terms of Australian students undertaking serious study of Asian languages and cultures, Asia's exoticism and excitement seemed to be infecting fewer Anglo-Celtic Australians by the late 1990s. In previous decades, the region's romance had resulted in a vibrant Asian studies sector in Australian universities. Great scholars such as CP Fitzgerald, AL Basham and Herb Feith revolutionised their respective fields and trained generations of Asianists. Australia came to be seen internationally as the main alternative perspective to the American dominance of Asian studies.
As John Fitzgerald, Robin Jeffery, Kama Maclean and Tessa Morris-Suzuki record in their 2002 report for the Asian Studies Association of Australia, student interest in Asian studies – other than in the study of Chinese – plummeted in the late 1990s and has never recovered. Universities, forced to cater to the trends of interest in the student ‘market', began closing down Asian studies courses and then whole areas of specialisation. The bell-weather was the study of Indonesian, arguably Australia's most pressing Asia-skills priority. Prior to the Asian financial crisis and East Timor, student numbers in Indonesian language, politics and society courses were consistently strong. At the University of New South Wales, where I had my first academic job, we had first year Indonesian classes of up to sixty students during the early– to mid-1990s. After the financial crisis and East Timor, the numbers fell – sometimes ten students in first year, more often fewer.
There are various reasons for this withering of interest. A major cause was disappointed expectations. Figures show that student interest in studying individual Asian languages follows expectations of economic opportunity – for example when Japan was booming, so did the study of Japanese, and so on with Korea, Indonesia and now China. This is because Asia's importance has always been sold to Australians with arguments about economic opportunity. Even in the Asian economic miracle of the mid-1990s, students with Asian studies degrees were finding that glamorous and lucrative jobs in Asia were not as numerous as they'd hoped; after Japan's long recession and the Asian financial crisis the disillusion became profound.
Another reason was the growing competitiveness within the education sector, which meant that students from English-speaking backgrounds were reluctant to join Asian language classes in which students from Asian-language backgrounds prevailed. Many Anglo-Celtic Australian kids opted instead to study Spanish or French, languages considered easier, with in-country study locations considered more familiar, less dangerous and certainly not so hot. The Howard Government cancelled the federal program supporting the study of Asian languages in secondary schools, an event that went largely unremarked in the broader national conversation. Despite the pressing need for Asia knowledge in government and business, there was a general complacency that these skills could be met from within Australia's growing population of Asian-Australian professionals.
The decline in curiosity about Asia occurred, paradoxically, at a time of booming Australian tourism to the region, and during a period of heightened national appetite for Asian cuisines, movies, art and popular culture. Australians have continued to holiday and work in Asian countries in large – unprecedented – numbers. An easy familiarity with the region's great cities and tourist resorts is a badge of cosmopolitan achievement in contemporary Australian society. Australians have become more mobile as they have acquired more disposable income and, while Europe and North America attract many for their transformative backpacker experiences, a large proportion go to Asia for short holidays because it's close and cheap. The internet, Lonely Planet guides, and the growth of the tourism industry has progressively reduced the capacity of the experience of Asia to unsettle and seduce. Globalisation means there's less that's exotic in these destinations, and less that is so culturally pristine that it overwhelms the traveller. The major Asian cities now have large enclaves of expatriates, and Australians who live there can limit their engagement with the surrounding society. The holiday or working experience in Asia has become more commonplace, but at the same time more easily quarantined as peripheral to defining life experiences.
The nineties became the decade of America, just as the fifties had been. The rapid spread of a new American technology focused world attention on its cultural forms, communication styles and taste preferences. The great Leviathan sloughed off its post-Vietnam self-doubt to register year-on-year economic growth and prosperity. In the Persian Gulf and the Balkans, America displayed a military might of a different order to that of any other nation. Australians were enthralled, once again showing the national chameleon-like ability to catch the latest wave and make it to the top – this time in the United States.