Australian cultural history and proximity to Asia

Author: Greg Lockhart, Sydney

Australia’s most recent rediscovery of its Asian links, the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, has been widely canvassed.

It argues that ‘the tyranny of distance is being replaced by the prospects of proximity’, and in the aftermath of its launch, Australian politicians, academics and journalists have echoed Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s comment that ‘we have not been here before’.

But as David Walker and Agnieszka Sobocinska have demonstrated recently, the opposite is true. We have always been here.

Why, then, does the notion of Australia’s ‘proximity’ to Asia seem periodically to startle and challenge Australians? It is startling because Australian culture resists it. In spite of unavoidable events, such as the Second World War or the recent economic and strategic ascendency of China, Australians seem culturally bound to forget Australia’s closeness to Asia.

Some of the reaction against the White Paper demonstrates this culturally determined amnesia. Responding to the White Paper, historian Geoffrey Blainey — author of the ‘tyranny of distance’ thesis that Australian history was shaped by its isolation from Britain (and thus the world) — made the point that ‘every city in Europe is closer to continental Asia than are Melbourne, Sydney and Perth’. But Shiro Armstrong’s recent article, ‘Australia’s closeness to Asia’, revealed the irrelevance of that comment with economic arguments about ‘relative distance’. Armstrong concludes convincingly in that ‘Australia is relatively close to Asia’.

Blainey’s observation also fails because it ignores a central issue in Australian culture and, indeed, in his own idea that isolation from Britain explains Australia’s development. His incongruous thinking ignores the potent fact that Australia is closer to Asia and its world economic powerhouses than it is to Britain and Europe. This fact is the basis for the longstanding tensions between Australian culture’s remote British/European origins and its geographic location in the ‘antipodes’ as an ‘outpost’ confronting Asia.

Australians have generally dealt with this tension by forgetting it — until, for some reason, events to the north seem suddenly to impinge on their lives. The intrusion then forces them to recall momentarily their geography.

Why do Australians forget? For the most part, there is a strong argument to say that their geographic amnesia springs from unresolved race-related anxieties that are built into the mainstream settler narrative of Australian history. In its turn, this narrative does much to reinforce and to perpetuate the culture of forgetting.

Historically, the establishment of white settler societies in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States all involved restrictions on Asian immigration. Yet only in South Africa was colour prejudice as extreme as it was in Australia. Australian colour prejudice produced the White Australia Policy between 1901 and 1972 and, of course, heavily inflected the mainstream settler version of Australian history. It is possible to argue that Australia’s historical consciousness still derives from this race-related anxiety about dispossession, resulting in a fixation on Anglosphere dependence and European links.

Since the 1960s surface changes in the writing of settler history have necessarily banished the language of race. Australia has evolved into a successful multicultural society. Yet the settler narrative, which continues to ignore Australia’s cultural and other links with the peoples to its north, has not adequately incorporated the complexity of Australian cultural development into its accounts of Australian history. This point has been picked up by historian and writer Peter Cochrane, who concludes that if it does not take into account Australia’s longstanding history of engagement with Asia, the settler narrative is in danger of ending up as ‘racialist folklore’.

Perhaps it will end up that way. The settler narrative’s ongoing silences and denials in relation to Asia’s proximity suggest that the old anxieties about dispossession remain, even with generational change. Neither is the influence of that narrative inevitably receding in the culture. Settler history’s orientation still plays out in Australian politics as a sense of the need for dependence on the Anglosphere.

Such is the historical and cultural significance of the government’s 2012 White Paper. It calls for ‘profound transformation’. This is welcome. But many commentators have indicated that its slogans provide no meaningful guide to cultural reform. Certainly, the White Paper rides high over the above-mentioned tensions between history and geography. It ignores the apparent Australian desire to be isolated from Asia.

Nonetheless, the official line does advocate more effective engagement with Asia. Writings going back many decades show a longstanding history of engagement with the region. The next step is to greatly amplify recognition of this engagement in Australian culture.

This task will not be easy. It will involve far-reaching cultural renewal for Australians to build constructively on existing ties with their northern neighbours, instead of being startled periodically by the perceived need to invent them.

Greg Lockhart is a Sydney-based historian and writer.

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