With Brexit blowing up in the Brits’ faces followed by an orange punishment emanating from Washington, there’s world-wide alarm about this global move to the right.
We pay a lot of attention to hard right hooligans like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and Blondie Le Penn in France. We note as Canada and Spain keep their cool and stay the course, and hope that Angela Merkel can hold off the Putinite forces of the new Evil Empire.
But the whole world isn’t devolving into the soft fascism of the 21st Century.
“Lucky Country” Australia has lived up to its self-appointed nickname in the past few decades, politically and economically. Its British-derived 229 year old parliamentary democracy allows for frequent switchbacks between two parties: the leftie “Labor” and the rightie “Liberals.” The parties aren’t too far apart ideologically, focusing on areas like tax reform and investment where reasonable people can differ.
The “culture wars” aren’t nearly as toxic there: ammophiles were outraged when the government took many of their guns a few years ago, but no civil war resulted. LGBTs can’t marry quite yet, but it’s on the fast track and abortion is on demand with little debate. Prostitution is mostly legalized. These are the rewards of a broadly secular society, or at least one where religion doesn’t occupy the fore brain of a large percentage of active voters. Gallop estimated 30% on the “importance of religion” scale in Australia, vs 70% in the US. More importantly, the hard-right tribalism confronting us and the EU isn’t nearly so strong in Australia.
Australia is helped more by circumstance than design. The nationalist xenophobia which has so poisoned the northern hemisphere is lessened there given the census results released recently: one in two Australians are now either born overseas or have a parent who was. How can you hate foreigners when your schoolmates, your neighbors, and possibly your Mum are one? We’ve seen this phenomenon in reverse here, from Pew in March 2016, where the greatest distaste for outsiders exists in areas that have very few immigrants living there. When humans coexist with other cultures we get used to them, it seems.
There’s no populist push-back from illegal immigration as there is little of it. Visitors need a passport, a visa, money and an 8+ hour flight to get there. In fact, for a decade or so refugees from the Middle East did float down from Indonesia. It was getting out of hand so the Liberal Party (right wing – go figure – it’s an opposite hemisphere thing, like the toilet swirl direction) instituted the Pacific Solution. That stated that anyone arriving in Australia without a visa will never, ever, live in Australia. Period. As the Australian PM said in his (now leaked) phone call with President Trump: “Even if we think you are the best person in the world, even if you are a Nobel Prize-winning genius, we will not let you in [illegally].” Leaky boats were intercepted and their bedraggled sailors sent to hideous prisons in possibly the worst places on earth – and as promised: not in Australia.
They sent them to Nauru, a failed state fly speck in the Pacific. They also sent them to an island prison off malarial Papua New Guinea, a catastrophe of a country. It’s a lesson America could learn if we didn’t share a contiguous land border with Mexico and have one-third of our undocumented residents be formerly legal visa over-stayers. The murderous Timor Sea between Australia and Indonesia is a wet wall that actually works. So while Australia hasn’t had the advantage of an exploitable underclass of twelve million undocumenteds to assist its economy, it had been able to regulate its immigration precisely. The “loss of control of borders” fever is unknown there.
Additionally, the rural-urban culture divide which so ignites passions elsewhere is reduced in Australia as there isn’t really much of a rural. Australia is one of the most urbanized countries on earth, with 90% of the people living in the five big cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide). The “rural,” mainly white conservatives, doesn’t get priority. The average Aussie urbanite rarely sees the bush: an almost mythical and abstract construct of endless deserts, kangaroos and aborigines.
A final factor that has kept Australia on the middle-course is the fact that the rust belt phenomenon was never a powerful factor there. The Australian economy consists of minerals, agriculture – both mainly sold to East Asia – and services: when did you last see “Made in Australia” on anything you bought? The country has never had a broad or deep manufacturing base which, unlike the UK and USA, could be painfully off-shored. You can’t offshore a uranium mine, a sheep, or a waiter. Well you can, but it would be weird.
This unintended lucky setup has led to 25 years of continued economic growth and a GINI co-efficient (measuring wealth inequality) which, while not close to the equality of a Japan or a Scandinavia, is better than most of its OECD peers. This is in line with the cultural creed of everybody being allowed a “fair go” at life and opportunity, and it reduces the sociological divides we see in the US. Further, affordable college education and universal medical insurance assist in resolving the class barriers which have proven so dispiriting here. Australia is no paradise, but it’s worth learning from some of their achievements.
David Anderson is an Australian-American attorney in New York City who worked in finance and law and emigrated to the US in 1992. He also contributes to Counterpunch and Forbes.
Photo by Dellex – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10406763
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