Australia and Asia: Espresso Democracy in a Satay Region

December 1, 1995 Topic: DemocracySociety Regions: Asia Tags: BusinessContainmentCold WarGulf War

Australia and Asia: Espresso Democracy in a Satay Region

Mini Teaser: In the last fifty-five years Australia's move away from Britain has been persistent but harmonious.

by Author(s): Geoffrey Blainey

The struggle between Australia's history and geography--the history dominated by British influence, the geography by proximity to Asia--has been an enduring theme in the country's contemplation of itself. But while the contest is not new, it is becoming more intense and its ramifications are widening. A range of activities and institutions is involved, including the monarchy, the special species of Australian democracy, trade, languages, military security, and cultural ties.

Settled by Aborigines more than forty thousand years ago and first colonized by the British at Sydney in 1788, Australia was peopled by waves of migrants from the United Kingdom. Though Germans began to arrive as farmers in the 1840s and Chinese landed in the 1850s to dig for gold, the Australians on the eve of the Second World War were overwhelmingly British in ancestry. Most of Australia's exports--wool, foodstuffs, and minerals--went to Britain and about half of its imports came back from there. Australia was also tied to Britain in defense, and Australian volunteers fought on its side in the Sudan, Boer, and First and Second World Wars; more Australian than U.S. troops were killed in the First World War, and that out of a population of under five million.

Between Europe and Asia

In the last fifty-five years Australia's move away from Britain has been persistent but harmonious. Military alliance with the United States began at the end of 1941 when Japan advanced southward, and a year later far more Australians were fighting under the overall command of American than of British leaders. A quarter of a century later the war in Vietnam was the first in which Australian regiments fought not as part of a British alliance. Once tight trade links with Britain were quickly loosened and in the 1960s Japan became Australia's main trading partner, with the United States in second place. The population ties also weakened when, soon after the Second World War, Australia decided it had to boost its population and industrial self-sufficiency if it was to defend itself effectively in the event of another Pacific war. Immigration was encouraged, indeed subsidized, from continental Europe as well as the British Isles. Between 1945 and 1970 well over half of the immigrants to Australia came from Germany, Holland, Italy, Greece, and the nations of continental Europe. Asian and Third World waves of immigration have become prominent since the late 1970s. Largely a result of this postwar migration, Australia's population grew from seven million to eighteen million between 1945 and 1995.

The ties and entanglements with East Asia are now strong. More than 60 percent of Australian exports go to Asia. Japanese ownership of Australian real estate has become substantial since restrictions on foreign investment in land were largely removed in 1986. East Asia is now the main source of tourism. Asian students come in large numbers to Australian colleges and universities, and some Australian universities have built small campuses in nearby lands ranging from China to Malaysia. In Australian schools, an Asian language is supplanting Latin, French, and German as the favored foreign language. In a typical year more than 40 percent of the immigrants and more than 50 percent of the net gain through migration come from Asia. The Asian percentage of the population will probably not exceed 10 percent before the year 2010, but it might well exceed 33 percent before the end of the twenty-first century.

Curiously, Canberra's official and semi-official propaganda, having camouflaged the Asian immigration for at least fifteen years by employing its own narrow and unique definition of "Asia", now tends to exaggerate the extent of Asian and other non-European immigration by arguing that Australia is the most "multicultural" nation in the world. As the meaning of these words is not elaborated upon, and as no supporting, comparative statistics are produced, the vague inference that Australia is no longer predominantly European--and indeed Anglo-Celtic--in population has an unduly wide following, even within Australia.

Nevertheless, in law, language, politics, education, religion, sport, and the arts, Australia remains for now an overwhelmingly European nation. In geography, however, Australia is close to southeast Asia and the current tendency is to affirm that "Australia is part of Asia." The present Prime Minister, Paul Keating, is an articulate exponent of this Asian emphasis, though when France announced in mid-year its intention to resume nuclear tests in French Polynesia, he informed Le Monde that Australia was primarily part of the Pacific--thus allowing his government to register objection to the proposed French nuclear tests, even though it had not bothered to denounce ongoing nuclear tests in China. (Australia, incidentally, is so vast that some of its towns lie closer to China than to Tahiti and Mururoa.)

While political and economic changes in both Europe and East Asia have pushed Australia toward the latter, the geographical factor is more complex than it seems. Australia's superficial geographical unity is deceptive. Uninhabited Australia is close to Asia but inhabited Australia is far away. The main cities of Sydney and Melbourne, and indeed the whole populous southeastern region, is further from Asia than are France, Germany, and Italy. Canberra lies further from mainland Asia than does every capital city of Europe. In contrast, northern or tropical Australia is very close to Indonesia, which recently leaped ahead of the fragmented Soviet Union to become the fourth most populous nation in the world.

Although close geographically, there are stark differences between Australia and Indonesia, which is predominantly Islamic, semi-authoritarian in rule, and poor but rising impressively in its standard of living. In the last fifteen years relations between Canberra and Jakarta have usually been cordial, but with occasional tensions. East Timor, long colonized by Portugal and taken over by Indonesia in 1975, is now the main sore. Initially, the Australian government condoned and even privately blessed the Indonesian occupation: some Australian observers sensed that in other hands East Timor might become a kind of Cuba in the Australian sphere of influence. East Timor is relatively close to the Australian continent and the intervening Timor Sea is only three times as wide as the Adriatic. Then, in July 1975 eighteen refugees, most claiming to be survivors of the Dili massacre, arrived in northern Australia by small boat and claimed asylum. Things have not been the same since, as Australia's generally responsible but moralistically minded press has spent much time and ink on the underdog Timorese. Relations with Indonesia are likely to steam and simmer from time to time during the next decade, with human rights issues as the main fuel. Significantly, Australia's military superiority over Indonesia will probably have dwindled or vanished within a decade.

Australia's public wish to be closer to Asia is usually paralleled by a private wish not to be too close. The northern half of Australia at present serves more as a barrier facing Asia than as a bridge because tropical, or northern, Australia is so sparsely populated. If it were a separate country, it would be second only to Greenland in the sparsity of its population, and along the whole northern coast the only port holding more than five thousand people is Darwin. Many rich mineral deposits--and Australia is one of the three or four major mining countries of the world--lie in the northern half, but these iron ore, coal, uranium, silver-lead-zinc, copper, bauxite, natural gas, gold, manganese, and diamond mines are highly mechanized and employ few people. Much of the northern half of Australia is desert while many of the less arid areas have been effectively quarantined from economic development by the establishing of huge national parks and nature reserves, and the reserving of lands exclusively for Aborigines. Fifteen percent of Australian terrain is now held by Aboriginal collectives, and a large part of that is in the north. (According to the 1991 census, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population of Australia is 265,459.) At present there is little incentive for Asian migrants to live in that part of Australia closest to Asia. More than half of the Asian-born population inhabits the two cities of Sydney and Melbourne, and nearly all of the remainder live in smaller cities.

The Queen Sits, But Does Not Stand

Australia's sense of being suspended somewhere between Europe and Asia is being played out domestically more than in its relationship with Indonesia--or, for that matter, with the rest of Asia. The ambiguity impinges on Australian democracy and several related constitutional issues, not least of which is the future of Australia's ties to the British monarchy.

Today there remains only one conspicuous, formal tie with England: The Queen of England is the Queen of Australia just as she is the Queen of Canada, and still she sits at the head of the Australian government. She sits rather than stands because, with the exception of ceremony and symbolism, she exercises no power in Australian affairs. If she actually were to exercise political power, or was believed to be exercising power in Australian politics, that would promptly bring the end of the monarchy in Australia. In essence, Australia is a republic in everything but name. Prime Minister Paul Keating and his reigning Australian Labor Party ardently desire to remove even the tokenism and the symbolism, so that Australia will be an independent republic in the eyes of the world by the year 2000, when Sydney hosts the Olympic Games, or by the following year when the country will celebrate the 1901 inauguration of the federation known as the Commonwealth of Australia.

They may yet succeed, but on the question of abolishing the monarchy and becoming a republic, public opinion--supreme on this question--is divided. The Australian constitution provides that there can be no change in the constitution--and the monarchy is written firmly in the constitution--unless the majority of the Australian people voting in special referendum support the change, and the people in a majority of the states--meaning four out of the six--supports it as well. Traditionally, a constitutional change is not supported at a referendum unless the two major political parties, Labor and Liberal, agree in advance to support it. At present the two parties are not in agreement.

Informed opinion maintains that inevitably the change will come, but in democratic politics "inevitability" is one of the most unreliable prophets. Besides, there is the difficult question: What kind of republic should Australia emulate? Since he came to power in 1991, Mr. Keating has poured effort and pithy verbal skill into deriding the present system of constitutional monarchy, but has devoted faint constructive effort into devising an alternative. For this emphasis on destruction he has paid a curious penalty. The general public has quietly inserted its own idea into the political vacuum. According to the latest opinion polls, some 80 percent of the public prefer that the president be elected directly by the people. It is a sign of the modern American cultural influence on Australia, especially through television, that the only presidential system the people are acquainted with is the American one.

The idea of a popularly-elected president is distasteful to Mr. Keating, partly because he and his Labor colleagues wish the president to be less important than the prime minister. They would like him to be chosen by the Parliament, where the prime minister is always the most important figure. No less important, an elected president might dramatically swing the Australian political system from a British model toward an American one. The irony is that an Australian leader wanting to remove all vestiges of the visible, nominal British influence finds himself, through his own political maladroiteness, reduced to calling for a continuation of what is the essence of the modern British system. That essence is the refusal to invest in the one national leader both ceremonial powers (now held by the Queen or her representative in Australia, the governor-general) and real decision-making powers.

To a visitor or migrant with a faint knowledge of Australia's history, the persistence of the monarchy can give the impression that Australia is only half a democracy. In fact it is one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world. Since the 1850s it has experienced, by some definitions, a degree of continuous democracy such as perhaps only three or four other countries can equal. At the federal election of 1903 Australia became the first country in the world in which women had both the right to vote at national elections and the right to stand for Parliament. But it is a democracy with a slight twist since the introduction of compulsory voting in federal elections in 1924. The theory behind compulsory voting--and the fine imposed on those who failed to vote on election day and could offer no plausible excuse--was that it would quickly lead to "a wonderful improvement in the political knowledge of the people"--so argued Senator Payne, the author of the scheme. By that elevated test the experiment failed long ago. Many electors do not know whether it is a federal, state, or municipal election in which they are being compelled to vote. Compulsory voting is widely believed to favor radical rather than conservative parties, but the evidence is inconclusive.

Democracy as Foolproof

Compulsory voting rests on a very optimistic idea of democracy and indeed of human nature. Democracy is seen as an easy-to-work method of government: anybody can do it. Even if people are forced to vote while not knowing what the election is about, the final result will be beneficial to the nation--or so it is assumed. In Australia in the 1980s this optimism was extended to citizenship. People who had very recently immigrated, knew only a few words of English and little about the country, were granted citizenship, thus acquiring the obligation to help decide the destiny of the nation. In 1984 Australia legislated to grant citizenship to those who had been resident for only two years, and the government advertises heavily to encourage them to accept it. They are not even forced to forswear allegiance to their original homeland. Indeed, present "multiculturalist" policy urges them, with the help of massive ethnic subsidies, to maintain homeland sympathies. In essence, then, the Australian insistence on compulsory voting and on easy citizenship, and its tolerance of divided national loyalties, makes for an unusual type of democracy. Just as espresso coffee is not only created with the speed of an express but also "made under steam pressure", so the present Australian mode of government might be thought of as "Espresso Democracy."

This kind of democracy is not the result of a specific ideology, but rather an assumption that democracy is so foolproof a system of government that anyone can operate it with success. A ballast of compulsory ignorance is not seen as too heavy for the ship of state to carry. More to the practical point, however, it also reflects a vigorous level of political partisanship and a quest by political parties for ethnic votes. Political leaders have legislated for early citizenship and early social services (some migrant groups depend heavily on social service payments that are delivered soon after individual members arrive) and the right of migrant families to have preference in bringing out their own family members, mostly unskilled and often aged, in the belief that ethnic groups would repay the gesture by delivering their votes on compulsory-voting days. How far they have delivered the hoped-for votes is not yet clear.

Can democracy bear this burden? In the nineteenth century there was a strong view that democracy might not prove to be an effective system of government if it gave rise more to the clamor for rights than the acceptance of responsibilities. In Australia, more than ever before, rights rather than responsibilities now pervade political debate. Monetary inflation may well be one effect of this trend, though the causes of inflation are various and numerous. Certainly a democracy is more prone to be inflationary than the pioneers of European and Australian democracy had envisaged. How indeed could they envisage inflation as a serious problem? After all, they were the offspring of a century in which the most economically advanced nations experienced, after the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, an astonishing stability of prices.

Another form of inflation is afoot too. Of Australian democracy it can be noted that in the frenzied bidding for votes at nearly every election during the last twenty-five years, competing political parties are tempted to make more promises than the economy can deliver. Further inflation and reduced economic competitiveness are likely side effects, other things being equal. But this is not a problem unique to Australian democracy. All forms of mass democracy are prone to promise easy and painless solutions more often than they should, especially to electorates that, by and large, are more educated than the populations living under other forms of government.

Australia is faced with many opportunities but also some dangers in its closer ties with Nearer Asia; and its species of democracy will influence the way those challenges are tackled. The impressive commercial successes of a string of East Asian nations, from Japan to Singapore, provide an opportunity, a nearby dynamo, to which Australia can attach itself. But in the face of such an opportunity Australia has performed relatively poorly in the last quarter century. While it trades heavily with Asia, its own economic indicators are lackluster, its ability to compete adequately is suspect, it imports far too much and exports too little, its overseas debts are soaring, many of its productive assets are passing cheaply into Asian hands, and its place on the world economic ladder is slipping.
Some Australian critics are beginning to wonder whether the attitudes and practices embodied in Espresso Democracy, and especially its emphasis on citizens' rights, painless economic solutions, perennial promises, and the boastful tilting at windmills, are weakening Australia at the very turning point when it needs a keener sense of reality and responsibility.

Essay Types: Essay