A LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA
That Trump bloke? He’s barkin’ mad!
I arrived in New York in 1976 intending to spend a few weeks investigating the role Washington had played in the downfall of the Australian government the previous year – and got waylaid for 37 years in America. A lot happened over those decades: I met a feisty New York labor activist named Cydney and we had two children, the CIA’s contribution to the overthrow of Prime Minister Whitlam was exposed, and I was elected president of the Neighborhood School’s PTA in the East Village. But by 2010 my marriage had ended and New York had lost its edge for me, so I returned to Australia, and an Aussie writer named Kate and I resumed a relationship we had started back when we wore flowers in our hair. We now live in a sub-tropical paradise near a town called Mullumbimby, 90 minutes south of Brisbane on Australia’s eastern coast.
When I left for the States in 1976, Australia had 15 million citizens who enjoyed the ninth highest per capita income in the world. The nation’s wool, meat, and wheat provided the largest share of export earnings followed by mineral ores and coal, both of which were firmly controlled by multinational corporations.
Today the population is 25 million and Australia is fifth in the world rankings of Gross National Income per person (the US is eighth). Minerals and carbon-based fuels dominate export earnings, just ahead of tourism and educating foreign students, while agricultural production has shrunk due to competition from low-wage regions of the globalized economy. Global finance, meanwhile, has moved in, led by Goldman Sachs and American Express, and so have the internet behemoths Google, Facebook, and eBay. All these mega corporations are expert tax avoiders, though none surpass News Corp, the propaganda empire run by Rupert Murdoch, who has dudded his fellow Australians out of untold millions in taxes.
The passage of time has also dramatically changed the country’s trading partners: the top five export destinations in 1976 were Japan, Europe, USA (10%), New Zealand, and the Soviet Union -- China barely rated at 2%. Today, the top five are China (32%), Japan, South Korea, United States (5%) and India.
Equally dramatic are changes in who lives here. Australia now has twice as many people born overseas, by percentage, compared with the United States (28% versus 13%). Our new citizens immigrated from -- in order of magnitude -- England, New Zealand, China, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Italy.
While 82% of Aussies called themselves Christians in 1976, only half of us did so in last year’s census, while 30% declared no religion and another 10% declined to respond to the question. A mere 2.6% checked Islam (the same proportion as Bhuddism) but that hasn’t stopped the One Nation Party, dedicated to making-Australia-white-again, from railing against a Muslim invasion. The party founder-leader Pauline Hanson recently took her seat in Parliament wearing a burqa in symbolic protest.
Most of my Aussie friends, old and new, are generally cheerful about the major shifts in the country’s social mix, but some mutter disconsolately about how Sydney’s commuter trains and buses are full of Asian students. It took a while for me to adjust to the fact that these teens who looked foreign in the Aussie context mostly talk “Strine,” which is how the word “Australian” sounds when spoken with a virulent form of the nation’s accent. I heard an exchange among Chinese, Pacific Islander, and Somali kids strolling along bouncing Australian Rules footballs: “Aw no mate, it’s your shout ‘cos I paid at Maccas yesterday arvo,” (translation: You must pay for today’s food since I paid the MacDonalds bill yesterday afternoon) -- and in reply -- “Yeah but you just did that to show off to the spunk from the servo.” (You were impressing the good-looker who works at the gas station).
Aussies of all ethnicities retain a cynicism toward things political, though the tone has shifted from amused tolerance to anger, because even though Australia survived the global financial crisis in 2008 with less carnage than any other wealthy nation, both major political parties have followed the neoliberal agenda of “liberalizing” economic controls and reducing social spending, making corporations and individuals wealthier and regular citizens poorer.
Since world war 2, the two business parties -- the urban Liberals and the rural Nationals – have copied American big business ideas and practices, and from the 1980s on the Labor Party adopted the same “globaloney” policies. The current Labor leader Bill Shorten, previously a union boss more prone to schmoozing than breathing fire and brimstone, understood his job as a battle with Liberal prime minister Malcolm Turnbull for “the sensible centre” of the electorate. At least he saw it that way until last year when he saw Bernie Sanders and British Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn winning over people under 35 with their old-school social democracy -- and voters young and old rejecting “free trade” deals that mostly set multinationals free to make more money. Nor was it lost on him that many of Trump’s 66 million voters chose him because he said he’d ditch those not-so-free trade deals.
Shorten’s Laborites are now running against the worst excesses of neoliberalism and Trumpism, while Turnbull and his shaky coalition of businessmen and conservatives keep trying to give themselves tax cuts. Turnbull has a hard time dumping on neoliberalism given that before becoming PM he made $50 million running the Aussie office of uber finance dealer Goldman Sachs. He isn’t finding it any easier dealing directly with Trump. Their first phone chat, which went viral, was detailed in Jonathan Chait’s New York magazine article titled “Australia's PM Slowly Realizes Trump Is a Complete Idiot.”
Just before the election, at a Politics in the Pub event at my local, in Mullumbimby, I said that Trump could pull off a razor’s edge victory. The well-informed crowd were aghast.
Around that time, Australian Labor leader Bill Shorten opined that Trump was “barking mad”, an assessment widely cheered across the nation. Since then we’ve watched the meltdown of the Trump circus with shock and awe, but most scary to all of us in the outside world are his face-off with a nuclearized North Korea, the escalations in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and the expansion of drone assassinations across multiple borders. These and future military ramp-ups could sour Australia’s relationship with the US more than anything since GIs came here on their R&R break from fighting in Vietnam.
Severe Trump-induced disillusionment has already set in. A Pew poll in June revealed that over 70% of Australians are not confident that Trump will “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” and over 80% said he was dangerous. Almost 60% said they believe China is already the largest economy on the planet – and 64% have a favourable view of China versus 48% for the USA.
Just before his death in 2015, former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser reversed his long-held belief that Australia was existentially dependent on the US alliance and the cooperative “five eyes” arrangement among US, UK, Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand spy agencies. Fraser’s last book, titled Dangerous Allies, argues that time is up for Australia’s policy of being the idiot ally of the US in all its military and spycraft misadventures. This from the man who as Minister for the Army sent Aussie troops to join the Americans in Vietnam.
Fraser itemized the many US military and intelligence bases on Australian soil, the most crucial of which is a spy base called the Joint [US/Australian] Defence Facility Pine Gap, located in the heart of Australia’s vast red desert. It’s NSA codename is RAINFALL, and NSA documents from Edward Snowden published on August 20 this year spell out what Fraser and all Australian spy-watchers already guessed: that this base downloads electronic data from US spy satellites to guide possible attacks on targets such as major Chinese military facilities, and are routinely used now to locate the cellphones of individuals selected for drone assassination.
Since Trump and his generals took charge, another former PM, Labor’s Paul Keating, has spoken out against US destabilisations, assassinations and invasions – past, present and future. The US under Trump has “pawned its crown”, says Keating, and that crown will never again command its prior value.
Beyond former prime ministers, the liveliest signs of political life hereabouts come from the fringes. The Greens (that’s their whole name) have seven of the nation’s 76 senate seats, and one member of the House of Reps, plus numerous positions in state and local governments. (They run my local Shire Council quite well.) Greens’ policies include leading the drive in parliament to recognize same sex marriage, which a faction of the conservatives are attempting to sabotage by holding a non-binding vote via the Australian postal system, on the doubtful assumption that young people don’t know where to post a letter.
There are more campaigns for change percolating up from people’s movements, most notably to follow the lead of the state of Victoria in banning fracking, and a drive to have Australians whose ancestors came here in the last 230 years – that’s 97% of the population -- sign a treaty recognizing the rights and legacies of the indigenous people whose ancestry dates back at latest estimate 70,000 years. There’s also renewed enthusiasm to declare Australia a republic and install an Aussie head of state to replace the Queen of England, who still stares out from all the coins and the $5 notes, frozen in a decades-old visage.
Whatever else happens, we hope that our quirky version of preferential voting will keep producing our most unlikely politicians, such as a bloke named Ricky from the Motoring Enthusiast Party (sadly now defunct) and a sheila named Fiona in the Victorian state parliament from the Sex Party (sadly now renaming itself the Reason Party).
Though it’s always rewarding to glean truth from the margins, I’ll give the last word here to ex-PM Keating, who has reminded us that Australia lives in the Asian hemisphere, and we cannot be linked to a US government that treats China, and the whole world except Saudi Arabia and Israel, like contestants in a TV show dedicated to their humiliation.
Phillip Frazer was publisher of the Washington Spectator from 1992 to 2000.