I spent some of the best years of my life in America, mostly in
New York City. Among people who ate bagels, spoke like Woody Allen
and could not drive, I felt at home. I went to college, and to
rodeos, to the deep South and the Midwest. I felt the energy of a
superpower state, and the immense friendliness of its people. So
don't call me anti-American.
But Bob Hawke is right in saying the Americanization of
Australia has gone too far - first, foreign policy, now industrial
relations, and more besides.
In 10 years we may wake up to ourselves, and wonder how we
allowed it to happen. How did we get this underclass? Why is our
health care so expensive? What happened to our cheap medicines?
When did Australian TV drama vanish from the screens? And why
doesn't anyone like us any more?
Sure, we will still call each other "mate", and say "g'day", and
regard baseball as a joke, not a sport. We will still be debunkers,
clowns and egalitarian in our manners. But we may well live in a
society that is less distinctively Australian, and more like
Since our mothers and grandmothers danced with its servicemen
during World War II, Australia has been enthralled with, and in
thrall to, the US. But the sycophancy has reached new depths under
the Howard Government. On this, Mark Latham was right, and Bob
In foreign policy, the US is assured of Australia's
subservience. No longer must the US consult or lobby us. Not only
on big matters such as Iraq, where we parroted the US lies and
leapt into the war, but on smaller matters, too, Australia is the
US's blind ally.
Take, for example, the vote last year on the United Nations
General Assembly resolution that referred the matter of Israel's
massive security wall - the one it built through some Palestinian
land - to the International Court of Justice. Of 150 countries,
only Israel, the US and four others voted against the resolution -
the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau and Australia.
In matters cultural, you might have missed Australia's latest
toadying to the US, which took place last week in Paris. At a
historic meeting of the UN Educational Scientific and Cultural
Organization, 154 countries gathered to vote on a treaty to
reaffirm the right of countries to protect their artistic and
cultural life from the ravages of free trade rules.
Well, 148 countries voted in favors of the treaty. Not the US,
of course, which wants no barriers, such as national content
quotas, in the way of its cultural domination of cinemas and
television screens; and not Israel. And Australia? It abstained
from voting - along with Honduras, Liberia and Nicaragua - and in
this way caused no offense to our powerful ally.
Recall that Australia and the US are the only major countries to
fail to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gas emissions. And
that even Britain extricated its citizens from Guantanamo Bay
because of concerns about the legal process.
Consider that under our free trade agreement with the US, the
Government has put our Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, which has
delivered cheap medicines, in jeopardy, if the US pharmaceutical
companies decide to take us to the World Trade Organization. Watch
how our health system is being pushed towards the privatized US
model - even though America has the shortest life expectancy and
the highest infant mortality in the developed world.
The Government's industrial relations changes will deliver
incremental changes but one day we will wake up with a sizeable
population of working poor, a much more unequal distribution of
income, and two weeks' annual leave - just like the US has.
Except for highly educated Americans, whose exquisite minds and
words are often put to dissecting their society, most others
believe the US is a beacon in a dark world; with nothing to learn,
and everything to teach the rest of us. I liked to tell the mothers
who were required to rush back to work six weeks after childbirth
that Australian women were entitled to 12 months' (unpaid) leave -
nothing to boast of in Europe, of course. And I mentioned long
service leave, and Medicare. The prevailing view among Americans
was that Australia and the world were out of step, not America.
And they are proving to be right. Increasingly, Australia is
adopting America's way of doing things, and its way of seeing the
world. In industrial relations, the Government intends to outdo the
US. When the majority of workers in a US business vote for union
representation, the boss is required to deal with them
collectively. But that will not be the case here.
From the intellectual stimulation to the borscht on Second
Avenue, from the grassroots activism to the New York subway, there
was much I loved about America; but not the gross inequalities. Its
deplorable rate of child poverty - one of the worst in the OECD -
was enough to dampen anyone's enthusiasm for the American way.
Australia's kinder, gentler society drew me home. We were once
leaders in many fields - the first, for example, to introduce an
age pension. We were distinctive. Now we are just followers.
© 2005 Sydney Morning Herald