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The debate

For the better part of two years, Australia has been obstinately closed off from the rest of the world to deal with the pandemic. Is this national turn inward an aberration? Or does it reveal something more fundamental about Australia’s character?

On numbers alone, Australia has handled coronavirus relatively well. In the early stages, especially, it maximised the natural advantages of its remoteness with enviable success.

However, while most of the rest of the world has tried to adapt, Australia remains determined to stamp (or shut) the virus out at almost any cost. Entire cities – even entire states – have been thrown into successive lockdowns, sometimes over fewer cases than might be found among passengers on a European bus. It is still difficult for anyone to leave or enter the country; it was at one point a criminal offence for Australian citizens to try to come home from India. As a vaccine programme has proceeded sluggishly, the country has often appeared both bafflingly complacent and vaguely hysterical.

As a vaccine programme has proceeded sluggishly, the country has often appeared both bafflingly complacent and vaguely hysterical

The pandemic has been a strange moment in every country’s history but in Australia’s more than most – and at its own insistence. For monocle’s new regular feature, contributing editor (and London-based Aussie) Andrew Mueller asks our panellists: did it have to be like this? Why is it like this? And what kind of country will come out the other end?

Meet the panel

Bob Carr

The politician

Carr was premier of New South Wales from 1995 to 2005, winning four elections, three as leader of the state Labor Party. From 2012 to 2013 he was a federal senator representing New South Wales and served as Australia’s minister for foreign affairs. He is now an industry professor at the University of Technology Sydney and is the author of several books.

Stan Grant
The broadcaster

Grant is one of Australia’s best-known broadcast journalists. He has worked in Australia and abroad for the Seven Network, cnn, sbs, nitv and is the abc’s international affairs analyst. He has been the recipient of a Peabody, a Logie and two Walkley awards, and has written extensively about his Indigenous heritage.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied
The writer

Abdel-Magied is a racing-car designer, oil-rig engineer, broadcaster, writer and advocate. Born in Sudan, she moved to Australia with her family as a child. She has worked for organisations such as the Council for Arab-Australian Relations and the Australian Multicultural Council, and been named Queensland Young Australian of the Year, among other honours. She is currently based in Paris and London.


Let’s start with now. Is Australia taking a notably eccentric approach to the pandemic?

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bc: It has probably now congealed as conventional wisdom that this has been a big policy failure in Australia, with the government being vain about the success of its approach last year and not working as hard as other governments to line up vaccine options. We have the vaccination rate of a Mosquito Coast republic and the public has caught on that the time in which the government has been congratulating itself on how clever it was last year was all wasted. 

“We’ve got the vaccination rate of a Mosquito Coast republic and the public has caught on” 

sg: We’re an island; we’re isolated. There is a tendency to just see what happens here and not contextualise it. Even now, despite failings on vaccination, we’ve had total case numbers since the start of the pandemic that London has had in a day. When your borders are closed and you’re looking inwards, you can imagine that the worst is happening but, comparatively, we’re still in a good place.

Yassmin, do you have the sense that people elsewhere in the world have started wondering what’s going on with us?

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ya: There’s a lack of understanding among folks on the outside about why Australia has chosen this path. It’s perhaps because of the Australian psyche, in which it seems perfectly normal to close your borders and weather the storm. The rhetoric around allowing people in and out has been relatively muted, unless you have relatives overseas who can’t come in, or unless you are trying to get out for work or moving. Generally, people have accepted that this is the price that you have to pay. Trying to explain all that to folks who don’t fully understand our history has been a challenge. The incredibly punitive nature of the lockdowns in proportion to the scale of the disease has also been difficult to explain. In the UK, for example, Boris Johnson said that he didn’t think people would listen to the rules, whereas in Australia the response has been that we will police each other. 

“The incredibly punitive nature of the lockdowns in proportion to the scale of the disease has also been difficult to explain”

Historian Manning Clark once wrote that Australian history was essentially a struggle between what he described as the ‘enlargers’ and the ‘straighteners and punishers’. Are the punishers getting the upper hand?

bc: That was a brilliant insight by Clark; his books, with clear flaws, do repay revisiting. But our dissenters have generally lost. You could even say that Paul Keating – his aspiration for Asian engagement, an Australian republic, and a big commitment to Indigenous reconciliation – lost in 1996. Do dissenters always lose in Australia? Are we a country that, despite the invocation of “larrikin spirit” [essentially, “cheeky though good-hearted”], will always back the forces of order, underpinned by our fears? My pessimism sort of settles on that interpretation.

ya: The Fatal Shore by Robert Hughes comes to mind. I always remember that idea of Australians having a low trust in authority but a high dependence on it, based on its history as a penal colony.

That’s my mother’s family you’re talking about...

ya: I say that with love. There are so many other things that we accept government intervention on in public health: cigarettes, seatbelts, drink-driving... But now we’re having so many conversations about tactics rather than where we actually want to end up.

That idea of Australians as irreverent, anti-authority larrikins is a story we like telling ourselves, isn’t it? A bit like thinking of ourselves as crocodile-wrestling bush folk, when really we’re mostly a mob of urban milquetoasts.

sg: We like our irreverence in the Paul Hogan style, with a bit of wit. But we don’t reward it when it’s critical. A couple of years ago I wrote what I thought was a rather reasonable article pointing out the fact that while various statues were coming down in the US, we had one in [Sydney’s] Hyde Park of Captain Cook that still displayed the words “discovered these territories in 1770”, which is an absolute nonsense, an insult to my ancestors who were standing on the shore waving at yours, Andrew, as they arrived. I actually made the point that I didn’t really want Cook to come down. I thought we could put up another plaque alongside or in place of it that corrected the terra nullius myth. And I had the prime minister of the day saying that I was a Stalinist. I think there was one headline that said “Taliban Stan”.

Bob, you’re the one here with actual experience of political leadership. Was there a different way Australia could have handled this? I don’t understand why the prime minister couldn’t have said, ‘We will get our people home if I have to send my own plane. And if we have to build a quarantine station in the desert, we’ll do that.’ Could we have been just as effective while being less timorous?

bc: It was timorous. Of course, we’re saying these things with the benefit of hindsight. And running a government is not knowing what is around the corner. Conventional wisdom in early 2020 was that this would burn itself out in the northern summer. But it’s still instructive to go back and look at this. The two points you make are valid and I’d add a third, which is that is the government of New South Wales could now be setting up a committee like the one that oversaw the construction of Olympic infrastructure, to design a vaccination-passport system to enable us to reopen. No one has been bold enough to do that. We have limped in shuffling steps towards the inevitability of a system that would enable this economy to escape. A government ought to be offering hope.

Yassmin, have you found yourself thinking differently about the passport you carry?

ya: It does make you question what the point of citizenship is if you cannot return to your home. I think about my parents, who left Sudan. They were only able to travel back every few years but that’s because it was expensive; it was never the case that the borders were closed. I was married in February 2020 and I’m so grateful that I got that in just before everything shut down. But we did it in Sudan and my father got stuck: he couldn’t get a flight back to Australia until December. When he eventually did, it took five different legs to get in. The cost was exorbitant. If you’re in Australia and not really thinking about what it’s like for Australians overseas, it can seem like not that big a deal. But if citizenship doesn’t guarantee you entry into the place that you call home, what’s the point?

sg: I lived outside the country for the best part of 20 years and I never felt Australian more than when I wasn’t in Australia. I never did growing up; we were Aboriginal. Australia was for other people, that was made very clear to us. When I went overseas and met Australians, free of the weight of that history between us, I realised that we had the same memories. There is that emotional connection to the place. If you’re born in Australia, in global terms, you have won the lottery: our environment, our prosperity, our cohesion, our safety, our security and our democracy. And yet those other darker aspects – the insecurities, the illegitimacy – rear their heads. Coronavirus has revealed those things again.

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“If you’re born in Australia, in global terms, you have won the lottery”

Is Australia re-embracing what it’s most comfortable with? The idea of Australia as this gregarious nation of the world is a relatively recent one. In the centuries before that, Australia was an isolated, insular island colony. And, of course, there were immemorial millennia before that in which no one outside Australia even knew it was there. Is there a reversion to type going on?

bc: We are a nervous little country. The motivating force in our foreign policy is fear of abandonment, of being left alone. We have a deep desire to be part of the empire that dominates the seas to our north, from the British Empire right through to our enthusiastic embrace of the US. That’s because of deeply entrenched fears about the security of this continent. It’s not a picture of a country that’s confident in its own character.

I want to pick up that idea of the pandemic playing into some deep Australian fear of the other. You could make a case that modern Australia was founded by a disruptive force from overseas. Has a fear of the outside world developed from that? Or is this a reasonable response to a health emergency that has just got a bit out of hand?

sg: We can make both arguments. Australia is a paradox. It’s an extraordinarily tolerant, cohesive, multicultural, incredibly prosperous nation. It is comparatively well-governed, very safe and secure, and one of the more robust democracies. And yet there is something else happening at a deep psychological level, born of the fears that Bob talked about.

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“It’s an extraordinarily tolerant, cohesive, multicultural and incredibly prosperous nation. And yet there is something else happening”

Is anything profound shifting in Australia? Five years from now, will this be remembered as an anomaly or a more fundamental deviation?

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bc: There’ll be a return to normality pretty quickly. When it comes to the future, I’m more concerned about the lack of confidence in exploring a different diplomatic or strategic character from simply being the most uncritical US ally. I’m going to write a parody in which I argue that Australia’s needs are served by us becoming a US territory like Puerto Rico or Guam. You’d have the support of a lot of the Australian media. One curious thing about our country is the absence of a desire for any kind of independence or to chart our own way. We’ve stifled any notion of a fully fledged international, outgoing national character. And it seems that Australians are pretty happy with this.

“We’ve stifled any notion of a fully fledged international, outgoing national character”

Do you feel that a lot of Australians are happy to be left alone by the rest of the world?

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ya: This is something that I felt put a lot of distance between me and my counterparts in the country last year, when the majority of the world was going through a really tough time. Australians in Australia were like, “Sorry, but we’re cool.” I often think of the country as a teenager: not liking what anyone tells it to be but not actually really independent. As a teenager you still need your parents to pay your rent and cook for you. But you think you’re really your own person with all these opinions. And I see Australia as a country where people believe that maturation is optional.

“I often think of the country as a teenager: not liking what anyone tells it to be but not actually really independent”

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sg: There’s a wonderful line in a Midnight Oil song that I’ve always thought summed up the country: We’ve got too much sunshine. But there is a great resilience to the Australian spirit. The flipside of our lack of introspection is a great practicality. So I’m optimistic from that point of view with our resilience and capacity to get things done. The failure to make good on our good fortune – escaping the worst of it, then bungling the vaccine – is very Australian. We succeed sometimes in spite of ourselves.

Conclusion

Australia will probably be OK. The country – wealthy, orderly, secure, lavishly blessed by nature and geography – usually is. But a long-term retreat into its shell would be an obvious loss to a population with roots and connections overseas, and, dare we say, to an outside world deprived of the talent, charm, rugged good looks and self-effacing nature that wins hearts and minds wherever we travel. Australia’s idealised national character – stoic, robust, independent, practical – might be largely delusional: idealised national characters often are. But it might be a worthy aspiration.
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