This year our nation special puts the spotlight on that sprawling land down under – and in the process we’ve batted away the kangaroos and shooed off the crocs to get to the real red centre of what Australia represents.
People like Australians. Around the world they are regarded as friendly, easygoing, mostly free of any interest in class or inherited privilege, entertaining and good with the barbecue tongs. In fact it’s how Australians conspire to present themselves (turn to page 102, for example, and you’ll see how the nation’s brands reach for the Aussie clichés at the drop of a cork-fringed hat because they have so much resonance at home and abroad).
But while almost everyone may be happy to sign up to the image and even though much of it holds true, it also obscures a lot of interesting truths. All the talk of being easygoing masks the fact that the country has a powerful military and is investing heavily in naval strength (so, yes, easygoing but don’t push your luck). And the idea that life is all beer and boardshorts conceals the richness of the nation’s culture, architecture and design scenes (though the beaches and beer are very good).
In short, while this is a country we admire it’s also a country just like any other with debates about politics, business and nationhood that can soon get people worked up.
So a few months ago, when we started thinking about where we should focus on for our annual March nation special (last year it was Japan; the years before Italy and Germany), Australia soon came to the front of the queue – the first non-G7 nation to have the honour. Here is a country that everyone feels they know well – even if they have never been – but which is actually ideal for closer inspection. Plus it wasn’t hard to persuade a group of our editors, writers and correspondents to leave the chilly northern hemisphere for Sydney, Perth, Adelaide, Hobart, Melbourne and beyond (even if one of them – who may or may not run our Business pages – developed an exaggerated fear of spiders).
We think the reports in this issue will show you the country in an exciting and intriguing way – and they will definitely introduce you to a host of great people, inspiring places and ideas. Hopefully it will also throw up some bigger questions (even for our Australian readers). The nation might be grappling with how to celebrate its identity and right past injustices to its native people but thankfully these issues are wide open in the public domain. And despite the Union Jack on its flag, the nation is arguably the most diverse in the South Pacific.
So here are a few places you should land on in this issue as you discover the country afresh. On our Affairs pages we get on board the new HMAS Canberra, a vast amphibious assault ship that may look like an aircraft carrier but is, in fact, not (such a thing might upset the neighbours). However, it’s a piece of kit that shows Australia is serious about its status as a key global naval power and that it is investing in state-of-the-art tech – so much so that there’s an equally toothsome sister ship.
On our Business pages our possibly arachnophobic section editor looks at how Australian bricks-and-mortar shops are fighting back against the success of online retailers, as well as reviving and protecting key shopping strips. He also looks at how Australia’s mall-makers have exported their know-how around the globe.
Then on our Culture pages we look at the power of the Aussie radio DJ and how The West Australian newspaper has adapted to a fast-changing media landscape. On the Design pages we show how Aussie architecture has been developed, adapted and burnished to create homes that match the climate and landscape (and you’ll wish you owned a concrete beauty from Harry Seidler). And in Edits there’s a feast of the best hospitality players, from great coffee shops to produce-led chefs.
You could say that it’s the world of food and drink that throws up a story to help explain much of this issue – and also much about Aussies. Today it seems that wherever you go in the world you can’t help but stumble across a café run by Australians. On the menu will undoubtedly be great coffee and probably the Aussie-invented flat white (very finely frothed milk over a single shot and served in a shorter measure than, say, your average latte). How has this happened? How has the modern coffee scene become so influenced by these antipodeans? Even the look of most hip cafés seems to share a design language straight out of Darlinghurst.
It’s because Australians head off around the world in search of adventure and take all sorts of good habits and ideas with them. It’s because Aussies care about produce, hanging out with friends, doing simple things well and fuss-free design. It’s because they probably do live up to all the stereotypes and more that we described previously. But it’s also about all the non-Aussies, about us, who look at that country and want to buy into a frothy glass of all that the nation stands for. Brand Australia is a powerful, intoxicating thing.