Australia and the USA as ambiguous mirror images (Part 1 of 2)

Australian governments still cling like a lichen to the USA in foreign policy, neoliberal values, a bi-polar view of the world (China vs. freedom) and so-call democratic values. But is Australia as close to the culture (s) of the USA as seems to be uncritically accepted and are these values really those which some believe unite us? Whilst there are many positive features about American culture, it has the doubtful reputation of having perhaps the highest level of economic inequities in the world, has a higher percentage of prison population than most other countries, has a health system that benefits mainly the wealthy and the shortcomings of which have been dramatically exposed during the COVID-19 crisis, and has promoted financialization of the economy more than most other countries. And finally, it has a president who is incapable of any serious leadership, yet still has a very solid base behind him.

From a military and political perspective Australia really joined the USA at the hip during the Korean war when China was beginning to emerge as a military power, with Britain retreating both from its empire and recovering from its exhaustion after WW 2. Is this alliance just a product of Australia’s insecurity as one of one predominantly Anglo-european nation in the South-west Pacific, confronted by some huge Asian cultures with very long histories, about which we know too little? Or does it have deeper roots resting on a widespread belief that Australia and America share similar values and are mirror images of each other? In this post I allude to three possible similarities and in the next one I point out some major differences between the cultures of the two countries?

A typical expression of these similarities is found in a recent, seemingly propagandistic statement, by Hugo Seymour (a Research Analyst at the Perth USAsia Centre). Writing in the Lowy Institute’s, The Interpreter, he advocates three areas where Australian and US values elide, “First, Australians are cognisant the alliance makes a significant contribution to the nation’s prosperity and security. Second, America’s system of democratic government and power sharing appeals to Australians own values and instincts about power and policymaking. Third, Australians understand the character of American policy is defined by more than any one president.”

The first two are questionable. It is true that American companies, especially those in digital technology and mining(37%) are highly represented here and may have contributed to economic prosperity however defined, and that America has the highest level of capital investment of any other country in Australia. Similarly, many Australian firms are active in the US market, but that may be as much a product of globalization as it is of a special relationship between the two countries.

But surely China now is much more prominent in Australia’s economy (though much less so in terms of direct investment), as a market for our unprocessed exports, as a source of international students and as a supply chain for many clothing, pharmaceutical and electronic products. Where we do manifest America’s values in the area of prosperity is in the worst aspects of neoliberalism which have given rise to very considerable income inequalities, unsustainable house prices, an ongoing weakening of the union movement and a financialization of the economy, all primarily of benefit to the ten percent of society’s most wealthy.

In terms of external security, Australia is in a much more fragile international relations environment because of the China bashing taking place by Donald Trump as a means of disguising his other failures as president, and through the LNP standing in line on this. Equally, in terms of internal security, this has almost certainly been lessened for a large part of the population because of the economic damage inflicted by neoliberal policies.

His second area of equivalence is equally questionable. Though seemingly similar, Australia and the US have quite different political systems and different forms of separation of power, though the separation of executive, legislature and judiciary in America is becoming severely lessened. Both countries have federal systems, but the individual governors of the fifty states have much more control over voting boundaries and enfranchisement than occurs in Australia where such things are largely centralised by the Australian Electoral Commission, being much fairer and more transparently determined than in the USA.

In addition, the role of the president is considerably different from the role of the prime minister in the Australian government. Increasingly over the past forty years the president has been treated like a king who to some extent stands apart from the rough and tumble of the two-party system, unlike the Australian prime-minister. It might also be noted that the two-party system is much stronger in the USA than in Australia, where for the past three decades votes for the two main parties have been in decline as the Greens and populist parties advance.

The third point, that “Australians understand the character of American policy is defined by more than any one president,” is arguable and assumes many Australians closely follow US politics. But even if they do, it is clear that there has been a remarkable continuity in US policy formation since Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, and instituted both neoliberalism and an aggressive foreign policy stance that reached its peak during the presidency of George W Bush, a policy in large measure shared by both the Democrats and the Republicans. In this there is a parallel with Australia as here too I would see a unity of policy formation since 1981, a unity largely followed by both LNP and ALP prime ministers, despite a divergence of rhetoric.

These three justifications are no doubt shared by many other Australians and especially some media commentators, yet they gloss over the real differences between Australia and the USA. Some of these I explore in the second part of this post.

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Greg Bailey is Honorary Research Fellow in Asian Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University.

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