David Walker’s Stranded Nation

Oct 7, 2019

Professor David Walker’s Stranded Nation: White Australia in an Asian Region is a work of great and very readable erudition, which does something new: places Australian cultural, political and diplomatic history in its regional context at the time of Asian decolonisation.

As such, the book takes us into the tensions of the country’s relationship with Asia between the 1930s and 1970s. Far from assuming the role of Pacific leadership that ‘favourably placed’ Australia liked to see for itself in the 1930s, it would come to be seen as ‘a provocative outsider in a region it had made little attempt to understand.’ This theme was heralded in Walker’s earlier work Anxious Nation: Australia and the rise of Asia 1850-1939 (1999). Now Stranded Nation, shows what happened when White Australia faced the end of Western imperial rule and decolonisation in Asia.

The launch, which I attended at NSW Parliament House on 12 August, was sponsored by the Sydney Institute for Public and International Affairs. The first NSW Muslim MP Mr Shaoquett Moslemane opened the event by welcoming the perhaps  100 Australia-Asia aficionados in the Room and made special mention of the distinguished Chinese and other diplomats among them. Before Walker’s own engaging talk on Stranded Nation, Professor Stephen Garton, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Sydney University, described it as ‘a book of our times’.

This was the punch line of the fine twenty-minute presentation Garton gave to launch the work into what he described as ‘choppy waters.’ The reference was to the policy tensions that currently appear to be inherent in the Commonwealth’s attempts to remain aligned both with our traditional security Allies, the Unites States, and with the Asian sources of our economic prosperity, particularly China. The reference was also to the anxieties surrounding the question Walker asks in the third sentence of his book: ‘What would it mean for Australia to become a Pacific Nation with an Asian, rather than a European future?’

Garton did not need to specify what much of the audience was aware of: that only four days before the launch, Mr Andrew Hastie, the Chair of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, had asserted that Australians were not taking the China threat seriously enough. He had also resorted for effect to a comparison between the People’s Republic and ‘Nazi Germany’. (On the ‘fundamental error’ of Hastie’s formulation and its significance for our China foreign policy see Geoff Raby’s 20 August blog here on Pearls and Irritations.)

Garton noted well that Walker has a rare eye for ambivalence. As distinct from most studies of our protectionist trade, exclusionist immigration and Asian invasion anxieties, Garton sees ‘vital counter currents’ in Walker’s work. Drawing on Stranded Nation, he underlined the point that many academics, public servants and politicians mid-last century saw Australian isolation from the region as ‘increasingly anachronistic’: Frederick Eggleston, John Latham, Richard Casey, Frank Clune, C.P. Fitzgerald, Donald Horne.

Many of their Asian initiatives had happy outcomes. For instance, Chapter 8, ‘Kookaburra Calling’, highlights the success of Radio Australia’s official broadcasts into the region. But still, in the 1950s and beyond, Garton realised that advocates of a more open relationship with Asia had to overcome what he described as ‘a strong popular tide of fearmongering, racist and rampant Orientalist conceptions of Asia’, all deeply layered in popular literature. He deferred, therefore, to Walker’s ‘fascinating chapters’ on Biggles, who constantly asserted the superiority of the white man in the tropics, and on the widely read crime, spy and mystery genres, which frequently represented Asian characters, such as Fu Manchu and Dr Tsarka, as brilliant, but resentful, scheming and effeminate.

My own reading of Stranded Nation is, indeed, that advocates of interaction with Asia were rarely free of some fearful drag in the culture. This inhibition was related to the fundamental fact that white Australian settler culture was never at ease with the end of western imperial rule and post-colonial Asia. Our official culture did not want to know about decolonisation and opposed it when it could.

In Chapter 7, ‘Ganging up at Bandung’, the 1955 conference of independent, Asian and African nations in Indonesia dismayed and embarrassed our government. In Chapter 9, ‘The Empty Bookshelf’, we read about the ‘cheap books’ campaign, in which Casey was keen to send literature into Asian countries that would show readers what a friendly, tolerant and progressive place Australia really was. The campaign was a breath-taking failure. Government officials examined many titles that had been successful in Australia. But, then, after a twelve-year search, those authorities could find no books they considered suitable to convey the desired message to ‘impressionable’ Asian minds.

Denial, hypocrisy and ignorance, which had fatally flawed Australian official policy towards Asia in the anxious nation, represented the stranded one. Among much else, Chapters 12 and 14 reveal the double-think of top diplomat Walter Crocker in the 1950s. He was astute enough to see that, if change did not come, Australia would be ‘stranded’ (Walker’s word) in an ‘isolated white outpost in the region’. But still, like a spoilt child, Crocker could unload an emotional tirade on the Indian High Commissioner to Australia General Cariappa for making the obvious point that the terms ‘coloured peoples’ and ‘White Australia’ were repugnant to Indians and other Asians.

Let me add a point about Walker’s writing, which arises from an unparalleled reading of popular and official cultures, and which has appeared long since 2004 when, after always being short-sighted, Walker became legally blind. This means we have an historical narrative arising from reading that was always closely sighted and largely completed before that time; historically, one might say.

At the same time, he has, since 2004, continued travelling in Asia and teaching in both Australia and at Peking University. Experience for him has moreover meant writing with the assistance of large fonts and the right light when it hits the computer screen at certain times of day. His gift for language and, importantly, his listening has, then, mediated his lived experience. In his remarks at the launch, he made special mention of the research and reading his wife Karen did to help the book come out. As well as all the other material, she read two or three times to him drafts of each of the fifteen chapters in the 526-page book.

We are much in the auditory world of the bard; we read Stranded Nation, much like Walker listened to it. To listen is to suspend identity, before working out what one thinks. It is to let the speaker or, indeed, history, become us in some momentary measure of obedience to the most intricate of all evolutionary achievements, language. What makes Stranded Nation seem like a much shorter read than it looks is, I think, that it revolves around how its refined light-grained rhythmical narrative lifts and carries readers along on the special authority of sound. His narrative represents true soundings of Australian history, which are not verified by analysis but by irony.

With a professional involvement in the events of decolonisation in especially Papua New Guinea and Vietnam since the 1960s, I knew or came across in some way many of the figures and texts that populate Walker’s story. The point, though, is that the greater part of the story I did not know distilled the parts I did. The unknown became familiar in a narrative that resonated intimately, intricately and ironically with the history of our unease with Asia.

Altogether, the subtly sinister composition of the jade mask depicted on the cover of the book is the music you get when White Australia faces post-colonial Asia. Some barren tension narrows the eyes and just parts lips in an artfully dark representation of death. We see the final change on the uneasy face of the white mask that is turned towards Asia on the cover of Walker’s earlier book, Anxious Nation. We await his work on the birth of the confident one.

Greg Lockhart is a Vietnam veteran and historian. He is author of ‘Loss and Recovery: David Walker’s work on Asian influences in Australian history’, Historical Studies, Vol. 10, Number 3, December 2013.

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