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Why “American” Is a Bad Word in Australia

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In a recent episode of his new show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver featured Australia’s new-ish right wing prime minister, Tony Abbott, in a segment devoted to “Other Countries’ Presidents of the USA.” The show highlighted Abbott’s long history of verbal slip-ups, including his unforgettable line: “Jesus knew there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia.”

This attention was relatively unusual; being Australian entails an acute awareness that your political events aren’t particularly important in the global scheme of things. (Indeed, the news of our former prime minister’s now-famous “misogyny speech” in 2012 was, as ex-pat Amelia Lester noted in The New Yorker, “weirdly substantial” by antipodean standards). There is therefore a certain awkward pride when we’re noticed by the outside world.

Americans tend to have less opportunity to see themselves from the outside. But just as “Australian” immediately calls to mind stories about dingoes and crocodiles, the shorthand term “American” has acquired its own meaning down under. And it’s not a compliment.

During the past few decades, and particularly among many of us on Australia’s left, “America” has become a signifier for low wages, high inequality, and inaccessible healthcare and higher education. There are also now fears that this “America” represents not simply an alternative way of organizing society, but a harbinger of our future—the inevitable end point of the past thirty to forty years of the market-driven policies embraced by both of our major political parties. The title of Dennis Altman’s book a few years ago reflected concerns that Australia was turning into “the 51st state.” And in a sharp, unsettling piece recently on the gulf between politicians and the citizenry, Richard Cooke wrote, “Australia isn’t the US, at least not yet.”

Australian attitudes to its “great and powerful friend” are more complex than this brief snapshot suggests, but for many of us, “America” represents a frightening possibility of what Australia may become if it continues on its current path. Discussions necessitate asking the big questions—about the kind of bargain we’re willing to strike with capitalism, about the extent to which we’ll even have a choice in the matter—and the fear of becoming “American” constitutes a useful rallying point for opposition to radical free-market ideas.

For the present, Australia remains a place where the concept of egalitarianism resonates, and where the government is expected to do things. For instance, although our healthcare system was never truly universal, the idea that we take care of our sick has almost become a part of our ideological furniture. In a recent interview, the prime minister used the phrase “socialized medicine,” and it is difficult to overstate just how strange it sounded in an Australian accent.

But this version of Australia has not gone unchallenged. Witness this wish list from free-market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, which includes frankly radical items such as, “allow individuals and employers to negotiate directly terms of employment that suit them.” Such agendas remain resolutely unpopular, but they have powerful friends.

The recent federal budget, which imposes heavy burdens on students, the unemployed and young people, has been depicted as something of a tipping point. In a particularly egregious move, the new budget proposes that people under thirty who find themselves out of work must wait six months before being entitled to claim unemployment benefits. For these reasons and more, the fear that Australia is becoming more “American” is perhaps not unwarranted. (In fact the treasurer has been compared to Mitt Romney for his rhetoric on social welfare.) Guy Rundle wrote recently:

Either this budget has fundamentally misjudged the residual social-democratic will of the Australian people, something that dates back to the early achievement of the eight-hour day in 1856—in which case a popular campaign will grease it, leaving barely a smudge . . . or, they have judged it right, and there has been a decisive political-cultural shift in Australia, towards a more individualistic/class-fragmented way of life, in which the poor are seen—US style—as “other.”

Talk of “Australian values” often combines hot air and cliché in equal measures, and as novelist Richard Flanagan remarked earlier this year, national virtues are “like hemorrhoids; everybody has them.” However, the budget arguably violates inchoate ideas about fairness to which many Australians subscribe, prompting worry that we may be sliding inexorably towards a dog-eat-dog society.

The use of the “America” shorthand to express this worry may feel somewhat obnoxious from an American perspective, as it tends to flatten the complexity of a vast and varied country into a lefty’s dystopia. In using it, we can also silence the hard-fought social gains being made within the United States.

This is, however, not the only danger of using “America” as a signifier. There’s a deeper problem: it’s simply too glib. If we can always point to the United States to demonstrate where we don’t want to go, this frees the Australian left from the need to fully articulate the direction we think we should be heading—a question which is becoming more urgent every day.