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Incontinent times? Australia needs to develop a unique new world-view

By Stephen Crabbe - posted Thursday, 12 February 2004

"Australia is, in reality, part of Asia," I read in The Australian. Many people make such statements and perhaps just as many disagree with them. But the newspaper I was reading was not today's or even last year's. It was dated 1964, and it was part of a debate in the Letters section about republicanism and Australia's place in the world. The writer urged the nation to reject the monarchy and the British Commonwealth, "wave goodbye" to Mum and the kids", and carve out its own niche in the world. And forty years later the debate continues along similar lines.

It is a glaring example of our tendency to use concepts belonging to physical geography to give a guise of objectivity to our socio-political world-view. We yearn for certainty and what better touchstone than those massive lumps of rock that have lasted for millions of years?

Of course, Australians are not alone in this; public figures in diverse societies often speak the same way. Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir, for example, recently put his usual blunt case to us as he prepared for retirement. Australia is a "transplant", he said. "Australia must decide whether it is Europe, or America or Asia." He had just emerged from an ASEAN meeting which agreed to set up a new South-East Asian trading bloc of about 500 million people. Australia has no hope of joining the bloc; ASEAN even refused to let it be an observer at conferences.


When business leaders, members of parliament and others debate endlessly about whether we should become part of Asia, they are hindering rather than helping Australia attain a realistic, contemporary and creative sense of its position in the world. "Asia" is a geomorphological term. It refers to a major land mass, a continent, essentially distinct from Australia. The proponents of making "Australia part of Asia" are therefore in the absurd position of wanting continental drift to be a policy.

If we try to take the two words in the other sense to mean politico-cultural entities, we run into further problems. Unlike Australia, Asia is not unified. It is divided into scores of different ethnic groups speaking dozens of languages onto which national borders have been imposed with frequent conflict as a result. It is seldom helpful to talk about all of these under the one label.

Another problem caused by confusing geomorphology with politico-cultural concepts is that "Australia must become part of Asia" can easily be heard as "Australians must become Asians". Thus where the first statement may have been intended to support more economic engagement between Australia and Asia, it will incite rancour among those who want a distinctive Australian cultural and political identity. The way the words Australia and Asia are used in this sort of debate simply clouds thought and generates unnecessary hostility.

When considering how to relate effectively to other countries, if we keep using terms like "relations between Australia and Asia" or "Asia policy" we make the whole prospect feel so much more daunting than it need be. The huge amorphous spectre evoked by the term "Asia" is too much to handle subtly and realistically. Australia-Thailand, Australia-India, Australia-China - these are psychologically much easier to approach as relationships. As I tell primary school students, a problem is usually easier to solve when you break it up into bite-sized chunks.

The schemata we employ to make sense of the spatial relationships among Earth's tangible features rarely approximate to similarity and differences among nations or civilisations. This is apparent in our misuse of not only geomorphological vocabulary but also directional terms. The idea of political positions being on a one-dimensional continuum between left and right poles is one case in point. Another misapplication of directionality is the notion of the West as an economic grouping of nations or as a civilisation.

In the days of the Cold War, international differences in ideology were commonly represented by taking the physical border between Europe and the USSR and its satellites. The Iron Curtain thus gave rise to a political map comprising Eastern and Western blocs as well as a group of unaligned nations called the Third World. With the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the steady retreat of Communism from the world-stage, the West has come to have cultural rather than political connotations. The West now means a civilisation that originated in the Eastern Mediterranean, grew into "Christendom", and ostensibly continues today with its world-view still largely based on "Judaeo-Christian" precepts.


One of the fundamental characteristics of these directional schemata as applied to political or cultural groupings is that they are linear and polar. The left-right dimension and the cardinal compass points compel polarisation and an unnecessary adversarial attitude. Thus as soon as we say Australia is a Western nation we are implying that we must be in direct opposition to some other nations which are Eastern. If, as seems to be happening often lately, the term "eastern" is replaced by "non-western", a sense of the adversary remains; in fact, it may be, like "Asia", all the more threatening for its ambiguity.

In a different way, however, spatial relationships should have a vital part in our outward view. Physical proximity between Australia and other nations should be one powerful determinant of their importance to us. "Globalisation" has made us more able to take a wide view of our international relations, but, whether we like it or not, rubbing shoulders still generates a lot of energy between two countries. If that energy is to be light rather than heat, we must give a higher priority to such things as joint economic and ecological projects, cultural exchange and mutual education programs with the nations of our region.

But with respect to cultural and ideological delineations a nation's physical position on the planet is becoming almost irrelevant. People move around the globe so readily and in ever-increasing numbers. Communication technology allows new ideas and information - and responses to them - to pervade societies on a scale unimagined a couple of generations ago.

Dimensions like right-left, east-west and west-rest do not help us to get our bearings in this context. Names of great land masses applied to diffuse politico-cultural blocs do not hold water. We need a more continent intellectual model to facilitate clear thought and constructive debate about international relations. It is time to create a schema that can embrace complex combinations of difference and similarity among the societies, economies and political groupings of the world, as well as inevitable changes over time.

And our "place in Asia" as described by that letter-writer in The Australian in 1964? While the notion of an autonomous Australian world-view still appeals, his confused conceptual grasp of our geographical reality is embarrassing. It was my letter, scribbled on the grubby table of a university refectory in a burst of adolescent idealism. Forty years on, with an enlarged understanding of life, the universe and everything, can we Australians now write ourselves a more mature letter to ourselves?

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About the Author

Stephen Crabbe is a teacher, writer, musician and practising member of the Anglican Church. He has had many years of active involvement in community and political issues.

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