An Orphan Society Down Under

WILLIAM PFAFF

April 30, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — Paris -- It is a curious affair when the class prejudices and resentments of one nation govern its relations with another. However, this has always been the case with Britain and Australia, as demonstrated by the ripe polemical exchanges between British and Australian politicians and journalists in recent days.

The new Australian prime minister, Paul Keating, provoked the controversy in March when Queen Elizabeth II visited Australia. Mr. Keating spoke of the possibility of Australia's becoming a republic. His wife did not curtsy to the queen, whom Mr. Keating touched while politely guiding her in the direction in which she was expected to go. These acts were treated in London as lese-majeste as well as a vast political affront.

Mr. Keating responded by criticizing Britain's employment of Australian troops during World War II, and Britain's decision to defend India but not Australia when Japanese invasion seemed imminent in 1942. He also criticized those in Australia who ''doffed their lids and tugged the forelock to the British establishment.''

All this produced abusive uproar in the London gutter press, but in more elevated quarters too. One member of Britain's parliament observed that Mr. Keating's behavior was what one would expect of ''a country of ex-convicts.''

This was deplored by more serious voices, but in fact expressed a firmly anchored attitude of class condescension. Just last Sunday an eminent British press commentator noted, in what he probably thought a friendly way, the ''surprisingly short period of time'' in which Australia's ''gangs of demoralized convicts developed into a fine civilization.''

Winston Churchill held that Australians were ''bad stock.'' That was one reason he neglected Australian calls in 1941-1942 for British reinforcements in Asia, and particularly for a strengthened Singapore fortress. It was the American fleet, in the Battle of the Coral Sea, which saved Australia from invasion.

Mr. Keating, however, has touched a nerve among his fellow Australians. A mid-April poll showed -- for the first time -- a popular majority in favor of making Australia a republic. The prime minister says that his arguments are directed less against Britain than against those in his own country who still fail to distinguish Australia's interests from those of Britain, even though Britain long ago abandoned a strategic role in Asia and has opted economically for membership in the European Community -- a choice that gave preference to European agriculture over the exports of Australia and New Zealand.

(Australian travelers to Britain also find that while Europeans pass through the same immigration queue as the British, they must go to the ''Other'' line -- a discovery known to have rankled more than one ex-member of Britain's desert army or of its air force.)

But Mr. Keating's claim that Australia must become an ''Asian nation'' runs into a practical problem as well as a politico-psychological one. Australians are not Asians. (Less than percent of the population is Asian-born.) They remain a predominantly European society on the edge of Asia. Australia is a raw-materials supplier to Japan and in other ways has become economically dependent upon Japan. It is not a highly competitive manufacturer. It depends heavily on agriculture.

The independent role Australia might in the future play in an Asia dominated by Japan and by the low-wage, high-technology industrial societies of Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, etc., remains to be explained.

The Australians are also jeopardized by the fact that protectionism -- including American protectionism -- is on the rise. Australia has since the war counted heavily on American friendship but has found that subsidized U.S. agricultural exports take away Australian markets just as surely as the subsidized exports of the European Community. That is why President Bush had such an unexpectedly hostile reception in Australia when he went there in February.

The republican issue in Australia is one aspect of a larger national uncertainty created by the country's century-long dependence upon Britain. All the countries that originated as European colonies have had this problem. The U.S., lucky in its resources, solved it with a successful rebellion. South Africa broke with Britain because its Boer population, Dutch or Huguenot in origin, gained ascendance over its British (as well as black) populations. Its independent course was that of racial apartheid, but the break with Britain was total. Australia, Canada and New Zealand have kept the British link even while becoming politically sovereign.

It would perhaps have been possible as late as the 1960s to re-establish the ''white'' Commonwealth on new political terms, so as to become an independent world actor, much as the European Community today aims to become a united political force. Britain did not want this. London believed that Britain's future could be attached to that of the U.S.; it has clung to this ambition despite the past three decades of near-total American indifference.

That left the Commonwealth states isolated, their political roles undefined, in difficult geopolitical circumstances: Canada on the border of an overpowering United States, Australia and New Zealand adjacent to an Asia to which they did not and could not really belong. The implications of this have never been completely confronted in any of these three countries. Mr. Keating, by posing once again the question of Australia as a republic, has taken a step toward the necessary national redefinition.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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