Long way to independence

The Queen’s visit serves to highlight how much Australia has change – and how much we’ve stayed the same these past 60 years.

The Queen’s 16th visit to Australia has come and gone, reminding us how much – and how little – has changed in the 60 years since she ascended the throne. Most Australians my age can remember the tremendous to-do of the first and second royal visits, the breathless anticipation, the flag-waving, and if you were lucky, the gloved hand glimpsed through the window of the passing Roller.

These days, The Queen is more like an old friend than a monarch. There are the usual posies and formal dinners, but much less curtsy anxiety than in the past. If at times during her visit to Canberra we didn’t seem quite to know what to do with her, she and the Duke no doubt enjoyed Yarralumla which, free of urban densification, still gives a fair impression of being located in the bush capital.

It’s nice of her to say we have grown in confidence. In obvious ways, it is true. We are less anxious about what others think of us. After 60 years of sustained post-war immigration, we don’t even worry that much any more about who we are. With one in four of us born overseas, the question seems to have become less, rather than more important. Even the ideology of multiculturalism has disappeared, seemingly unnoticed by those whose interests it was meant to serve and unmourned by the rest of the population.

We seem quite relaxed about the republic. Perhaps we will get round to it when the Queen dies, but only if Charles assumes the throne, and maybe not even then. We and the Kiwis are one of the very few Commonwealth countries that retain the Union Jack in the corner of our almost-identical flags. But despite numerous competitions to find a substitute, we seem to have ground to a halt with the new flag project. There is still a sense, though, in which we struggle. We tell ourselves we are an independent nation and that the insignia of the past are symbolic only. We can handle the upstaging of our elegant Governor-General, although it remains a moot point whether she can. At some point, though, our insouciant posture about ourselves and the Brits must start to fray. It does, in fact, matter that the Queen is our head of state and not the Governor-General.

It is anachronistic that our air force and navy continue to have the word ”Royal” in front of them. Only the army seems to have escaped. But then, one of the high points of her recent visit was the Queen’s presentation of a new set of colours to the Royal Military College at Duntroon.

In terms of realpolitik we have long since moved on. Our effective allegiance now is to the Americans. But where would the ABC be without British-made television? It is true that in our universities, every other course in the social sciences has ”international” bunged in front of it. Every student learns to chant the mantra of globalisation yet courses that probe and develop our understanding of ourselves have faded. It is almost as though, the bigger our economy becomes, the less seriously we take ourselves as a nation. Tony Hassall wrote in Quadrant recently about the sad state of the study of Australian literature in our universities. The reasons for its decline are complex. But we are surely kidding ourselves if we believe that a lack of academic interest in our own literature is a sign of cosmopolitanism. Much the same could be said of Australian political science, which struggles to define and maintain itself as a discipline.

As British academics leave the old Dart to take up positions in Australia, there is even a perverse satisfaction that, at least for now, our universities are more favourable places to be than their own. We seem happy to share what jobs there are, even those for which an extensive knowledge of Australian politics and public policy would appear to be essential. The ANZSOG Institute for Governance at the University of Canberra is headed by a British academic, as is the Centre for Public Policy at the University of Melbourne.

Both appointees are excellent scholars, but it is difficult to imagine, if the situation were reversed, that a centre for the study of British policy or governance would ever appoint an Australian-based academic as its head.

At ANU, British links and influence persist to a surprising degree. Even if we accept that, in the social sciences, there is more lustre in imports than in locals, one would expect there to be more Americans, more Europeans, and even more Asians on the staff. Across the country, colleagues report that the study of Australian politics is in decline, students preferring to enrol in international relations courses. This would be fine, if their knowledge of their own country’s affairs were in general not so undeveloped. Disappointingly, there is no chair in Australian Politics in ANU’s College of Arts and Social Sciences.

Perhaps this residual cringe is of little importance. While the Americans claim the fancy philosophical version of pragmatism for themselves, Australian pragmatism is also worthy of note. Most people care little about what goes on in universities, provided their kids can get a place.

In general Australians are uninterested in politics and unimpressed by politicians. Governments change when we get sick of the old lot, and decide to give the other mob a go. It’s good that, by and large, we are not weighed down by class, religion or pointless theory. But why, oh why, does an Australian Labor Prime Minister of the second decade of the21st century feel, even when addressing the US Congress, that she must say the equivalent of ”all the way with LBJ”?

It’s the same debate we had when I was in my teens, except that we don’t even seem to be having the debate any more. We thought then we should have a more independent place in the world. But it seems that we are further away from it than ever.

First appeared in the Canberra Times – click link: http://www.canberratimes.com.au/opinion/editorial/long-way-to-independence-20111110-1v1cy.html#ixzz2BnIE7exg

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