Saturday, April 21, 2007

from the arse end of the world

To quote Paul Keating, former Australian prime minister.

Moving from a large country whose goings on are the center of the world to a remote nation (to paraphrase an English newspaper) that could basically sink into the sea without attracting notice really makes me aware of a sort of privilege that Americans have. Unlike America-bashers who claim it's a unique fault of Americans, I think that it's more an off-shoot of coming from a large, populous country with a great deal of international political clout. This is increasingly true of countries like China and India, just as it used to be the case with the Soviet Union. Most people follow the politics of these countries because they have to, and people large countries don't do the reverse because they don't have to. My guess is if the Italians or Norwegians or Sri Lankans weren't affected by US foreign or economic or environmental policies they wouldn't give a damn about who the president of the US was (to paraphrase Gone with the Wind). And the smaller the country, the more they must follow the affairs of larger nations. Australia, while large in landmass and number of sheep, has only 20 million people, fewer than California. Moreover, their prime minister, a keen member of the axis of the willing, has vowed to support America in all our causes, whether it's not ratifying the Kyoto protocols (despite meeting all standards) or by supporting a surge in Iraq. (Australia just sent in 50 more soldiers, bringing its grand total up to 450. This is despite Cheney coming the day after his pledge and telling the Aussies that their contribution is irrelevant and they might as well go home.) So given Howard's 'monkey see monkey do' approach to US policy, Australians have a decided interest in how the Fearless Leadership of the Free World behaves.
Of course, it's not just US news that Australians follow. As the 'white trash' of Asia (to paraphrase the president of Singapore), Australians keenly follow Chinese, Indonesian, and to a lesser extent, Japanese politics.
But anyways. This large country privilege means that as an American, I can follow American affairs through Australian media almost as well as I can through American media. Almost every day we get (hopeful) updates on the Democratic primaries, from the 10s of millions raised by Hillary to Obama's support among former Clintonites. We also get documentaries on the Newark mayoral race, and read about Schwarzenegger's renewable energy policies in CA. Australians up on current affairs have an opinion on Hillary vs John Edwards, or Romney vs. McCain, or whether or not Gonzales should resign, etc. You'd be hard pressed though, to find Americans who have a strong opinion on whether or not Peter Costello should have replaced John Howard, or whether Kevin Rudd was right to propose new work choices laws. But again, who's the PM of Australia is for all intents and purposes completely irrelevant to our everyday lives. It's funny to think that what our country decides to do affects the fate of 10s or even 100s of millions of people worldwide, but that those same people, living in countries of 10s of millions, don't really have the same effect on us. (Last night I heard on the news that Norway was hosting a conference to ban cluster-bombing, which can create minefields if the bombs don't explode, as during the Israeli bombing of Lebanon. Many countries signed the treaty, including the Netherlands, South Korea, New Zealand, Germany, England, Sweden, etc. Of course, the countries manufacturing these bombs (like the US) and using them (like Israel) were no where to be found, giving the conference an air of idealistic pointlessness. Australia of course, in solidarity with their ally, stayed away.)
On local news, the top story for the past several days has been the horrific shootings at Virginia tech. The event was a tragedy that ought to have received international coverage, but the pages and pages and hours and hours of coverage, in which Australian academics, politicians, and police have all weighed in, probably rivals America for sheer volume and scope of coverage. Admittedly I was very young when it happened, but I doubt the even more deadly Port Arthur school shooting in Tasmania received as much coverage in the US news.
Likewise, Australia is facing one of the worst environmental catastrophes in its history, and it gets nary a mention in the NY times or BBC. The country is going into its third year of drought, and until recently farmers have been going through water like hot dogs at an eating competition. Moreover, water policy is decided at a state level, not national, and the states' policies generally involve using as much water as possible with no regard for the states downstream (much to the chagrin of South Australia, at the mouth of the Murry-Darling river system). Because of this, the Murry River, the largest river in Australia, now has no run-off into the sea. John Howard, PM, has threatened that if there is no major rain in the next two months all irrigation from this major river system will be cut. As %60 of food production draws from the Murry-Darling river systems, this means disaster for the Australian produce market. Tens of thousands of farmers already stretched to the limit may go bankrupt, and produce prices may rise to $20 a kilo or more. However, since Australia doesn't really export much produce, this will have little effect on those outside this country. (Except for all you wine drinkers. Much of the wine sold in America relies of irrigated grapes, so stock up on your Yellowtail now before it rises to $10 dollars a bottle).


Anonymous said...


Thank you for sharing your thoughts and observances. I notice when I look at the Google News headlines, many of the articles are from the Austrailan press. I will pay more attention to whether those are on the international or national -- meaning US, not Australian--side.

We will be more than happy to send some rain your way...raining again right now, in fact. Funny how we in Portland lose perspective on how good it is to have water as it seems to constantly fall on our heads. But, it has been one gray day after another lately.

Love, Mom

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