Welcome to Australia

Speech delivered at the opening dinner of the Mont Pelerin Society conference in Sydney, 10 October 2010

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure and an honour to speak to you tonight. The organisers of this conference have asked me to deliver a sort of ‘Welcome to Australia’ address to you.

This is more than just a little strange for two reasons. First, as I look around the room I see many Australians who certainly don’t need to be welcomed to their own country. And second, the international visitors among you would not expect to hear a ‘Welcome to Australia’ speech delivered with a German accent.

I suspect there is nevertheless a certain logic behind giving the task of speaking about Australia to a recent migrant like me. First of all, the fact that I am German elegantly ensures that it won’t be a dry and humourless opening of the conference.

More importantly, though, letting me speak about Australia saves the Australian hosts from the embarrassment of having to boast endlessly about their country.

Australians don’t like that kind of self-important behaviour at all. So they decided to let me do it for them. Australians do not cherish rhetorical hyperbole, in any case. To quote former Australian Prime Minister and current Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, let me tell you this:

‘By way of personal instinct, I have an inherent distaste for grandiose rhetorical statements, which don’t have any substantive dimension to them.’

The Australians among you would know why this is funny.

Despite this warning of exaggerated rhetoric, let there be no doubt that Australia is as good a place as you can find on this planet. Whatever you’re looking for, you can find it right here.

No, really. We have the deadliest snakes, the driest rivers, and the largest cattle station in the world. The cattle station in question is almost the size of Belgium and just as interesting.

Despite its size, Australia is nevertheless an easy place to get around as you will soon find out. That is because there was a very literal approach to naming things down under.

If you have a great sandy desert, it’s called The Great Sandy Desert. If there is a long mountain range that divides the coast from the inland areas, it’s called The Great Dividing Range. And the reef that acts as a barrier between the Pacific Ocean and the continent. Well, you guessed it: The Great Barrier Reef.

I could go on like this with place names. The opera house in Sydney is called the Sydney Opera House from which you will have a spectacular view of that bridge across Sydney harbour whose name I have just forgotten.

If something’s not named according to what it is or how it looks, then chances are that it is named after a former governor, either Ralph Darling or Lachlan Macquarie: So there is Darling Park, Darling Harbour, Darling River and Macquarie University, Macquarie Bank or Macquarie Lighthouse.

And if it’s still not named after either of the two, then it must be named after something British: Hyde Park, Oxford Street, Sussex Street, or Liverpool Street – you can find all of those not just in central London but also here in central Sydney.

It’s all a bit surreal in Australia, especially if you are a visitor from England. It is at once deceptively familiar and strangely different.

When I first came to Australia as a tourist, I arrived at Sydney airport where I was greeted by a friendly immigration officer. Looking through my passport, he asked me: ‘Ever been to Australia, mate?’ When I replied that I had not he asked: ‘But you’ve been to England, right?’ ‘Yes, sure I have visited England,’ I confirmed. ‘Well, it’s just like England, only warmer’, the officer said and handed me back my passport.

What a strange welcome. Perhaps even stranger than me welcoming you to Australia tonight.

Ever since my first visit to Australia back in 1999, I have been wondering what the immigration officer really meant when he promised me a warmer England.

Perhaps he was just being ironic. A warm, maybe even a sunny England is, after all, a contradiction in terms. It’s like an efficient India, a carefree Germany or an abstinent Russia. It just doesn’t sound right.

But then again, the officer had a point. In Australia you can still feel the British heritage. Cars drive on the wrong side of the road; people seriously believe that cricket is the most fascinating sport ever invented; and of course the Queen remains our head of state.

More seriously, for a long time, at least in the eyes of the international community, Australia had no identity apart from its membership in the British Empire.

This is certainly true for the first half of Australia’s post-settlement history. It is interesting to note that the Commonwealth of Australia was created in 1901, but it took nearly 40 more years before Australia opened its first diplomatic mission overseas in 1940. When Britain declared war on Germany in 1914, there was no question that Australia was at war as well.

That was because Australia still considered itself British. Australia, as former Prime Minister William Morris Hughes once put it, was as much a part of England as Middlesex. Another Australian Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, proclaimed that he felt ‘British to the bootstraps’.

That’s perhaps not so very surprising since Hughes was born in Pimlico, London, in 1862 and Robert Menzies, though born in Victoria in 1894, remained proud of his Scottish Highland ancestry throughout his life. In fact, his nickname, Ming the Merciless, derived from the Scots — and his own preferred — pronunciation of Menzies.

At first glance, little has changed since the times of Hughes and Menzies. The current Prime Minister Julia Gillard was born in Wales (that is in Old North Wales, not in New South Wales), and the current leader of the opposition Tony Abbott was born in London and studied in Oxford. So the connections between Australia and Britain seem to remain strong.

This first impression is deceptive, however. In fact, Australia’s character has changed quite dramatically in recent years and it keeps changing fast. And the differences between Australia and Britain are growing.

There are two reasons for this growing divergence. First, I would argue that Britain has become more European over time. Ever since the UK joined the European Community in 1973, the British (whether they liked it or not) had to get more involved in Europe.

I also think that the British sadly gave up much of their distinctive Britishness in this process. In many ways, Britain and continental Europe are now more similar than the continent thinks and the British wish to believe. But be that as it may, the British loss of interest in Australia probably corresponds to this development.

Australia, on the other hand, also faced decades of reorientation. The rise of China and other South-East Asian economies made it tempting for Australia to find its place in the Pacific boom region. What happened in Australia’s relative neighbourhood became more important than dealing with its more traditional political and economic allies.

To sum up the Anglo-Australian developments of the past decades: Britain became more European – and arguably less successful. Australia became more Asian – and arguably more successful.

I leave it to you to wonder how these things are connected. But in any case, it explains why Australia’s link to Britain has become weaker.

And why should a young, growing and vibrant country like Australia pay much attention to old Europe anyway when you could sense that the future of the world economy had shifted to the Pacific Rim?

I know that we will have a session dealing with Australia’s history of economic reform and how Australia transformed itself into one of the best-performing economies on the planet. The speakers at the session later this week are excellent, so I don’t need to give you my own take on what a remarkable reform achievement it has been.

Let me conclude instead by focusing on two other Australian issues. These are two issues that particularly interest me as a European migrant in Australia.

The first issue concerns Australia’s cultural identity, both at home and abroad. In the Old World of Europe, there is an attitude towards Australia that lies somewhere between ignorance and arrogance.

Just to give you a tiny example: I lived in London for a few years, but my wife and I happened to miss Australia too much, so we decided to move back to Sydney where we had studied before. When my British friends and colleagues heard about this, the reactions were mixed. Most of them probably thought we were simply swapping the great cultural variety of London for more sunshine in Sydney.

One colleague put it more bluntly. He joked that I should pack yoghurt for the journey. Why? So I could retain a bit of culture down under.

That there is more to Australia than good weather, long beaches, exotic wildlife, smoking barbecues, and ice-cold beer is something that never occurs to most Europeans. What do Europeans know about Australia anyway?

But there is, of course, another twist to this story. It’s not only Europeans who believe that Australia is a somewhat culturally inferior country. There are quite a few Australians who think that these smug Europeans are justified in their arrogance.

The phenomenon is known in Australia as ‘cultural cringe’, and basically it stands for a belief that Australia only occupies a subordinate cultural place on the periphery of the Western World. It’s reflected in Germaine Greer’s statement that ‘Australia is a huge rest home, where no unwelcome news is ever wafted onto the pages of the worst newspapers in the world’.

Perhaps it is geographically true that Australia occupies a far-South East place at the cultural periphery of the West, although this sounds somewhat stupid. But at the very least, it is a highly productive periphery that has made some remarkable contributions to literature, the arts, philosophy and architecture.

I find it puzzling how a young, vibrant and growing Australia still believes it necessary to find approval in the eyes of these self-styled cultural elites in stagnant Old World countries. Personally, I see no reason why Australia should pay special attention to the likes of Germaine Greer. Let her fill the opinion pages in The Guardian newspaper, but Australians should have no reason to feel inferior to her pseudo-intellectual waffle.

The second issue that concerns me as a European migrant in Australia is Australia’s national identity.

Australia is a nation of migrants. Over the course of its settlement, millions of migrants have come to this country to start a new life. Initially they came from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Later, they also arrived from other parts of Europe like Italy, the Balkans, Germany and Greece.

You may be surprised to hear that Melbourne has the world’s third largest Greek population after Athens and Thessaloniki. This makes it is the largest Greek city outside of Greece. Fortunately, though, Melbourne is not nearly as bankrupt.

But back to Australia: In recent decades, another wave of migrants to Australia has come from the Middle East and Asia.

So far, the vast majority of these migrant groups have integrated very well into Australian society. Unlike in many European countries, the integration of newcomers in Australia has predominantly worked through workforce participation, not through dependence on the welfare state.

But is this likely to continue into the future? As economic historian Niall Ferguson recently pointed out in a speech to the Centre for Independent Studies, there is an enormous challenge to integrate future migrants from Asian and Muslim backgrounds into Australian society.

The fabric of Australian society is still woven of its European heritage, Western values, and the inheritance of the Enlightenment. The integration of non-Western newcomers into this fabric is one of the most important and most difficult tasks for Australia in the future. As this conference is also going to deal with the relevance of the Enlightenment in the 21st century, I hope there will be time to discuss these issues as well.

So with this little introduction, I hope that my Australian friends here tonight do not feel that I have said anything wrong about their country. And to our international guests, let me extend a very warm welcome to Australia. You have come to one of the most fascinating countries on earth. I hope that apart from this conference you will have enough time to explore a bit of it for yourselves.

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