I’ve started three times now to write a post on what has happened in Australia during corona and each time I’ve run up against a set of difficulties which made me stop. There has been no shortage of material to write about, of course. I could easily blurt out pages and pages outlining all the craziness: the army checkpoints, soldiers on the streets of our major cities, the police brutality, the endless cycle of lockdowns, the heartlessness and stupidity of the public health bureaucrats, the innumerable blunders from the government, the lack of accountability, the absurd fear-mongering from politicians and media and, perhaps most strikingly of all, the complete inability to raise a single dissenting voice that mattered to talk about it all. All of these things have gotten worse, not better, since corona began. Back in March 2020, the Prime Minister told Australians the truth: everybody would get the virus but only the elderly and immuno-compromised were at risk. That’s still true a year and a half later but that’s not what we hear from politicians now. Australia has deviated far from reality and it’s not at all clear how we’re going to find our way back. The only critical voices we’ve managed to muster have focused on the politics. For example, long-time media personality, Alan Jones, has been banging on about the incompetence of our politicians for some time now. But that’s the easy road to take. It’s pleasant to think that the only thing we needed was better politicians to guide us out of the mess. But the politicians, especially in democracies, can only do what the public wants and the actions of the politicians in Australia have had majority support. That reveals something about Australian culture and society. Or does it? How do we separate the Australian response from every other country? What do we attribute to fate and what to “character”?
The analytical problems to answer this question are several. Firstly, there is the fact that many countries around the world have imposed draconian measures during corona. Australia is not alone there. Is the difference just a matter of degree or does it point to something deeper? Australia has undoubtedly gone further than other countries in many respects. Australia is unique, as far as I know, in not allowing citizens to leave without permission of government. This was recently extended to include citizens who have returned to Australia temporarily but who reside overseas. That seems to be an extreme measure but is it meaningfully different from restrictions imposed elsewhere? Unlike other countries, Australia is defending a “covid zero” position and it is this fact which constitutes the second analytical problem in comparing Australia to other countries. Once the borders were closed, “cases” here dropped like a rock. Unlike any other country in the world except New Zealand, Australia was presented with the opportunity of “eliminating the virus”. Naturally, we took it. We then proceeded to tell ourselves that it wasn’t blind luck but good management. More than that, we told ourselves it was because Australians cared about each other more than other countries, especially the US where everything is just “about money”. If there’s one pattern that’s repeatedly popped up in Australia throughout corona it’s – pride goeth before a fall. No sooner had we finished patting ourselves on the back than the cracks started to show in the strategy courtesy of a never-ending procession of lockdowns. Melbourne was the first domino to fall in the winter of 2020. At time of writing, Melbourne is in lockdown number 6 while Sydney is in a lockdown that looks set to last longer than our epic three and-a-half-month effort last year. This all happened because, although borders were “closed”, Australia still had to allow its citizens to return home and we still had to let Hollywood movie stars and other notables into the country because, in the words of the Queensland Chief Health Officer, they brought millions of dollars with them (yes, she actually said that with a straight face at a press conference). A quarantine program was set up but inevitably “cases” leaked out and outbreaks occurred. We didn’t admit the obvious fact that this was a problem with the strategy of having quarantine facilities in heavily populated areas. Even purpose-built laboratories full of trained staff often fail to stop viruses getting out. Just ask the people in Wuhan. In Australia, we turned hotels in the major cities into quarantine facilities and populated them with barely trained staff. The rest is history. It’s not like Australia has a shortage of land far away from population centres. It’s not like we couldn’t afford to build new facilities. The cost of our lockdowns counts in the trillions of dollars. It would have been cheaper to build a quarantine version of Dubai out in the desert than do what we’ve done. How long do viruses stay viable with the harsh Australian sun beating down on parched earth? Not long I would have thought. We’ll never know because the Australian government couldn’t organise it.
So, the lockdowns began. The first major one was here in Melbourne and, rather than admit a fault in the strategy and find a better way to do it, we found a way to pin the blame on the incompetent state government (yes, reducing every matter to party politics doesn’t just happen in the US). No doubt the government was incompetent, most governments are. But we pretended that the state government in New South Wales knew what they were doing. They were the “gold standard” and, as long as everybody else copied them, the strategy would work. That charade lasted all the way into mid-2021 when New South Wales let an outbreak occur which led to their current lockdown which has famously seen soldiers deployed on the streets of Sydney (hey, we had soldiers on the streets of Melbourne before it was cool). It was at this point that the hysteria levels were raised higher than they had been at any time throughout corona. Politicians in all states embarked on a shameful program of fear mongering. It had nothing to do with health and everything to do with the fact they had been caught with their pants down. Having been happy to take the credit when times were good, they ramped up the hysteria when things went wrong. In the meantime, the federal government had failed to secure the vaccines that were supposed to end the whole thing. As a result, by the time the current flu season is over, much of Australia will have spent essentially the whole winter in lockdown.
One of the earliest cultural critiques of Australia was a book called The Lucky Country by Donald Horne. To paraphrase the main message of the book: Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck. Corona couldn’t bear that out more clearly. Although I obviously disagree with the strategy taken by western countries in relation to corona, there’s no doubt that both the UK and the US were able to execute that strategy properly. Australia was not. We fell backwards into a zero-covid strategy and have proceeded to execute it with all the adroitness of a drunk wombat staggering through a nest of angry bull ants. Can we be held accountable for that? Does it reveal something about Australian society? Or is it unfair to blame politicians for an outcome they probably never believed possible and certainly would never have planned for? Would any other country have behaved differently if they had also stumbled into a situation where they got to “zero” and then had to defend that position?
A third analytical problem is one that is inherent in all analysis of Australian culture. It’s one noted by one of our earliest modern cultural critics, Robin Boyd: how to differentiate Australian culture from “international western culture”. Australia became a nation on 1 January 1901 but the split from Britain was hardly clean. Britain still represented Australia in foreign affairs until the end of WW1. Australia placed armed forces at the disposal of Britain in both world wars. Radio and television news announcers still spoke with British accents until well after the middle of the 20th century. Politically, the main turning point came when Britain refused to defend Singapore in WW2 and left Australia to fend for itself against the Japanese. We turned to the US for help at which point we swapped from being part of the British empire to being part of the US empire. Australia had been dominated by British culture prior to the wars and then became dominated by US culture after. Wherever “Australian culture” has been in the short history of this country, it has had to be found beneath these dominant cultures. In the British era, that culture was found in the bush. The Man from Snowy River or Ned Kelly still hold a place in the nation’s heart for that reason. It wasn’t really until the 1970s that a distinctly Australian urban culture started to show through in television, movies and music but it has always been dominated by US influence. Then came globalisation and multiculturalism to make things even more opaque.
I first encountered this problem in a practical sense when an Indian colleague flew to Melbourne for a project we were working on. On his first day we took him for lunch at a ramen noodle bar. Then, at the end of the week we went for lunch at a Chinese restaurant. Sometime in the middle of his second week, he came over and asked me for a recommendation for lunch – “where can I find Australian food?” he asked. That seemingly simple question proved very difficult to answer. What is Australian food exactly? I could have pointed him to Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, there was even a Mongolian restaurant nearby. But there was no obviously “Australian” restaurant. The same is true of Australian culture in general. It’s there but it’s hidden away. Boyd called Australian culture a veneer on international western culture. That’s one way to think about it. Another is that it is hiding beneath international western culture. Just like my colleague looking for “Australian” food, you have to ask for directions on how to find it.
What is partly at stake in these analytical issues is the age old question of free will versus moral determinism. The deterministic way to look at it is that, through the vicissitudes of fate, Australia accidentally ended up with no covid and then had to defend that position because, well, who wouldn’t? According to this way of thinking, even the US would have done the same if they had managed to close the borders in time. I doubt that’s true but it’s something that is not really testable anyway. Within the Jungian paradigm I have been using in recent posts, the question is somewhat moot. When the archetypes take over, free will as determined by the ego (the conscious mind) disappears because the ego itself has been overwhelmed. Looked at this way, the difference between Australia and the US is simply that we have been overwhelmed by the archetype far more. That raises all kinds of questions as to why. I don’t intend to try and answer those here. What I will do, is sketch out why I think the archetypal analysis helps to explain Australia’s extreme overreaction, an overreaction that has even recently caught the attention of mainstream analysts in the US who look on in horror at what is happening here and wonder whether their politicians have something similar in mind. They are sort of right. There is an element in the US who would love to copy Australia. But I think that what has happened in Australia could never happen in America. Corona has laid bare the real cultural differences that exist between the two countries. Within the archetypal analysis, Australia is The Orphan and the US empire is The Devouring Mother with the big pharma interests representing the Munchausen by Proxy side of that archetype. That works as a political explanation, but it also works culturally. Australian culture and history is very Orphan-like and US history is not. We used to refer to Britain as “the mother country”, for example. It wasn’t until the 1970s that we threw off the “cultural cringe” according to which we were necessarily inferior to the grand cultures of Europe. Australia was originally set up as a penal colony. We were abandoned by our “mother”. Disowned. Orphaned. But also utilised. Australia was initially a naval outpost of the British empire and is now a naval outpost of the US empire. Politically and culturally, we have never been fully independent and autonomous. We imitated first the British and then the Americans. That’s true in politics and culture. When given the chance to take autonomy at a referendum on becoming a republic in 1999, the country firmly voted No. We were still not ready to take our future in hand; still not sure enough in ourselves to transcend the institutions of democracy that we had inherited from our mother. By contrast, the US went to war with its mother and well and truly asserted its independence. Donald Horne said that Australia never “deserved” those institutions. They were part of our luck. We had inherited them but never earned them the hard way like America earned its independence. When given the chance to come up with a new institution of our own, we were unable to do so.
Australian culture shares a number of traits with The Orphan archetype. On the positive side, we like to get along with people. We are pragmatic and unpretentious to a fault. We are realist and conservative in our realism. Australians err on the side of caution in stark contrast to the US which errs on the side of big, idealist dreams. The shadow traits of The Orphan are also present here. Cynicism, complaining, victimisation of others, powerlessness and worrying. Australians tend to be cynical especially towards politicians. But this is merely an affectation. When the chips are down, as we have seen during corona, we turn to politicians to save us. The Nanny State has been dominant here for a long time. The victimisation of others can be seen in what is known as Tall Poppy Syndrome where people who set out to achieve something out of the ordinary are cut down to size. Our anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism are other examples. Again, this is in stark contrast to the US where the achiever, the entrepreneur and the iconoclast are celebrated. Powerlessness and worrying have been at the core of our corona response. A common response to anybody who questions our response to corona is “what would you do?” or “there’s no other option”. We have been unable to raise a single dissenting voice because no sooner does somebody speak up than they are cut down to size. Having silenced those who would speak out, we say there is no alternative except what the government tells us. This pattern was already evident in Australian history. We used to accuse people of being “Un-Australian” if ever they said something critical of the country. If you spoke up, you were invited to “leave if you didn’t like it”. In light of our new border policy, I suppose this quip now needs to be updated “ask the government for permission to leave if you don’t like it.” Earlier in our history, this led to a stifling atmosphere of conformism which many of our most talented artists and thinkers escaped by going – guess where? – back to the mother country in Britain. We thought we had thrown off that conformism, docility and servility in the 1970s but clearly we have not. There are alternatives to lockdowns such as shown by Sweden and Florida (and now Alberta) but we have convinced ourselves that the path we are on is the only one even though it’s increasingly becoming clear that the path we are on is a road to nowhere. I mentioned above that Australian culture “hides away”. This is much like The Orphan. We just want to fit in. We prefer to be liked than respected. We don’t want to stick out. And ultimately, as corona has shown, we just want to be “safe”.
The notion of protection and safety has been at the centre of Australian political and cultural debate for almost the entirety of the nation’s short history. It is captured nowhere better than in the “White Australia Policy” which, in some form of another, was in place all the way into the 1970s and was still being actively defended by politicians as late as the 1960s. That policy is summed up very nicely in its own language – “This country shall remain forever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish in the South Seas an outpost of the British race.” An outpost of the British race? This is a reminder that the language and beliefs around “race” were not limited to the Germans in the pre-WW2 period. It also makes explicit how the Australians of that time saw themselves: just a part of the British empire. To be fair, there were genuine issues of security at play. The population of Australia was so small relative to the land mass as to be a weakness militarily. There were also real economic issues. Much like immigration in the modern US is favoured by agricultural business interests, it was those interests which sought cheap labour primarily from the pacific islander nations (it’s noteworthy that right in the middle of corona Australia made special exemption for islanders to enter the country as they still form the backbone of the fruit and vegetable workers in this country). It was partly to protect local workers from such a reduction in wages that The White Australia policy was implemented and supported by the average worker. Against this backdrop, it is at first glance surprising that Australia should have transformed so quickly into one of the more successful multi-cultural nations in the world but that is what has happened in the last several decades. Interestingly, The Orphan archetype predicts this. Orphans get along with people. They are unpretentious and pragmatic. These are useful traits supporting a policy of multi-culturalism. Within this broad historical arc, one can see why Australian culture would be so hard to find. We went from the cultural cringe of subservience to the British to the multi-culturalism and globalism of the American empire very quickly. We have faithfully served the interests of both empires and have been among the most enthusiastic proponents of the neoliberal agenda in recent decades. Robin Boyd already noted in the 1960s that this tendency to imitate first the British and then the American trends implied a culture that was not certain in itself. For Boyd, whose preoccupation was architecture, this amounted to an unwillingness to deal with the problem of “place”. The Australian veneer was a mask that hid a deeper uncertainty. In the words of one of our great poets, A D Hope, Australians were second-hand Europeans who clung timidly to the edge of alien shores. In archetypal terms, we still do not feel at home even in our own country and in our own skin. This is uncertainty of The Orphan who has not established its place in the world.
Australian culture is talked about so seldom that it’s hard to get a grasp on what foreigners think of us. Americans in particular think of Australians via the stereotypes of the movies and television. We are Crocodile Dundee and Steve Irwin wrestling crocodiles and drinking beer in the sun. When George W Bush visited Australia during his presidency he said Australians were like Texans. That’s not true at all. Australians are far more like Californians. No surprise that the closest exponent of our corona response in the US has been California. We are one of the most urbanised countries in the world and our big cities are really big, even by US standards. Unlike the US, we lack the large number of small inland cities and our rural population is so sparse that it is politically almost irrelevant. To a large extent, modern Australia is the big, international city where you can eat food from all corners of the world and see people from all nations. It is the cosmopolitanism of Los Angeles or San Francisco but without the squalor and homelessness.
It was in a conversation with three foreigners who were living here that I got one of the more surprising bits of feedback on Australian culture that I have heard. In the group was an Indian, a Malaysian and a Singaporean. All three were professionals who had moved to Melbourne for work. The subject of Australian workplace culture came up and one of the three, who had clearly been mulling over the subject for some time, said “Australians are two faced”. This got me intrigued. I had never heard that said about Australians before. In fact, I had barely heard anything negative said about Australians before. I asked her for clarification. The root of the problem was a part of Australian culture that I was very familiar with – our extreme aversion to conflict of any kind. Australians will do anything to avoid an argument. In this we show our British roots, only Australians tend to copy the American style of forced positivity as a cover for our insecurity. This is the flip side of The Orphan’s inter-dependency strength. Orphans are good at getting along with others. But that strength can become an imperative for consensus and an unwillingness to hear dissenting opinions. Everybody must get along, or else. We have seen that in stark terms during corona with an almost complete inability to raise a dissenting voice. In the workplace, this manifests as an unwillingness to talk frankly with colleagues. It was this which had annoyed the Malaysian woman I was talking to. According to her, in Singapore and Malaysia it was normal to be told to your face by a colleague or superior if they thought you were doing something wrong. It was considered the right thing to do. In Australia, nobody does that. Rather, people will complain (another trait of The Orphan) to a superior and then it’s the superior’s job to handle it. That’s what this woman meant when she said Australians were two-faced. They say one thing to your face and another thing behind your back.
About a year after that conversation I experienced the practical nature of this problem at work. I was in a meeting with a client. A representative of the client asked for something that made no sense. As this was related to my area of work, I had to deal with the problem. Rather than openly disagree which, not being a very good Australian I would have preferred to do, I did the next best thing which was to ask a few questions to have them explain why they wanted it. The reason they gave was self-evidently invalid and didn’t make sense. I had hoped the act of saying it out loud would make them realise the problem, but no luck. What I then wanted to say was – “we’re not going to give you that as it’s private information internal to the company.” That was the truth. But the truth would be disagreeing and we don’t do that in Australian workplace culture, especially with a third party client in a meeting. So, I said I would take an action on it and later raised it with my manager. She was also a foreigner – an Indian – who had recently arrived in Australia for work. As we had a very open and honest dialogue going, I apologised for having to make work for her and wished I could have handled the matter myself. I mentioned how this was good example of conflict avoidance in the Australian workplace. She agreed and said this was something that was annoying her too. She had spent the last several years working in the US and said that in the US there was a willingness to disagree openly. It wasn’t considered offensive to disagree and, in fact, to not disagree would make you seem a pushover. This seemingly banal occurrence reveals something about Australian culture. In its more extreme form, it is actually a form of predatory behaviour cloaked in niceness. That’s where the two-faced part comes in. It’s also there in the tall poppy syndrome; the tearing down of the person who dares break ranks and stick their head up even in the trivial matter of disagreeing about something that is obviously invalid. If you can’t even speak truth at that kind of basic everyday level, how are you going to speak truth when something important comes along? As one last bit of evidence on this, I was once in a workplace seminar on the subject of giving “negative feedback”. The strategy recommended was the “shit sandwich”. What you do is you start by telling the person something that you like about their work. Then you slip in the negative feedback that’s the thing that you really want to say and you finish with something positive. All that work and energy just to try and avoid speaking a basic truth that in other cultures would be taken care of with a normal conversation. Conflict avoidance creates work. Eventually the truth must come out but you do everything to avoid it; just like Australia is willfully avoiding the truth right now.
The Prime Minister of Australia decided to change the wording of the national anthem right in the middle of corona. He changed the line “we are young and free” to “we are one and free”. It’s hard to conceive a less opportune time to have made that change. We have been neither one nor free over the last year and a half. At time of writing, I am not free to cross the state borders of the country and countless people have been denied that ability in order to visit sick relatives or attend funerals. We are, however, still a young country. We changed the wording in deference to the aboriginals of this land who, having been here for fourty thousand years, can certainly not be said to have been young in cultural terms. I have been fortunate to spend some time in a modern aboriginal community and I can tell you that they have no problem with conflict avoidance or beating around the bush. They get straight to the point. In fact, I would argue that the direct speaking and larrikin spirit which used to be, and still is in places, part of the Australian culture comes from the original inhabitants. But the mainstream Australian culture is still European or, in Boyd’s phrase, international western culture. Being “young” and only recently semi-separated from the “mother country”, Australian culture is the culture of the child in archetypal terms. The requirement for safety is not, of itself, a bad thing. It is obviously a basic necessity. Where it turns negative is when it is clearly doing harm. This harm is at the core of The Devouring Mother – Child relationship and the harm being done is the stunted development of the child. To address this requires strength of character and the ability to speak truth. The absence of these is obliviousness and denial; the refusal to face hard truths. That is precisely where Australia finds itself now; endless cycles of lockdown and the escalation of failed policies.
Of course, this was all precipitated by our Devouring Mother: the US empire. Although the US empire runs mostly on “soft power”, every now and then things get real. Thus, Australia had to follow the US into the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars and now we have followed the US into the corona quagmire. The freedoms we thought we had were the freedoms that American citizens have and that are transmitted to us through US culture. But, as Robin Boyd noted, we have done nothing to earn them. And maybe we don’t really believe in them. What we believe in is “safety” at all costs. We continue on a cycle of doubling down on error all while there is zero public discussion about any alternative. This is all while it’s becoming as plain as day that the vaccines will not save us either in literal or political terms. How are our politicians going to get out of this when it becomes clear the vaccines don’t really work? Having spent so long terrifying the population into submission about the virus, how are they going to allow borders to re-open and “cases” to rise? Having shown zero leadership so far and apparently zero ability to predict what is coming, do they have a Plan B to fall back on? If not, it may very well be that Australia simply continues on the current path and keep the borders closed for many years. A lot will depend on what happens in the upcoming northern winter.
History has a sense of irony. The country has returned to our roots. The isolationism, conformism and parochialism are back. Maybe in some sense they never really went away. They were just hidden beneath the veneer of neoliberal globalism. It may very well be that Australians have grasped this fact at some level. We were one of the most enthusiastic supporters of that doctrine. Our behaviour is perhaps partly driven by the genuine uncertainty of what lies ahead. We watched on as Brexit and Trump happened and shook our heads. But these were harbingers of what we now see. We’ve all heard about the border wall between the US and Mexico. But border walls are going up in Europe now too. Neoliberal globalism seems to be evaporating right before our very eyes. Where does that leave Australia? I’m not sure we know and certainly nobody is talking about it. Dissenting voices are not allowed at the best of times in Australia and with corona they have been completely smothered. For that reason, I expect Australia will have to wait for other countries to show us the way forward. Just as we have had to wait for other countries to deliver us the magical vaccine which is the non-solution to our situation. And, finally, we will have to wait, probably decades or more, before Australian culture in whatever form it eventually takes can break free of the dependency we have on “international western culture”. Only once the US empire, our Devouring Mother, has retreated and we stand exposed to the world on equal terms will such a culture have a chance to develop. I used to think that time was far off in the future but it may be much closer that we think.
All posts in this series:-