All in all, I have lived a charmed life.
I was too young for the last World War and listened to the evacuation of Dunkirk with my parents on the wireless. I followed the Battle of Stalingrad on a wall map, and saw the bombing of Hiroshima and the opening of the death camps at Belsen and Auschwitz from the stalls at the cinema.
I have never been shot at, napalmed, tortured, been assessed as Stateless, or pushed a handcart in the company of thousands of other terrified refugees. I have never been imprisoned in a Gulag or detention camp, or lost my family in a gas chamber. The nearest I got to combat was in 1951 during the Korean War when I did my National Service.
And my skin is White. My family were European settlers.
I once asked a good friend of mine a Hungarian Jew why he had come to Australia, and he replied, ‘It was the furthest I could get away from Europe.’
As we sip our Campari and soda in an elegant cafÃ© in Prague or admire the paintings in the Hermitage, we often forget that, 60 or so years ago, Europe was a charnel house. There was death and misery wherever one looked.
In this century, Darfur and Iraq are reminders of the conditions faced by well over half of the human race. But in Australia, we see these unpleasant things at a remove. We are ‘girt by sea.’ The results of the weekend football game, or the current interest rate are of far more relevance.
This is not to say that Australia has not been involved in war, destruction and extermination Far from it. There have been the Boer War, the Great War, World War II, Vietnam and now Iraq. (Have we killed any Iraqis? I do not know. But we are enthusiastic members of the Coalition of the Killing.)
Thanks to Sharon Raggett
Australia has always been on the winning side the ‘right’ side. At times, it has been touch and go, but we have always won through.
In the Great War of 1914-18, there was hardly an Australian family that was not touched by death or mutilation, but we have fought all the wars by proxy, as it were. With the exception of Darwin and some mini-sub action in Sydney Harbour in World War II, we have not had our homeland bombed let alone occupied. We have never had our houses burnt to the ground, or seen people hanging in the main street. In our splendid isolation, the world has passed us by.
It looks, however, that our luck and isolation may be at an end. There is a ‘ring of instability’ in the south Pacific: at least two ‘failed states’ are near at hand. There are asylum-seekers, changes in technology (Australia is now much easier to get to); and there are changes in Government policy. Under Howard and I suspect it would be the same under Beazley we see ourselves as the United States of the south Pacific.
We are adopting gunboat diplomacy. First with the Solomon Islands and now with East Timor. We are the powerful neighbour. John Howard, Brendan Nelson and the Defence Department are certainly feeling their oats. We are, as the saying goes, ‘punching well above our weight.’
(The Department of Defence now under the control of powerful bureaucrats and military men is largely beyond governmental supervision. Even some Liberal backbenchers are calling for an enquiry. But that is another story for another day.)
And then, there’s ‘the War on Terror’ another intrusion from the outside world.
Australia was first conceived of as a far-distant penal settlement, later to be followed by free settlers. It was, in European eyes, as remote and mysterious as Easter Island. Remoteness is still a factor.
Our American friends still see us as living ‘down under.’ And like most ex-colonial societies, we have always been anxious to make our mark. This is one of the reasons for our involvement, last century, in overseas wars and now Iraq. We have to prove ourselves to the world.
The relationship between John Howard and George W Bush is born of inferiority the weak and isolated playing the handmaiden to the strong. Howard will see to it that Australia is taken seriously despite being ‘down under.’ In this sense, he is like Billy Hughes at the Versailles Peace Settlement in 1919.
The people who live in Australia as outsiders are, of course, the Aborigines their society and culture atomised by European settlement and occupation. They are not concerned with mortgage rates or McMansions or corrections on the share market. The collapse of Westpoint or the death of Rene Rivkin is of little interest to Aborigines (or asylum-seekers in detention camps, for that matter).
We elderly White Australians have been indeed fortunate; living in our remote, island paradise.
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