Update From The Road, Part 2

Sydney Opera House - steps and sails in the sunlight - SJH

A political union which might actually work

As day 57 of our slow-motion American migration (by way of Southeast Asia and Australasia) draws to a close, I thought it was about time for another brief update from the road.

After a frenetic, exhilarating time in Singapore (don’t go there without visiting  Liao Fan Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle, the cheapest Michelin-starred lunch you will ever eat, clocking in at about $1.50 USD) and an alternately wonderful and frustrating couple of weeks in Bali, we finally made it to Australia. We began in Melbourne, which the coffee snob in me enjoyed very much and which generally validates everything you read about Melbourne being one of the most liveable cities in the world, and then flew up to Sydney for five days, and now on to Cairns. I write this evening from the dining table in our motel room in Port Douglas.

Country highlights thus far would have to include the Great Ocean Road heading north from Melbourne, with its views of the majestic coastline and powerful sea. Also the private wildlife tour we took out of Sydney, in which we spotted a variety of birds, koalas, wombats, kangaroos, wallabies, a couple of (thankfully) baby huntsman spiders and a vain search for a platypus. My highlight, though, has to be the Sydney Opera House. This marvel was of course bound to tick all of my boxes as a classical music and opera-loving architecture geek, and the behind-the-scenes tour was fascinating. The sweeping beauty of the modernist architecture and the ingenuity of its construction make the building fully deserving of its status as a UNESCO world heritage site. It is the kind of building which, having beholden it, makes one feel sad that one can never again encounter it for the first time. Sadly there were no performances of interest scheduled while we were in town, but visiting the building was pleasure enough on this trip.

What a fantastic place is Australia. Those who know me personally probably grew tired of my pre-trip jokes about how I fully expected one or other of the many terrifying creatures which inhabit Australia to kill me, but the truth is that I have been very taken with this country since arriving a couple of weeks ago. The similarities to Britain are, as you might expect, almost too numerous to list, though there are also important and valuable differences too.

The spoken English and many of the idioms used here are of course easily recognisable and understandable by most Brits – we attended a show at the Sydney Comedy Festival a few nights ago, and while my wife (a Texan) struggled in some places to follow along, I was able to do so without effort. Much of the free-to-air television seems to consist of either old British shows from the 1990s (lots of Inspector Morse) or reality TV format exports, while the shorter store opening hours – many stores seem to shut up shop not long after 6pm, even in the cities – also resemble Britain prior to New Labour, circa 1996. Many UK businesses and brands have a visible presence here. The food is also very similar to that of Britain. Neither country really have a national cuisine as such; Australians may claim to produce superior meat pies or fish and chips, but after extensive personal research I can confirm that in reality it is pretty much a draw on that front.

We had the pleasure of visiting friends from London who moved to Sydney for work a couple of years ago, and it was interesting to hear anecdotes revealing their positive and negative experiences. Both found it very easy to make the transition from working in London to working in Sydney, not just because working culture is similar in the two cities but primarily because the general culture is so similar. Australians tend to be a little more direct and confrontational where necessary – much less British passive aggressiveness here – and in parts of Sydney there is a kind of health and body-obsessed vanity which those who know such things compare to the culture in Los Angeles, but overall there are few impediments save financial cost and homesickness which would stop any Brit from packing up and transporting their lives to Australia with relative ease. Well, aside from the points-based immigration system, of course.

All of which naturally led me to think about culture, national identity and the argument from Remainers in Britain that the UK has so much in common with our European friends and allies that a supranational political union is harmless at worst, and most likely deeply desirable. One need only spend half a day in Australia to realise that if there was to be a culturally viable supranational political union it would be between countries like Britain and Australia, with their deeply rooted shared history and multilayered cultural connections, than our closest geographic neighbours, dear and valued friends though they are.

The language barrier is the obvious issue, though far from the only one. For a supranational political union to work, there has to be a cohesive and willing demos to give the political institutions legitimacy – or at least a desire among the people to forge such a multinational demos and meld themselves into it. Without a shared language, this is an almost impossible task. Even conversational or business knowledge of another language can be insufficient to forge the kind of understanding and close relationships needed on a wide scale for people to see themselves as a single body. Being able to order food in a restaurant or even participate in a business meeting in a second language is often not enough, particularly when so few are likely to do the latter relative to total population size.

Rage against human nature all you want, but successful political systems and settlements are those which work with human nature rather than against it – capitalism being the prime example, harnessing individual self-interest and leveraging it in the ultimate service of the greater good. Supranational political union without consultation and consent is as doomed to failure as socialism, as both demand that human nature subordinate itself totally and unquestioningly to Utopian political theory.

If supranational political union is the goal – and to be clear, I’m not necessarily advocating this – it would be most likely to work where countries already share a language, a similar system of government and laws, numerous cultural references and deep links at all levels of society, not just between post-national elites. In other words, between countries like Britain and Australia (and most likely New Zealand and Canada too, though I shall have to confirm this as the grand tour winds its way toward America).

Those who say that Britain is so culturally aligned with Europe that we inevitably and rightfully belong in the EU’s political union find themselves not only delusional but also caught in a pincer movement by cold, hard reality. On one hand, there is the stubborn fact that ties of history, language and culture bind us much more strongly to the Commonwealth Anglosphere than to Spain or Germany, and on the other hand there is the fact that while “citizen of the world” post-national elites and knowledge workers may increasingly share a common culture and tastes, this emerging culture is itself global, not parochially European. A digital marketing executive from Bangkok or a hipster from Melbourne is likely to have as much in common with their British counterparts than mainland European, and in the latter’s case

I am presently reading “The People vs Democracy” by Yascha Mounk, himself no populist rabble-rouser, and even Mounk admits:

After a few months of living in England, I began to recognize that the differences between British and German culture were much deeper than I had imagined. They were also more wide-ranging. Far from being confined to food or language, they extended to humor and temperament, to personal outlook and collective values.

After college, when I spent more time in Italy, and then in France, I came to the same conclusion all over again. The residents of various European countries were much more attached to their national cultures, and much more resistant to thinking of themselves primarily as Europeans, than I had wanted to believe.

Again, Mounk is no Brexit apologist or excuse-maker for populism, but unlike many Remainers in Britain he is at least willing to change his assessment based on cold, hard reality and observance of human nature. EU defenders seem more determined than ever to ignore such qualitative facts, seemingly because unlike warnings of forthcoming economic doom, vital cultural issues cannot be so easily added up in an Excel spreadsheet and then pasted into an alarmist infographic to be shared on social media.

The furious insistence that Britain is culturally European and thus destined for political union centred in Brussels is primarily an elite phenomenon, and therefore a marginal viewpoint. If one has the money and inclination to ski in France or cycle in Italy every year, one is far more likely to perceive closer ties and similarities between Britain and Europe than exist on the macro level – and I say this as someone who has travelled a fair deal in Europe including four consecutive summer vacations in Santorini, Greece. While I love the Greek people and their culture, and readily acknowledge many similarities and crossovers with my own, I am deluding myself if I tell myself and others that the shared culture of Britain and Greece is more or equally capable of supporting political union than the shared cultural heritage of Britain and Australia.

For the final time, this is not to suggest that Britain and Australia do form such a union, or that the wildest dreams of the CANZUK fanclub be pursued – there is no real economic case, only a slender geopolitical one and very little mainstream interest for such a radical move in any of the concerned countries. The point is merely that if a political union were to be attempted, its chances of success would be infinitely higher among the Commonwealth Anglosphere than it is among the far more heterogenous countries of Europe.

And yet this does not stop the Remainers, with their endless tropes about the dangers of “going it alone” in the world and the evil “British exceptionalism” which leads us to believe we are somehow “better” than our continental European allies. They would struggle manfully against human nature right to the bitter end, furiously clinging to their dream of a supranational European government and political union, all the while ignoring the only kind of deep political union which might potentially work.

Brexiteers are often accused of a pig-headed refusal to engage with facts and deal with empirical reality, a charge which is frankly often deserved in the case of truculent leading hard Brexiteers who haven’t made the first effort to properly acquaint themselves with the details (or even the basics) of international trade and regulation, or who see Brexit not as a constitutional or technocratic challenge/opportunity but rather as nothing more than an exciting new front in their ongoing culture war.

But having now spent time in Australia and witnessed the degree to which cultural similarities with Britain are of such an entirely different (and higher) order than exists between the UK and most EU member states, I see that there is far greater pig-headed stubbornness on the other side – a stubbornness which is far less forgivable since its bearers love to portray themselves as highly educated disciples of reason, and have persisted in their delusion for so much longer.

 

Sydney Harbour Bridge at dusk - SJH

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On Loyalty and Anzac Biscuits

The British coalition government continues to act in an entirely clueless and dysfunctional way when it comes to planning the events to commemorate the upcoming centenary of the First World War. In addition to beginning a pointless and unnecessary argument about why the war was fought, the government has seemingly now decided that it will be beneficial to snub Australia and New Zealand by minimising the contribution that they made to the Allied war effort.

Apparently Australia and New Zealand don't count.
Apparently Australia and New Zealand don’t count.

The Telegraph reports:

The latest row follows a briefing to Australian journalists by Whitehall officials that no events were being planned to mark their country’s contribution and that internal discussions on the plans do not mention Australia or New Zealand. The briefing disclosed, instead, that officials were concentrating on promoting the role played by so-called New Commonwealth countries, those which achieved independence since 1945.

The countries singled out for promotion were India, Bangladesh and Nigeria, along with other west African nations. The reports state that this is to promote “community cohesion” in the UK.

This is unacceptable.

It’s one thing to foolishly overlook an arcane point when conducting international diplomacy, but that is not what we are talking about here. It seems instead that the government has taken a deliberate decision to snub two of our closest allies and Commonwealth partners, and then to brief the precise details of this snubbing to the press. A greater diplomatic faux-pas and insult to our friends can scarcely be imagined.

16,000 Australians and 18,000 New Zealanders gave their lives in support of the Allied cause in World War 1. This, to me, is not a contribution of blood and treasure that can justifiably be overlooked for any reason.

Let us compare this brazen ingratitude and ignorance on the part of some within the British government with the words of the Australian Minister for Defence at the outbreak of war in 1914:

“Australia will recognise that she is not merely a fair-weather partner of the Empire, but a competent member in all circumstances.”

And the Leader of the Opposition, Andrew Fisher:

“Should the worst happen, after everything has been done that honour will permit, Australians will stand beside the mother country to help defend her to our last man and our last shilling.”

And, most poignantly, the Treasurer, Sir John Forest:

“If Britain goes to her Armageddon, we will go with her. Our fate and hers, for good or ill, are as woven threads.”

If it is the honest view of the British government that social cohesion in our country is so bad that we now need to snub some of our closest friends and allies in order to curry favour with any particular group for the ominous and opaque purpose of “community cohesion” then we should all be a lot more worried about the true state of our nation.

As a long-time lover of Anzac biscuits and someone who cares deeply about Britain’s international relations and wants to see Britain nurture its relationships with proven and time-tested allies, especially those with whom we share such obvious historical and cultural bonds, I hope that a swift apology and a 180 degree U-turn on this foolish and gravely insulting stance to be quickly and publicly forthcoming from the government.

Given the government’s recent ability to shoot itself in the foot, however, I hold out limited hope.

On Information Asymmetry

Well said by Julian Assange in this video clip, on the topic of information asymmetry, the media-ocracy and the media elites who encourage or engage in “lively debate” within such narrow boundaries that the outcome of each political battle is, these days, almost entirely inconsequential:

 

We need only look at how fiercely the 2010 British general election was fought over tiny differences in the preferred trajectory of increased government spending as proof of this.

Assange has now founded the WikiLeaks party in Australia, where he has several candidates contending for seats in parliament. Some recent polls suggest that 26 percent of Australians are strongly considering voting for a a WikiLeaks party candidate.

“Readers by definition are ignorant. We read to quench our ignorance. Readers, in effect, are easy prey for newspapers and the people that own them. Newspapers have a knowledge advantage, an information asymmetry. They know what readers don’t know yet, but want to know. And so they can distort the news or even invent it.” – Julian Assange

Drama in Australia – Kevin Rudd Returns – Julia Gillard Out

An evening of political intrigue and drama tonight in Australia, in what The Guardian describes as “an unprecedented day of political bloodletting in Canberra”:

The day of high drama began in the morning, when supporters of Rudd, who had advocated his return to the leadership for the past three years of the hung parliament, began circulating a petition to try to force a contest in this, the last sitting week of parliament before the September election.

Within hours, Gillard went on the attack and made the decision to hold a snap vote on her position. “It is in the best interest of the nation and the Labor party for this to be resolved,” she said. “This is it. There are no more opportunities, tonight’s the night.”

Wednesday’s change of leader follows months of speculation, during which Gillard made clear she would not stand down despite opinion polls that repeatedly showed Rudd to be the more popular leader.

With the party’s support dwindling to about 30%, and the prospect of Labor losing at least half of its parliamentary seats, she stood firm while Rudd’s backers plotted.

After enduring near continual speculation about her grip on the Labor party leadership, very troubling polling numbers heading into the coming general election, and several very unpleasant personal attacks from people who should know better and be ashamed of themselves, Prime Minister Julia Gillard called a snap leadership election of the Federal Labor Party – and lost convincingly to longtime rival and former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Gillard was, of course, the first woman prime minister of Australia, and her notable achievements include guiding the Australian economy relatively unscathed through what has been a torrid economic period for most western countries, enacting educational reform, improving foreign relations with the US, China and India and starting a crackdown on child sexual abuse in institutional settings, a problem that has plagued many countries.

Kevin Rudd’s eloquent and moving resignation speech following his loss of the Labor Party leadership to his then-deputy, Julia Gillard, in June 2010:

 

And Julia Gillard having to give way under much the same circumstances in June 2013:

 

Certainly a remarkable comeback for Kevin Rudd following once-abysmal personal polling numbers, several abortive attempts at a comeback and two separate efforts by fellow Labor colleagues to draft him back as leader.

But what is perhaps most remarkable are the anti Tony Abbott sentiments expressed by so many of the Labor party politicians who have been commenting on television today, from Kevin Rudd on downwards. Indeed, some parliamentarians and even cabinet members seem to have been willing to fall on their swords and potentially risk the wrath of the electorate and their colleagues not just to bolster Labor’s chances of clinging to power in the coming election, but more to deny Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party (currently surging in the polls) the chance to form a new government.

There are significant fears that an Abbott government would implement austerity measures similar to those enacted to such remarkable and stimulative effect in the United Kingdom, and the prevailing opinion is that Labor can best mitigate their losses at the coming election under the leadership of Kevin Rudd rather than Julia Gillard.

The two leaders seem to have very different leadership styles; it remains to be seen whether Rudd will have time to stamp his authority on his restive party and turn the polls around before the general election.

UPDATE – Kevin Rudd’s remarks to young people at the end of his brief speech to the media, his apology for the low skulduggery of politics that has alienated many young voters and promise to do better, was a nice touch.

UPDATE 2 – The Telegraph reminds us that the current constitutional settlement in Australia is far from satisfactory. Without making any comment on whether Australia should retain the Queen as Head of State or become a Republic, it is clear that an appointee from London should not be making decisions in another countries’ internal political affairs:

But Mr Rudd’s return as Labor leader leaves serious questions about Australia’s immediate political future. Labor holds power in a hung parliament, so Mr Rudd’s leadership win does not automatically mean he will become prime minister. The matter may need to be decided by the Governor-General, Quentin Bryce; complicating the matter further, her daughter is married to a senior minister, Bill Shorten, who openly supported Mr Rudd’s leadership bid.

Disaster averted on this particular occasion, but someone might want to consider tinkering with the rules and the Constitution some time soon before we risk ending up in hot water.