Speech: Book Launch - Stranded Nation by David Walker

27 June 2019

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet and pay my respects to their elders past and present.

It’s appropriate, I think, at the launch of a book like this to accompany this acknowledgement with an aspiration to reconcile what in the 2018 Lowitja O’Donoghue Oration, Noel Pearson called...

.. the ‘Three stories that make us one’ as Australians: ‘the Ancient Indigenous Heritage which is its foundation, the British Institutions built upon it, and the adorning Gift of Multicultural Migration’.

This is of course the core of what David’s books are really about.

On its face, David’s scholarship has explored Australian attitudes to Asia..

But we understand that these attitudes tell us more about ourselves, as Australians, than they tell us about our neighbours in the near north.

David’s subject matter is really the way we perceive ourselves as a nation and as Australians, rather than the way we perceive anyone else.

Despite the despairing status of our politics, ideas continue to be a far greater influence on our politicians and our governments than is cynically assumed.

As Keynes wrote in his ‘General Theory’

‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood.

Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.

Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas… soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.’

Keynes singled out economists and political philosophers as the ‘academic scribblers’ enslaving the ‘madmen in authority’ but I’m sure he would have included historians as contributing to the ‘voices in the air’ influencing political figures.

As David rightly notes in Stranded Nation, ‘histories matter. The debates they stir are essential to cultural literacy, to the business of knowing who we are, who we want to become and how best to get there.’

The hard graft of history, of trawling through huge troves of archives in dusty, damp and dark buildings of sacrificing sunlight for days, weeks and months in the hope of finding one salient detail that might illuminate or even transform an argument – has a disproportionate impact on modern politics.

Surfacing ideas and understandings from oceans of arcane detail is a public good, the effects of which reverberate outside the ivory towers of academia.

As you know, ‘Stranded Nation: White Australia in an Asian Region’ is a follow-up to David’s landmark book ‘Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia’.

Taken together Anxious Nation and Stranded Nation show the evolution of our thinking about Asia.

In Anxious Nation, David did a wonderful job of demonstrating that Australia’s national identity was defined in the shadow of the fear of Asia.

In Stranded Nation, that anxiety does not go away, but Australian leaders start to agree on the importance of Asia for our future.

The decolonisation of Asia, the increasing reliance on the US as a security partner, and the potential of Asian nations as a trading partner, spurred our leaders to conclude we need more engagement – with decidedly mixed results.

David’s work has long been what Keynes called a ‘voice in the air’ for me – a well-thumbed and notated copy of Anxious Nation has sat on my bookshelf for many years.

The idea underpinning these books, that Australian attitudes to Asia have been a canvas on which we have sketched out our own identity was a new idea for me that that helped shape my political outlook, and later my actions as a Member of Parliament.

As David points out in Stranded Nation, I am entirely derivative in this respect.

Every generation of Australian politicians excitedly rediscovers Asia anew and uses it as a canvas to construct and project an image of themselves to their colleagues and the public.

Stranded Nation recounts that when Andrew Peacock succeeded Sir Robert Menzies in the seat of Kooyong in 1966 he took on the argument that Australians needed to know Asia better to burnish his reputation as an up-and-coming Liberal parliamentarian with leadership potential.

As David goes on to drolly note that even then “it was a proven topic for earnest statements with a visionary appeal” for Australian politicians.

So with some self-awareness, let me speak earnestly.

While Stranded Nation charts Australia’s changing attitudes towards Asian engagement from the 1930s to the 1970s – the thing that struck me the most were the things that still, today hadn’t changed.

The practical obstacles to Australia’s engagement with Asia identified by the protagonists in Stranded Nation were all too familiar to me as an MP half a century later.

The low levels of proficiency in Asian languages in Australia, the failure to teach Asian culture and history in schools, a lack of journalists posted in region, the resulting, broader ignorance of the Australian public on these issues (particularly in the business community) – are all contemporary debates.

Familiar too, was the idea that underpins much of the first part of Stranded Nation – that Australia could act as a bridge between east and west – a nation of western institutions with an understanding of Asia.

Stranded Nation highlights in great detail the enormous gulf between this vision and the reality of Australia of the time.

A gulf that is all too familiar today.

A reality in which in the 1950s – of the 176 diplomatic officers ‘six had command of Chinese, six could speak Japanese, three spoke Malay, two spoke Bahasa, one spoke Urdu and one Bengali. None spoke Thai, Burmese, Korean or Tamil. And in which only five universities offered Asian language courses

This lack of understanding of the region did not however deter attempts to influence Asian attitudes towards Australia, the subject the comprises the second part of Stranded Nation.

We were convinced that Australia was misunderstood and misrepresented in Asia, and we needed to counter the growing propaganda from Soviet Union and China in the 1950s that depict the West as decadent and racist.

Indeed, as Davide writes, ‘Image-building projects in Asia were generally much better funded than programs designed to expand Australian knowledge of Asia. The real imperative was to change those supposedly ill-conceived Asian beliefs, often attributed to a regrettable ‘emotionalism’.

Initiatives like the Colombo Plan, an increased role for Radio Australia, the Asian-Australian magazine, Hempisphere, a plan to distribute thousands of cheap books portraying Australia in a pleasant light and an Asian Visitors program designed to bring journalists and people of influence from across Asia to our shores were all deployed in an effort to portray Australia as a ‘good neighbour’ without racial animus.

As someone who has participated in a few overseas delegations myself, I particularly enjoyed the first-hand accounts of the Asian visitor programs.

The programs were often comically misguided and were perhaps most successful in showing the visitors Australians ignorance of Asia. Groups comprising visitors taken from across Asia, with little in common other than their non-white ethnicity were taken to Rotary Club luncheons across the nation, memorable for all the wrong reasons.

As David writes, ‘Food was a persistent concern, particularly when Australians thought they would surprise and delight their visitors by serving something ‘Asian’. Asian food meant curry. When Canon Adams’ wife prepared a Malayan version of this dish for her visitors, no member of the party was able to identify what it was.’

As Stranded Nation makes clear, these initiatives were generally met with ‘a mixture of polite scepticism and outright disbelief.’

As a 1950 Time Magazine article summed up the principle obstacle to their plausibility:

‘in its self-consciously white isolation, Australia was long cooly scornful of its yellow-skinned Asiatic neighbours. But for the past few years, Australia’s foreign policy towards its neighbours has become warm and friendly. This has brought a new embarrassment: Australia’s immigration barriers are scarcely in keeping with its posture of neighbourliness.’

And this was the nub – the period of our history traced by Stranded Nation finds an Australia forced by changing external circumstances to seek more favourable relations with its neighbours, but still utterly resistant to any form of change or even self-reflection itself.

Most Australians of this time were untroubled by the cognitive dissonance of their own belief in themselves as a hospitable and friendly people without any form of racial animus, and their parallel belief in an immigration system committed to preserving a white Australia.

Part three of Stranded Nation gives centre stage to the voices who were increasingly calling out this contradiction in form of the first-hand accounts of prominent Asian visitors to Australia of the time.

India’s High Commissioner to Australia and New Zealand, General KM Cariappa, cuts a striking figure amongst this group, but despite these voices, most Australians were not yet ready to listen for the majority of the time surveyed in Stranded Nation.

It’s a common theme of Stranded Nation – an Australia certain of itself and talking at Asia, rather than listening, engaging and trying to understand.

We can chortle and shake our heads while reading about the culinary naivety of the Asian visitors programs.

But how far have we really advanced from this?

In November of last year, Prime Minister Morrison welcomed the Indian President, Ram Nath Kovind to Australia with a speech that included a metaphor about a recipe for a better Australia-India relationship.

In telling the audience about his own curry making expertise, he concluded, ‘I look forward to adding the onions, the garlic, the chilli, the chicken’.

The only problem being that President Ram Nath Kovind a strict vegetarian and is known for his preference for bland foods.

More recently, when the Morrison government assembled a ‘high-calibre advisory council’ to boost Australia’s image overseas and ‘unite people behind a new identity’, every member of the group was white.

That this was noticeable as an unrepresentative anomaly offers us hope that the Australia of the future could transcend the stereotypes of the past about Asia.

As Australian Foreign Affairs highlighted in February of this year in an edition titled ‘Are We Asian Yet?’ Geography versus History’ and anchored by David’s scholarship, the Australia of today is very different to the Australia of Stranded Nation.

When Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country in 1960, just 0.26% of the Australian population were born in China or India.

Today over 13% of Australians have Asian heritage.

During the period surveyed by Stranded Nation, it was the voices of Asian visitors to Australia who helped create the external pressure needed to bring an end to discrimination in Australia’s immigration policies.

In today’s Australia, these Asian voices are Australian voices and they are asking different questions of our nation.

Increasingly they are asking why our communities look different to our institutions and national symbols.

How we have come to be a multicultural nation with monocultural leadership.

My view is that the answer to these questions lies in no small part in the history that David has collected across Anxious Nation and Stranded Nation.

While this is an unfinished story, it’s clear that we already have more than enough material for a third book on the subject!

Despite this, I have a feeling that we’ll need to be content with Stranded Nation for a while yet.

Congratulations on a magnificent book and thank you.