Island continent

Sydney, hemmed in by mountains, bays and national parks is slightly more urban – four and eight times less dense respectively. And they live in houses made from a hybrid of the balloon frame, so flimsy that the whole house shakes when a door slams. As if they did not intend to stay. Though spread in this way, given half a chance the population congregate in Breughelesque proximity on beaches, in football stadiums, in caravan parks, at fireworks displays and at festivals – of which the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is the most watched and thronged.

Observers have often noticed the desperation behind this flocking. Most trenchant was D.H. Lawrence, whose novel Kangaroo (1922) – begun on a boat trip from Perth around the south coast to Sydney, and completed in a southern beach resort – records a proto-fascist political movement long dismissed as a fantasy by Australia’s liberal elite. Ironically, proof that he was writing about observed fact coincided with the emergence (in the late 1970s) of neo ‘Federation Style’ as the prevailing form of speculative housing, a style dimly resonant of the arts and crafts design current when Australia federated in 1902. This fashion displaced the optimistic modernism of the post-war years with its butterfly pitch roofs and glazed walls, and was followed within a decade by the political reality it foreshadowed – a retrospective conservatism.

Australian life seems to sit uneasily on the rim of the continent, exploiting the interior ruthlessly and looking out to sea in denial. So brutal is the exploitation that the Murray Darling basin, a river system as large as Charlemagne’s kingdom, is in ecological distress. And the rate of forest clearance in Australia today outstrips that in Brazil. Europeans are drawn to the vast spaces of the continent, and to a romantic myth about indigenous culture that the social and political reality of Aboriginal life do not in any way support. All too often the characteristic interaction between people here was foreshadowed in the events following the wreck of the Batavia on the north-west coast, even before the continent became a penal colony. Religious zealotry divided the survivors so that they perished, not from a lack of food or water, but from a lack of trust in each other.

Why is this so difficult to spot at first hand? Partly because settlement here is so thinly spread that there are always small ventures towards ethical engagements with this actuality that counter the perverse rearward vision spawned by the fearful mindset of the mainstream. Sometimes this is geographically distinct – in the last century South Australia led the way with universal suffrage, including women and Aboriginals. This state has been in the hands of conservatives for over a generation now, and it haemorrhages its young. But there is another demographic at work. Australian cities differ radically from the American cities that they sometimes resemble superficially. Australia is part of the Pax Americana, and has been so since General Macarthur announced on a railway platform south of the Flinders Ranges while changing trains from one gauge of track to another: ‘I have come out of Bataan, and I shall return.’ (20 March, 1942, Terowie, South Australia). And it does look a lot like it. An American benefactress remarked of Melbourne that it had really come on in the world in the last decade, with a skyline that now resembled Denver! Indeed Melbourne and Chicago were boom towns together, and they ran a parallel race for the tallest buildings in the world in times when elevators rose to twelve stories. But the resemblance is skin-deep.

There is no doughnut-effect. Journeys to work average twenty minutes, even in cities with freeways. If you take a classical Chrystaller and Lorsch density cone from the centre of the city – sometimes ‘centres’ – you find that property values, wealth and education are concentrated at the core, and diminish as the lattice spreads out to the fringe. There are then small blips of similar concentrations spread through the landscape, usually associated with the accumulation of wealth in previous generations, or dependant on tourism. People with PhDs live in the inner city, as do republicans, people who believe in an active engagement with Asia, and so on. So as you drive through Australia, you drive in and out of mental spaces that are deeply opposed to each other, and as geographically striated as the most startling of those red mountains. This of course is a complete inversion of what space-deprived Europeans imagine. They forget that open spaces do not create open minds. In fact, the anti-refugee politics are played out to an audience nearly 50 per cent of whom have no tertiary education, have never left Australia, and live a few kilometres from where they were born. This is where the problems of a commodity economy validate a politics of fear.

So it is that the world economic order impacts in contours across this enormous landscape. As trade liberalization debilitates a domestic economy that was created ‘on the sheep’s back’ and shifts the manufacturing out into Asia – those who benefit are the urbanites who sell their services into the global net. They live in the cities that vie with each other to attract the educated elite that sustains such trading. Variously these cities claim to be ‘the world’s most livable city’. So, while rainforest is bulldozed to make way for beef, Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney build Parks, Olympic Facilities, Art Centres. All that the European has a surfeit of.

And that nagging feeling that the Euro-intellectual has that this is a game that doesn’t need to be replayed? That is fair enough except that it is being played. And we have to say: step back and consider the history of such games. New York was first a Dutch city. So Dutch that – as Koolhaas famously demonstrates – the settlers determined to dig a canal through the bedrock, because it could not be a city without a canal. Australian rivers are in trouble because they did not conform to European notions of what it is to be a river. What the settlers found were strange strings of ‘billabongs’ that only became a full-fledged river when flooded by the erratic rains of this most arid of continents. So they dynamited them into continuously flowing waterways and began the process of debasement.

What is the internal myth that turns so few people into so large a threat? (On a refugee per capita basis Australia has taken in fewer refugees than tiny Singapore.) To understand the fear that has been exploited by a very unscrupulous group of politicians, you have to work towards an internal vision being played out on this thin crust of earth. A vision of ‘sameness of origins’ that seems to circulate around cricket and the queen in a spiral of English denial of the intellectual life. This government is trying to keep Australia out of the migration of peoples that is, it seems, the next phase of globalization. It is clinging to a vision of the nation state that is at odds with the world governance system that has been fitfully evolving since the first abortive attempt of the League of Nations, a vision eloquently described in the novels of Australian writer Frank Moorhouse. Soon the developed world, not least fortress Europe, will be in a race for skilled migrants. Alas, as Paul Kelly of the national paper The Australian notes, the race – who gets the skilled, who is left with the rump – is to the swift.

So it is that cricket-loving suburbanites are comfortable with a policy that locks people away in remote places for indeterminate times leading to scenes of desperation that are disturbing to about half of the population, self-justifying to the rest. The Chilean expatriate artist, Juan Davila, has documented Australia’s political excesses with the same remorseless eye that prompted him to flee Chile. He has relentlessly exposed the commercial exploitation of Aboriginal Art. He has depicted the sexual hypocrisy of a country in which love between men has so often been the only love available, puncturing the self-importance of governors who did one thing in the bush, another in the city. He depicts the blatant venality of premiers and prime ministers in a country in which a term in office is still one of the surest routes to economic security. In his recent ‘Woomera’ exhibition, inspired by the infamous detention centre of that name, he depicted a naked detainee lying on a mattress, his lips sewn together. In another image, the Prime Minister, a manic Wizard of Oz in a conical hat has blood, not oil dripping from his hands. Fanciful? This is the man who, for political gain, used the lie that refugees would drown their own children to gain access to Australia. On talk-back radio a caller referred to Goebel’s similar claims about the Jews – claims a thousand years old with no shred of evidence on any occasion. Only an anti-intellectual with no sense of history could enter into such vicious fantasy worlds. Yellow Brick Road it is, this fantasy world that these sport-loving leaders inhabit, while the oldest continent erodes a little faster into the oceans, thanks to a continuing lack of care beyond the well-watered turf of sports fields and golf courses.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, mathematicians speculate about the endless universe in an emerging reconciliation between Relativity and Quantum Theory. But that won’t impact on the cricket will it? And if we build a wall around ourselves, we here can be happy, can’t we? Even if outside they starve, even if in our detention centres run by a private company, tellingly named ‘Australian Protective Services’, there is an awful erosion of hope. At the opening of Davila’s ‘Woomera’ exhibition, detainee advocate Julian Birnside quoted from a letter of despair from an inmate: ‘In a zoo the people are on the outside looking in. Here at Woomera, the animals are on the outside looking in.’

Racism only ends when all the borders between countries are removed. As long as there is a single border anywhere on earth, we are manufacturing otherness. Not us-ness. Only by taking away the borders can we create space that can be properly enjoyed.
Montage attractions à la Eisenstein
I don’t like ‘Australia’,
Time to confess abhorrence for nation-building.
Don’t like ‘Holland’ either.
Except for some rooms, some dikes, some people.
Maybe that is the way it goes.
Like and love some people, some places, some of the time.
Stuck with the family all of the time.
Walking into that room, filled with art people and lawyers
(they buy pictures don’t they?)
through the hairs on my neck, I become aware of a gaze.
Turning I find that it is from
that sharp-featured, close-cropped waiter who,
wearing a tightly-wound white apron,
I sometimes watch at Luxe,
or dressed in motorbike leathers
talking to Danny at Café Racer.
He is staring. Behind me
lies a naked man, his lips sewn together.
Men in suits converse.
A false bonhomie erupts into stifled laughter as the lawyer says that he does not wish to speak as a lawyer
And someone interjects:
‘Because he isn’t being paid enough!’
But he reads tales of despair that silence the room,
make this the worst jest of the year.
Our eyes meet, the waiter’s and mine, and I turn away.
He swims away easily through this crowd.
I am buttonholed by a bouffant theoretician who thinks
an analysis of the design of detention centres
might demonstrate their evil.
Maybe he will be at dinner?
No. She will.
I find I cannot do a polite social event after this fare.
And drive home alone in this, the world’s most livable city.

Leon van Schaik is Pro Vice Chancellor and Professor of Architecture at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).