I had written him a letter

IF YOU'RE LOOKING for an example of how a classic literary text can speak to the present, you could hardly do better than Clancy of the Overflow. Banjo Paterson's poem of a century ago caught some Australian attitudes that are with us still. A sweet moment of the later Howard years, during the Australian Wheat Board scandal, came with the email circulation of an apt parody, Howard of the Overflow, penned I believe by a Canberra insider. It begins:

I had written him a letter, which I had, for want of better
Knowledge, sent to where I met him at the Wheat Board, years ago.
He was chairman when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him
Just on spec, to make the point that ‘Howard doesn't want to know'.

That letter, unanswered or never received; the clumsy goings on in far-off lands; the great public unknowing, through perfected bureaucratic arts of the swamp (now known as wetlands) and sinkhole (review, inquiry, commission) – the old poem allows for it all in its wistful option of riding off into a neverland where accountability is left behind. The lone male drover survives as a fantasy of settler mythology, the one who doesn't settle, the man on a journey to a void beyond communication and constraint. But for me the poem also comes to mind whenever I reflect on Australia's attempts to engage in cultural dialogue with the outside world. The same attitudes often apply, of sending out a missive, just on spec, and then just waiting. Here's how the original goes:

I had written him a letter which I had, for want of better
Knowledge, sent to where I met him down the Lachlan, years ago,
He was shearing when I knew him, so I sent the letter to him,
Just ‘on spec', addressed as follows, ‘Clancy, of The Overflow'.

And an answer came directed in a writing unexpected,
(And I think the same was written with a thumb-nail dipped in tar)
'Twas his shearing mate who wrote it, and verbatim I will quote it:
‘Clancy's gone to Queensland droving, and we don't know where he are.'

As inveterate travellers, contemporary Australians follow this old pattern. We accept that if we want to connect with someone or something out there, we have to go looking ourselves, because they won't come to us. But girt and insulated by sea and immensity as we are, we readily retreat into a position where it doesn't matter if the connection with the rest of the world drops out.

Having adapted ourselves to the tyranny of distance, we can hide behind it, with the world at a comfortable remove. Perhaps we don't really want those complications in our backyard anyway. That is how it has often been. A lasting model for our relationship with other countries is one of sending things out, like the food parcels in wartime, the generous donations of foreign aid when disaster strikes overseas, the tours by sports stars and Indigenous artists and comedians that don't quite translate. It's a high-minded attempt at small-scale colonisation, a pale imitation of the loud American export of products and values. We don't always expect a reply.


IN GENERALISING IN this way about the habits of the mind that mark Australian engagements with other countries – Australia and the world, rather than Australia in the world – I know I'm traducing the many Australians everywhere who are adept, adaptive and culturally sensitive in making constructive and creative things happen, as individuals, in collaborative groups, sometimes under an official Australian banner. But my many years of involvement with cultural exchange projects where Australia participates in an international context have led me to observe certain ingrained characteristics that make us less successful than we should be in our cultural interaction with other countries.

Our international cultural relations have yet to achieve an enduring and comprehensive dynamism and depth, engaging us as we truly are in all our strength and potential. Problems include a one-way mentality; the prejudice that travel of any kind, and especially cultural travel, is a junket or a rort; the lack of commitment to mutuality, and neglect of the reciprocal responsibilities incurred in accepting hospitality; a static model of culture as akin to stamp collecting that undervalues the process itself in its fixation on econometric outcomes; a second-guessing of what others might think or want.

Above all, there is the misunderstanding of culture as a proxy for other things, when in fact it is no more or less than who and what we are. Put most bluntly, Australian cultural exchange tends to be determined by a narrow sense of benefit to Australia, rather than a long-term sense of what in time might grow from and with Australia as a contributing partner to the contemporary world's intellectual debates, social issues and creative prospects.

Does it matter? What is the evidence? Part of the mission when I worked two decades ago as cultural counsellor at the Australian Embassy in Beijing was to develop in China a more up-to-date and complex view of Australia than the kneejerk ‘big country, few people'. Whether Australia was welcoming or not to Chinese was a common question, set against the historical background of ‘white Australia'. The expanding trade in resources – coal, iron ore and other minerals, wheat and wool – only confirmed the image of Australia as a farm and a mine. We hoped to vary that.

I was struck this year, when the Australian dollar dramatically plunged as the commodities boom came to an end as part of the global financial crisis, that it was as if markets around the world had reverted to a default position – indeed, a nineteenth century British position – in relation to Australia: a farm and a mine. The rest counted for little. Similarly, a few years ago Pauline Hanson and then the Tampa could quickly revive the ‘white Australia' version in the eyes of the world. Cultural diplomacy has failed to change those readings. They persist until proven otherwise, until the exceptions don't prove the rule so much as offer a substantial alternative.

That's why it matters. To change how we are understood by the rest of the world, we must engage with the world differently.

Political scientists speak of public diplomacy, or ‘soft power', as a key means of advancing a state's strategic and geopolitical interests, its peace and prosperity. As a framework for intercultural dialogue, I would add, those arts of peace also enhance people's quality of life, creative capacity and regard. They recognise that how others value us and how we value ourselves are indivisible.

The subject came up at the 2020 Summit, when some of us gathered on the hill for an interfaith dialogue on where Australia might go. What can we do to improve Australia's creative participation in the world's conversations – intellectually, artistically, socially? The old import-export model of culture no longer applies. Nowadays, the conversations are multidirectional and interconnected in myriad, dizzying ways as ideas, words, images, things and people move and morph through spaces that are open, densely populated and largely unbounded. Our performance there, in a powerful sense, becomes our presence in the world. Everything is filtered through that.

Our presence there is not easily managed or measured, though it may be understood. In this vast, fast, crowded domain, the how can matter as much as the what. Style, but also something more indicative – like body language: knowing who we are as we are being ourselves and valuing ourselves for that. The connection between local grounding and international esteem is one of the subtlest vectors of globalisation.

Specific energies, angles and competencies confer distinction in the larger realm. In the same way, mutuality is crucial too, based on the developed familiarity with other cultures that begins with appreciation of our own cultural diversity at home. Specificity speaks to specificity. That requires conviction of the capacity of the local to be an opening to the universal, or at least a point of connection to elsewhere. Such conviction requires pride in one's own, as well as an attuned reconfiguration of its possibilities.


TO LOOK AT the larger picture, all of this is happening in an environment where the balances have changed. With the relative diminution of American superpower status, Australia's significance as an American ally and stand-in is worth proportionately less. That's another way of saying that, in our region, not only have China and India advanced to join Japan as major powers, but countries such as South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and others have become major contributors in many fields, including culture. The Australia-Korea Foundation, for example, used to have programs to advise South Koreans on their film industry. Now contemporary South Korean cinema is far more vital than Australia's. Australian contemporary art was once of interest to Chinese, now they're more interested in their own. And so on in every arena.

Australia's role as mediator for the West with Asia has faded as other Western countries have found their own ways to Asia, and as Asia itself challenges those categories in a multivalent world. In an essay in theLondon Review of Books (November 6, 2008), Pankaj Mishra charts the fortunes of George Kennan, the American diplomat and policy adviser known as the father of what became ‘soft power', a term coined decades later in 1990 by Harvard academic Joseph Nye.

In his famous ‘long telegram' of 1946, Kennan advocated an American approach of containment towards the Soviet Union that, along with military and economic measures, included a ‘third way' of public diplomacy – promoting American values in such a way that would lead to the collapse of communism under its own weight. Maybe the approach worked, though not everywhere (for example, not yet in China). Maybe it was Coca-colonisation, with Hollywood and rock'n'roll as a velvet glove for the iron fist of American imperialism. Certainly it was used cynically – nowhere more so than in the invasion of Iraq on the pretext of exporting democracy. For most of his term, George W. Bush's administration scorned soft power and any argument that the United States had lost supremacy through its hubristic handling of other states and peoples.

When Kennan died in 2005, his approach was deemed irrelevant to the contemporary world by some Washington policy-makers – though, ironically, China has become a determined practitioner of soft power, which accords with the traditional practice of guanxi¸ or relationship-building. The Europeans (Spain, for example) aren't bad either. The ‘rise of the rest' (India, China, Brazil: Mishra is quoting Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World) challenges American unipolarity.

It also presents challenges to Australia as we seek an identity for ourselves within networks of partnership where repositioning is happening all the time. In the cultural field, however, the possibilities are at their most exciting, since culture is a set of shifting energies, always creating new formations.

If Australia hopes to respond well to these opportunities, some major rethinking is needed. Some of the most telling ideas at the 2020 Summit arose in commonalities across the disparate groups. The need to improve our skill at intercultural communication, if we are to become effective global citizens in future, was a recurring theme. The group that worked on the Productivity Agenda, for instance, noted as a goal for preparation for work in future that ‘we will all need to be global (and bilingual) employees in 2020. Language training has fallen into desuetude, and we are not preparing for cultural challenges ahead, at either school or post-secondary level. We should be changing the syllabus in all areas of education to take this into consideration'. Those who considered Australia's future security and prosperity in a rapidly changing region and world had a complementary ambition: ‘Australia should be an engaged global citizen within our region through strategic integration of the study of Asian languages and societies at all levels of the education system, encouragement of Australians to live study and work in Asia, and participation in collectively addressing the common challenges of the region.' Those of us in the panel on Towards a Creative Australia had ‘soft power and cultural diplomacy' as a key theme, and plenty of related ideas came up there too.

A core suggestion was that the role and functions of the Australia Council should be expanded, or a new Australian International Council created, to promote Australian culture internationally – perhaps along the lines of the Goethe Institute or the British Council. Such a body could coordinate international cultural representation, encourage creative research and development through global collaboration and advance the internationalisation of Australian cultural industries. It might consolidate allocations currently made across varied departments and agencies, with the use of new technology as a focus. In general, it would be committed to bringing together what is currently quite scattered for sustained national benefit.

In the language of diplomacy, it would seek ways to enhance the soft power potential of Australian creative engagement in the international arena to ensure that the soft power works deep and long. The approach encompasses all levels of interaction with other countries and societies: through official agencies and public institutions, among elites and professionals, and among ordinary Australians including students of every age. It demands a strong commitment to a reciprocal understanding of other cultures if we expect them to be interested in ours, starting with understanding of the diverse communities of which we are comprised. It calls for extraordinary leadership from government, since it does not come naturally. Yet it is fundamental to our dealing with the world and the world's dealing with us. It takes much more than writing a letter to an uncertain address.

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