Couth about Down Under

Culture in Australia
August 23, 2002

It is likely that many people perusing this review will begin with a reflexive snigger at the book's title - much as an Australian reader might upon spotting a review of a volume called Dental Hygiene in Britain . It would be difficult to begrudge such merriment. It will certainly be the only laugh anyone ever gets out of this turgid collection of essays - even for people with a deep interest in Australian issues, Culture in Australia would scarcely be less digestible if they ate it instead of reading it.

The 16 exhaustive, and exhausting, articles compiled in the book are divided into three sections: "Policy and industry contexts", "Australian culture and its publics" and "Programs of cultural diversity". Most are merely tedious and pointless. More gratifying are the contributions that are actually irritating, as they at least provide a rigorous workout for one's facial muscles.

Especially noteworthy in this respect is the appetisingly titled "Gender equity, hegemonic masculinity and the governmentalisation of Australian amateur sport". This argues that womens' sporting prowess in Australia is undermined by an instinctual patriarchal conspiracy. It is not made clear whether or not this is the same instinctual patriarchal conspiracy that can lead four male academics to compose a treatise on gender and sport in Australia that fails to mention the Aboriginal sprinter and Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman - who is one of Australia's most potent and adored icons.

Freeman's name does appear later in the book, but it is indicative of this dreary enterprise that it is not by way of celebration of her accomplishments as an athlete, but as part of the introduction to the "Programs of cultural diversity" section. This last third of the book is relatively interesting in that it examines the issues that have sparked Australia's rare non-sporting forays into the global consciousness in the past few years: immigration, multiculturalism, and the relationship between modern Australia and the descendants of its original inhabitants.

The book was compiled before prime minister John Howard made his cynical and repellent pre-election stand on boat-borne Asian refugees - he did not seem nearly so concerned about British backpackers overstaying their visas - and before much international attention was paid to his ghastly desert gulags for asylum seekers. However, Australia's contradictions in this area are maddeningly consistent: a largely content melting-pot society that is capable of monstrous xenophobia, an overwhelmingly immigrant population that is overwhelmingly resistant to immigration, a government in love with its national mythology that does not want to discuss one particular aspect of its national history.

James Jupp's "Multiculturalism" provides a serviceable history of the term in the Australian context, and offers the faintest of hints about the passions it arouses: while making the point that the rabble-rousing jackasses who host Australia's depressingly influential radio talk shows complain of suppression as their ignorant ravings reach millions, he even unleashes an exclamation mark.

Chris Healy's "Heritage and culture" further examines a common preoccupation of the Australian right - what Howard himself described as "black armband history". This is the theoretically diverting but practically preposterous view, by no means unique to Australia, that white western society owes reparations to vaguely defined groups of people who may have been somehow hurt by its progress. In Australia the phrase has been used by Howard to dismiss those who would like him, as head of government, to apologise for the dispossession and subsequent persecution of Australia's Aboriginals. "I believe," he once droned, "that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement."

Howard is right about this - even a stopped clock is right twice a day - but Healy does not let him wriggle off the hook that easily. In one fell sentence, Howard is pinned neatly to the deck: "This is a classic example of the divisive logic at the heart of Howard's historically shifty vision of both politics and heritage, either heroic or disgraceful, certainly not both and other things besides." One can only applaud, even as one regrets the lack of such bite and wit elsewhere in the book.

The rest of Culture in Australia may have some pertinent and provocative points to make, but it will take a determined reader to find out; every page is thickly laden with sentences more forbidding than those handed down to Australia's first reluctant European settlers. It is a shame, as modern Australia is a target-rich environment for the inquisitive essayist - a fact proved annually by Peter Craven's reliably engaging The Best Australian Essays compilation. Those responsible for any future editions of Culture in Australia could do worse than take a look at one of these collections, and accordingly stir a bit of style into their content.

Andrew Mueller is a London-based freelance journalist born in Australia.

Culture in Australia: Policies, Publics and Programs

Editor - Tony Bennett and David Carter
ISBN - 0 521 80290 3 and 004039
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £47.50 and £17.95
Pages - 364

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