It’s little more than a cliché to say that Australia lives out of America’s pocket.
We’ve been heavily dependent on our elder trans-Pacific cousins for so much and so long, and the traffic has mostly been one-way.
If your natural inclination is to call your glass half-full, that is if you’re optimistic by temperament, you'll probably say that on the whole, our links with the United States have been healthy and positive.
But is it fair to describe ours as a happy family relationship?
On the whole yes. There is no doubt that American involvement in the two World Wars largely contributed not only to our continued freedom but also to our present prosperity.
There is no doubt, either, that all our lives have been immeasurably enriched by the fruitful productiveness of Hollywood and Broadway. Great movies have split our sides, touched our souls, and made our hearts sing.
Political links are worth exploring too. Superficially we’re very different: the U.S. arose out of revolution, while Australia was freely given dominion status that evolved into full independence.
But some of the framers of our Constitution had republican sympathies: their principal model was the U.S. House of Representatives, and Senate.
And their choice of the word “Commonwealth” for the name of our federation was loaded. It’s the standard English translation of the Latin Res Publica.
The precedents for using it were Oliver Cromwell’s short-lived republican experiment in England (1649-60), and the formal titles of four U.S. states—the Commonwealths of Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Some Historical SimilaritiesThere are more subtle links between our two nations, including remarkable parallels between America’s “Wild West” and our own pioneering societies. Ours wasn’t merely imitative of the other either.
At the very time that American cattlemen were carving out their ranches in defiance of the claims of a brave native population with a prior claim to the land, our squatters were extending their sheep and cattle stations throughout the Australian outback, dispossessing Aboriginal tribes that had been there for thousands of years.
Both nations experienced Gold Rushes at about the same time. On opposite sides of the Pacific, two great harbour cities, Sydney and San Francisco, traded with Asia and each other, hunted the whale, and thrived on gold. There was movement in both directions.
It was an American, Freeman Cobb, who established Australia’s most famous stagecoach company: the legendary Cobb and Co. started business in Melbourne in 1853 and made its final run in Queensland as late as 1924.
The great days of adventuring by sea and on land may have passed, but Frisco and Sydney still have a special affinity—as world centres of gay pride. Is there something in the water?
The iconic “cowboy hat” with its characteristically curled brim was probably an invention of Hollywood, certainly unknown in both the American Old West and the Outback—pioneering people and gunfighters alike seem to have preferred to wear bowlers or “billycocks.” Google Butch Cassidy, Bat Masterson, or Wild Bill Hickock if you want proof of that.
How About Crime?Choice of headgear is a relatively trivial matter. Let’s turn to something of greater weight.
It’s surprisingly difficult to extract accurate crime statistics from the internet, taking into account annual and regional variations. But that America is a more violent society than ours appears incontrovertible.
The murder rate is a compelling place to start.
Conservatively, it is about six times greater overall than Australia’s. It is important to note, however, that the Australian rate is fairly consistent across the country, whereas in the U.S. there are many large urban pockets of extreme violence as well as law-abiding places of relative calm.
The enormity of the contrast makes comparisons difficult. America is a country of great extremes.
But let’s look at comparative world figures.
The violent crime rates in countries like Mexico, Venezuela, South Africa, and Congo (to choose randomly), offer a stark perspective.
Sydney is a safer city than New York, but the difference is in percentage points, not light years.
Australia’s Older CousinHere’s perhaps the major difference between us: we were inured to fire and flood and drought, but largely innocent of war—until Gallipoli. As apprentices, we were relatively passive learners, and America, at least as much as Great Britain, was our teacher.
It’s in our modest passivity that the worst consequences of the close alliance with America appear.
Never quite comprehending the extreme diversity of the United States, we suffer a kind of cultural myopia.
We struggled to understand America’s diversity of opinion.
Prohibition was a mystery to us.
Our TV stations parrot the worst of U.S. media trends and ignore some of the best. We took the term “First Nations” from North America and tried, unsuccessfully in my view, to make it fit.
We never really grasped the pull that Donald Trump had on half the U.S. population, so that when COVID hit we swallowed the Clinton/Biden narrative uncritically and backed our state and federal governments in their ferocious anti-pandemic strategy.
Meanwhile, there were Republican states and cities in America, and medical authorities too, who spoke out against the lockdown measures, but by and large, we weren’t listening to them.
It is the fate of small nations overshadowed by large ones that they tend to be borrowers rather than originators.
For all that, it has been a rich and fruitful relationship.
Our faith in American “Exceptionalism” (‘All the Way with LBJ!’) may have been diluted by disillusionment—we’re not quite as confident as we once were that America would drop everything and rush to our aid in an emergency, but much of the old respect and affection remains.