To say that Australia has had its share of misunderstandings and misperceptions about the world that exists outside its own borders is somewhat of an understatement. Seemingly, if something can be gotten wrong about the wider world, Australia has gotten it wrong at one stage or another. Just how much of this can be attributed to genuine ignorance and how much is wilful deception—self- or otherwise—as well as whether or not it is necessarily a problem, will be the focus of this post.
(N.B. The reader should take ‘misunderstanding’ and ‘misperception’ to mean, respectively: believing something that is factually incorrect, due to a lack of information; and, believing something that is factually incorrect, as a result of faulty information.)
The Australian character is most often defined in terms of what it is not. ‘Un-Australian’ has become a common descriptor in both public and private discussion. The term’s frequent use in politics, popular media and everyday speech could be seen to speak of an identity founded on misperception and misunderstanding. A typical national reflex in a range of texts and conversation has been to define Australia in terms not of what it does, but what it does not, contain; which is to say, practices and customs that are seen as occurring outside its cultural or physical borders. The nation chooses to recognise itself chiefly in the terms of what it isn’t. As such, Australian misunderstanding of other nations could be said to be not merely an error of judgement, but part of the very substructure—however unsound—upon which the nation is built.
From settlement-era fears that it would be ‘Aboriginalised’ by its Asian neighbours, to current political rhetoric surrounding foreign investment, the fear of ‘Otherness’ has undoubtedly been a constant throughout Australia’s history. Simultaneously and peculiarly, though, this Otherness has an essential function: without its unAustralian Other, the national identity dissolves.
Considering the ‘invention’ of New Holland and Van Diemen’s Land—born of a British desire for a strategic base in the Pacific, in addition to a sort of ‘cocoon’ to protect their own people from the criminal element—it is perhaps unsurprising that the future Australia’s residents would be inclined to retain security as a central preoccupation.
As far back as their colonisation of it, the British inhabitants of the world’s largest island have—perhaps somewhat understandably—had a disproportionate anxiety about being ‘invaded’ from the sea. Australia’s geographical location has resulted in those anxieties regarding invasion being directed, almost exclusively until quite recently, towards Asia; concerns unhindered by any meaningful understanding by its people of their northern neighbours.
Geography notwithstanding, Australia has always regarded itself a part of the West. Abstract notions of empire, a sense of ‘imagined community’ and emerging theories of race, rather than any physical contiguity, were the ties that bound Australia to Great Britain. For all of the individualism championed by Enlightenment-era thinkers, the period had done much to entrench a sense of tribalism amongst people of western European descent, with theories—or, more accurately, hypotheses—such as polygenism immensely popular at the time. Espoused by such prominent philosophers as David Hume and Voltaire, these race-as-species pseudoscientific approaches to human heredity only sought to confirm the biases of the invariably white European authors, eager to validate their self-perceived physical, mental and moral superiority. As is the case with all such scientific ‘paradigms’, this thinking would prove difficult to shift.
By the mid-nineteenth century, Australia had seen a substantial number of Chinese arrivals on its shores as the Qing Empire’s economic downturn saw many flee poverty, towards the promise of riches in the gold fields. The arrival shortly thereafter of a number of Japanese immigrants and labourers from the Pacific Islands, gradually reignited Australian fears of being ‘overrun’ that had largely become dormant over the decades prior.
‘Yellow hordes’ coming from the north would become a recurrent theme in the news media and popular novels from the mid-nineteenth century onwards, usually depicting a sense of European culture being gradually usurped by that of the ‘lower types’ from the East. This narrative would alter somewhat, shortly after Federation—the push for which can be partially attributed to anti-Chinese sentiment, particularly in Victoria—replaced with much more immediate concerns about a Japanese military invasion following the Russo–Japanese war of 1904–1905. A misunderstanding of Japan’s military power quickly translated into misconceptions of its military aspirations as they pertained to Australia. (The newly independent nation may have been huge, but it was almost entirely devoid of people, with the few that it did have mainly located in its south-eastern corner; hardly a deterrent against invasion from the north.)
Policy, such as the Immigration Restriction Act, that was seen to work in the interest of Australia at the domestic level, would have negative repercussions for foreign diplomacy in a rapidly globalising marketplace. Such antagonism towards a group of people might go unpunished when one has a 49:1 advantage, but this was far from the case for Australia on the world stage.
Australians had been involved in a number of military expeditions—Sudan (1885), the Boer War (1899–1902) and the Boxer Rebellion (1900)—in the lead-up to the twentieth century at the behest, and with the support, of Britain. Independent or not, Australia would not be looking to dissolve its marriage of convenience to Mother England any time soon. An expeditionary strategy was secretly established in London in 1911, in which Australian forces were routinely committed to war by a handful of British ministers.  As Greg Lockhart tells us:
For some years before 1911, British officials helped to establish the precedent by manipulating the anxieties of Australian ministers. Contrary to their own [Anglo–Japanese Naval Treaty] policy, the British encouraged the Australians to believe that Japan was a threat to the new country and that expeditionary support for Britain in a prospective war in Europe would best lock the Empire into the defence of Australia in the Pacific.
By the time war did break out in the Pacific, the implicit support of Britain seemed little more than a misperception on Australia’s part. Churchill’s plan to ‘beat Hitler first’ effectively left Australia in the lurch, and wartime prime minister John Curtin was forced to appeal to the United States of America for help.
As luck would have it, the previous government had laid some of the groundwork. Robert Menzies had assigned Richard Casey as Australia’s first legation to Washington with the aim of setting straight any misunderstandings they may have had regarding his homeland. Framing Australians as freedom-loving pioneers, akin to Americans—or, at least, how many Americans chose to view themselves—went a long way towards convincing the superpower that Australia deserved its help. Though it appears, with the benefit of hindsight, that Japan had no plans of occupying Australia at the time, this misperception served as a catalyst for securing diplomatic allegiance with the US.
In the period immediately following the Second World War—with Japan having bombed Darwin and various other sites in northern Australia, as well as having captured 22,000 prisoners of war, one third of whom died—cold public sentiment towards the Japanese people had certainly not thawed. However, and despite Australia’s record of staunch anti-immigration, then-prime minister Ben Chifley would launch a large-scale immigration program, appointing Arthur Calwell as the country’s first Minister for Immigration. ‘Populate or perish’ was the slogan used to sell the idea to the public; on its face, an appeal to people’s invasion anxieties, but some, such as Teicher and Griffin, suspect concerns surrounding economic growth, in what promised to be a boom period, may have been a significant factor in the decision:
[A]fter the Second World War practical considerations saw the relaxation of [the Immigration Restriction Act] policy, the consequences of which has been the emergence of a multicultural society, admittedly more by default than design.
With its ties to Britain then little more than symbolic, Australia had to go it alone against much more established players in the global capitalist system, and for that it would need more people, and fast. This is not to say that Australia was throwing open its borders to all comers—far from it. Calwell himself was a stalwart advocate of the White Australia policy: any new arrivals would be European, or they would be sent home. To that end, at the same time, Calwell was deporting wartime refugees from Malaya, Indochina and China, even many who had married Australian citizens and started families in Australia.
Though the majority of Australians may have been clinging to their misconceptions of the Asian world, the 1960s saw a new generation of young adults eager to explore the region for themselves. Due in no small part to The Beatles’ well-publicised experimentation with Transcendental Meditation at the feet of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, India was the new destination of choice for many travellers. For those who could not afford or were too scared to travel to India, cheaper, closer places would suffice. For hippies and New Age types alike, the experience was more about their individual experiences than any specific destination. It was, as Sandip Roy would later call it, ‘white people discovering themselves in brown places’.
The White Australia Policy would officially stay in place until 1971, by which time Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War—due to numerous misunderstandings and misperceptions, both its own and America’s—was nearly a decade old. The political landscape was changing rapidly, due in large part to the media. Images of the atrocities of war were beamed into people’s homes for the first time. While a dislike for the Other as an abstract notion may still have been the default position for many Australians, seeing the reality of what was being done to Others, brought to them via their home television set, would be an impetus for many to say, ‘It’s Time’.
Gough Whitlam campaigned on a platform of universal health care, social justice and an end to Australia’s involvement in the war; but it was arguably the television spots, featuring a number of prominent Australians singing the bespoke campaign song ‘It’s Time’, that sealed the 1972 election for his party. While the media had long played a part in shaping public opinion, television would change the very nature of politics. Charismatic leaders were the order of the day if the party wanted to pick up the youth vote, and they had better say all the right things lest they wind up on the nightly news looking a fool.
It has become popular in recent years—perhaps due to Malcolm Fraser’s determination to rewrite his own history—to attribute the influx of refugees in the post–Vietnam War period to compassion on the part of the Fraser Liberal government, who had ousted Whitlam in a very uncharismatic fashion in 1975. But it was not until two and a half years after the end of the war that the government began to resettle significant numbers of Vietnamese people and, when six boats arrived in one day during the 1977 election campaign, Fraser told the media: ‘some Vietnamese [boat people] who landed in Australia might have to be deported.’
As is characteristic of conservative governments around the world, the right wing of Australia’s political class has, if not explicitly encouraged, at least not actively discouraged discrimination against the Other. This is not to say that the left are without fault in this regard; it was, after all, Paul Keating’s Labor government that first instituted mandatory detention for all non-citizens without a valid visa, in 1992. Then-Minister for Immigration, Gerry Hand, said the government was determined ‘that a clear signal be sent that migration to Australia may not be achieved by simply arriving in this country and expecting to be allowed into the community’.
Fears are leveraged, on both sides of politics, for political gain; perhaps never more so than in John Howard’s 2001 election campaign. In August, Howard ordered Special Forces to board distressed fishing vessel, the Tampa, as it neared Australian waters. Amid international outrage over their conduct, the government introduced a harsher Border Protection Bill within days. That October, in an atmosphere of increased fear following the September 11 attacks in the US, Howard alleged a number of asylum seekers had thrown their children into the sea. Preying on public fears of waves of monstrous Others arriving on Australian shores, the Coalition—whose pre-September poll numbers predicted a significant defeat—went on to a landslide victory. The allegations were completely unfounded, but the political narrative has remained the same ever since.
Through a modern, Western liberal lens, it is tempting to see all prejudice as intrinsically detrimental, but this may be an overly simplistic view. One does not need to approve of such views in order to recognise that they may have been—or at least had the potential to be—advantageous to the nation at the time. Let it be plainly said, this is not an ethical statement. Rather, it is in line with the extra-moral techniques of leaders who find advantage in ‘unAustralian’ prejudice and use it to expedite policy.
The Australian people are hardly unique in their attitudes towards foreigners. A 2011 study of 23 countries found that 45% of Australians thought that immigration has had a generally negative impact on the country, exactly in line with the global average. Perhaps where the national misperception is unique is not in its intensity but its quality. Unlike other Western liberal democracies, Australia’s cultural and political dependence on the very idea of Otherness as the means by which it defines itself and offers the apparently unmistakable ‘Australian’ by comparing itself against the unAustralian, is its mark of toxic difference.
 D Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the rise of Asia, 1850–1939, UWA Publishing, Crawley, WA, 2012, p. 9.
 E W Said, Orientalism, Random House, New York, 1978, p. xvii.
 R White, Inventing Australia: Images and identity 1688–1980, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1981.
 A Burke, Fear of Security: Australia’s invasion anxiety, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008, pp. 18–19.
 J McAdam, ‘Australia and asylum seekers’, International Journal of Refugee Law, vol. 25, no. 3, 2013, p. 435.
 B Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, Verso, London, 2006.
 D Keane, Caste-based discrimination in international human rights law, Ashgate Publishing, Hampshire, 2007, p. 89.
 T S Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012, p.5.
 K W Larsen, ‘The Qing Empire (China), Imperialism, and the Modern World’, History Compass, vol. 9, no. 6, 2011, pp. 501–504.
 Burke, p. 27.
 C H Pearson, National Life and Character: A forecast, Macmillan and Company, London, 1893, p. 341.
 McAdam, p. 436.
 Burke, pp. 27–28.
 Walker, p. 38.
 W C Lines, Taming of the Great South Land: A history of the conquest of nature in Australia, UC Press, Oakland, 1991, p. 140.
 G Lockhart, ‘Race Fear, Dangerous Denial: Japan and the great deception in Australian history’, Griffith REVIEW, Griffith University, Edition 32, 2011, p. 58.
 C Bridge, ‘R.G. Casey, Australia’s First Washington Legation, and the Origins of the Pacific War, 1940–42’, Australian Journal of Politics & History, vol. 28, no. 2, 1982, p. 182.
 Stark, 1940, cited in Barclay, G, 1977, ‘Australia looks to America: the Wartime Relationship, 1939–1942’, Pacific Historical Review, vol. 46, no. 2, p. 256.
 J Teicher & C S G Griffin, ‘Australian immigration: the triumph of economics over prejudice?’, International Journal of Manpower, vol. 23, no. 3, p. 209–236.
 ibid., p. 209.
 Koon Wing Lau v. Calwell, 1949, cited in M Foster, ‘An “alien” by the barest of threads: the legality of the deportation of long-term residents from Australia’, Melbourne University Law Review, vol. 33, no. 2, p. 500.
 S Roy, ‘The new colonialism of “Eat, Pray, Love”’, Salon.com, 14 August 2010.
 Fraser, M & Simons, M, Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, Miengunyah Press, Carlton, VIC, 2010.
 R Stevens, ‘No, the Fraser era was not a golden age for asylum seekers’, SMH, 2 February 2012.
 Commonwealth, Parliamentary debates, House of Representatives, 5 May 1992, 2370 (Gerry Hand, Migration Amendment Bill 1992, second reading speech).
 Ipsos, ‘Global views on immigration’, findings of the Global @dvisor Wave 22 survey, conducted between June 15th and June 28th 2011.
Anderson, B, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, Verso, London, 2006.
Barclay, G, ‘Australia looks to America: the Wartime Relationship, 1939–1942’, Pacific Historical Review, vol. 46, no. 2, 1977, pp. 251–71.
Bridge, C, ‘R.G. Casey, Australia’s First Washington Legation, and the Origins of the Pacific War, 1940–42’, Australian Journal of Politics & History, vol. 28, no. 2, 1982, pp. 181–189.
Burke, A, Fear of Security: Australia’s invasion anxiety, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2008.
Commonwealth, Parliamentary debates, House of Representatives, 5 May 1992, 2370 (Gerry Hand, Migration Amendment Bill 1992, second reading speech), viewed 18 September 2014, http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22chamber%2Fhansardr%2F1992-05-05%2F0031%22
Fraser, M & Simons, M, Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs, Miengunyah Press, Carlton, VIC, 2010.
Foster, M, ‘An “alien” by the barest of threads: the legality of the deportation of long-term residents from Australia’, Melbourne University Law Review, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 483–542.
Ipsos, ‘Global views on immigration’, findings of the Global @dvisor Wave 22 survey, conducted between June 15th and June 28th 2011, viewed on 20 September 2014, http://www.ipsos-na.com/download/pr.aspx?id=10883
Keane, D, Caste-based discrimination in international human rights law, Ashgate Publishing, Hampshire, 2007.
Kuhn, TS, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012.
Larsen, KW, ‘The Qing Empire (China), Imperialism, and the Modern World’, History Compass, vol. 9, no. 6, 2011, pp. 498–508.
Lines, WC, Taming of the Great South Land: A history of the conquest of nature in Australia, University of California Press, Oakland, 1991.
Lockhart, G, ‘Race Fear, Dangerous Denial: Japan and the great deception in Australian history’, Griffith REVIEW, Edition 32: ‘Wicked Problems, Exquisite Dilemmas’, Griffith University, 2011, pp. 58–96.
McAdam, J, ‘Australia and asylum seekers’, International Journal of Refugee Law, vol. 25, no. 3, 2013, p. 435–438.
Pearson, CH, National Life and Character: A forecast, Macmillan and Company, London, 1893.
Roy, S, ‘The new colonialism of “Eat, Pray, Love”’, Salon.com, 14 August 2010, viewed 21 September 2014, http://www.salon.com/2010/08/14/i_me_myself/
Stevens, R, ‘No, the Fraser era was not a golden age for asylum seekers’, Sydney Morning Herald, 2 February 2012, viewed 22 September 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/no-the-fraser-era-was-not-a-golden-age-for-asylum-seekers-20120201-1qtce.html
Teicher, J & Griffin, CSG, ‘Australian immigration: the triumph of economics over prejudice?’, International Journal of Manpower, vol. 23, no. 3, p. 209–236.
Walker, D, Anxious Nation: Australia and the rise of Asia, 1850–1939, UWA Publishing, Crawley, WA, 2012.
White, R, Inventing Australia: Images and identity 1688–1980, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1981.