Editor’s note: Today’s Guest Opinion contributor is William Dunk, an international business consultant and head of William Dunk Partners, which is based in Chapel Hill.We keep meaning to make it out to Australia, but always get diverted by distractions along the way, such as Japan and China. Someday we will, for we are already under its sway. We’ll get to this land that’s still becoming.
Its magnetism has long tugged at us. For years we had an eloquent Australian pen pal who had picked our name out of the phone book and wrote us about everything from vegemite to the power of the surf. Countless friends send us notes from Dunk Island, instructing us to go there and become honorary consuls. A while back the Aussies cheered on a crack golfer named Bill Dunk: surely, some thought, we must be related in some way. Then too, our beer of the moment is Foster’s Bitter, for us Australia’s premier export, the taste of which vaguely reminds us of real ale in English pubs.
More American than most
Far away Australia does seem more like the United States than several countries closer at hand. A recent batch of Australian exchange students on our doorstep provided a million laughs and gallons of optimism; they liked their visit here so much that they long overstayed their departure date. Their capacity to fit right in reminded us of parties in the old days at the UN, where the Australian fellows seemed like rowdy Texans and provided vital extra bounce for what would have otherwise been languid affairs. These nations of the New World and the even Newer World share some common wavelength.
Is it any accident that the Australian movie industry (since its revival in the 1970s) captures bravery and bravado and humor that has so much resonance in the United States? My Brilliant Career, Gallipoli, and Breaker Morant never would have been made in Hollywood, but they easily could have been produced by independent directors around this country. Mel Gibson and Paul Hogan, bankable stars, are such fixtures on American screens that it is hard to remember they are Australian.
That Rupert Murdoch-Australian press lord and now American citizen-has cut such a broad swathe in all our media businesses speaks volumes. Who would have imagined that network and cable news shows would have taken to copying his Fox network? He has not added much quality to our life, but he has shown that he has his finger on our pulse.
In Vino Veritas
The closeness in spirit between the two lands is terribly apparent in the wine industry. Reading Robert Parker, the wine impresario, you will find that the two countries share a passion for postmodern winemaking technologies, sometimes at grave peril to the product. This may involve early harvesting, zealous filtration, or the addition of acidity to the bottle. Meanwhile, mega-mergers have sprouted up between spirits producers on both shores, leading to at least one Austral-American powerhouse, Hardy-Constellation, with more heft than Gallo. (By the way, you should read about Yellow Tail from Australia in the Agile Companies section of Global Province. It has brilliantly marketed itself in the United States, a quick branding job that would have taken our wine purveyors years to accomplish.)
The Australian art and cultural critic Robert Hughes, who now makes his home in America, has tried to define the difference between the two countries: “I think the biggest single difference between Australians and Americans is that you were founded as a religious experiment, and we were founded as a jail.”
Well, if that’s so, the two have grown very much closer together. We’ve become a land full of jails. And the outpourings of religious sentiment from Australia over the Internet suggest more spiritual leanings down under than Mr. Hughes may care to acknowledge. The Emperor of Shopping Malls, Australia’s Frank Lowy of Westfield Holdings, has been able to pave over both countries as the shopping center has become the social thread running through Australia and the United States, one more emblem of the bond between them. He is now making a run at Alfred Taubman’s properties here.
Being continents away from everything, the Australians, more than most, have mastered space. Their own inhospitable interior they ignore, clustering in cities along the coast.
But if you want to find out what’s happening in outer space, tune in on Australia. Despite the decades of exceptional space reporting by our friend John Wilford at the New York Times, we find it best to keep up with things in orbit on www.spacedaily.com, put out by the indefatigable Simon Mansfield in Sydney, Australia since 1996. Importantly, he’s not only plugged into U.S. space doings but he also tracks astro-efforts around the world.
It may seem ironic to go to Australia to find out about our space program. But often the only way to get a reading on these United States is to go abroad for a comprehensive account about what’s happening here. World art news is best out of London. And good detectives know that the way to find out about all aspects of the narcotics trade is to go to Thailand.
At the margin
We have argued elsewhere that the countries worth paying attention to since the end of the Cold War are at the edges of our charts, perhaps a bit disconnected from the Global System. Maybe far-away Australia, left to its own devices, has something special going on. Unlike still medieval Europe, it appears to have planted its foot in the future.
Its economy, for instance, turned in a very good record during the 1990s, even registering a 2.4 percent growth rate as late as 2001, putting it 10th amongst the OCED countries. All this stemmed from a very healthy stream of economic reforms, something most of the major economies were unable to accomplish.
Part of its success stems from its hardy extractive industries, which have been doing reasonably well lately. But, more important has been its openness to the world, a strong suit despite occasional bursts of nativism. As of 2000, its percentage of foreign-born ranked third in the OCED, at 23.6 percent of the population: this has been a sparkplug for innovation. For instance, you will now see an Asian motif in many of the swank homes and in the newest restaurant cuisine, as the country develops its own AustralAsian style.
Along with people, it is busily importing all sorts of ideas. Much like the United States, it is working to discover how to benefit from genetically created foods, instead of hoping they will go away. It’s home to CAMBIA, or the Center for Application of Molecular Biology to International Agriculture. (See www.cambia.org.au). Eyes forward, Australians intend to survive the future by mastering it.
For us, perhaps, Australia is as much a direction as a place. As near as we can discover, it got its name from the explorer Matthew Flinders who penned in Terra Australis (“Southland”) on a map he created in the early 1800s. Well away from Europe, it forces us to point our compass towards the down under and look for a fresh outlook.
Today it’s an English speaking country that is putting on Asian clothing. It has a resonant national character that allows it to have outsized influence on these United States. With us, it is trying to get a grip on such modern developments as engineered foods or RFID chips. (The University of Adelaide, MIT, and Cambridge University are all working on this replacement for bar codes. Look for more about this on the Global Province in future weeks). Australia is there to get us to think a few different thoughts, since it has shown a capacity to turn itself upside down.
To learn more about William Dunk Partners, visit www.globalprovince.com/williamdunkpartners.htm