View from ‘DOWN UNDER.’

Eric Williams - Melbourme SkylineAs Originally published in the Society of the Silurians Newsletter in March 2010

A Letter from the Pacific:

A Few Observations In Oceania

By Eric K. Williams

Melbourne, Australia — There is no shortage of stories in this city and, no better place to be positioned to write about this country or the Asia-Pacific region. It is a part of the world given short shrift, even ignored, in much of the American main stream press. Yet, the Asia-Pacific region, contains 60 per cent of the world’s population, and represents, in regards to culture, religion, and language, the most diverse spectrum of humanity in the world. There’s plenty to write about, from natural disasters that mirror the post earthquake calamity in Haiti, to the political intrigue of Fiji, Thailand, Cambodia, Jakarta and, Timor Leste.  Indeed, Australia sits in the middle of a fascinating yet, largely underreported and, misunderstood region of the globe.

For this reporter, Australia provides a base to report on a volatile region. Yet, there is also a wealth of information and commentary to draw from here. Whether it is long and insightful articles by such noted writers as John Birmingham and Ian McEwen or, sharply critical commentary from the popular radio talk show host, Tony Biggs, Australians will let you know what they think about every topic imaginable.

Jeffrey Bleich, the newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to Australia, pointed out that straight forwardness to reporters when he first hit the ground in late November. Yet, Bleich also told the Melbourne Press Club in December that, to America, “there is no better friend in the world than Australia.” President Barack Obama and, Kevin Rudd, the Australian Prime Minister, indeed, have established strong relations. The two men appear to get along famously and, anticipation remains high for the U.S. President’s first visit here. Anti-American sentiment, when compared to, say, Europe, is largely absent in Australia. There is a small but, robust, American Expatriate community in nearly every city.  At the same time, there is suspicion among some who believe that America’s interest in Australia is centered mostly on its military bases. Rudd, who made the cover of TIME magazine in 2009 as a man to watch, is fluent in Mandarin and, for U.S. policy makers could be an important conduit in its complicated relations with China. But, whether the U.S. and Australia establish a so-called ‘special relationship,’ in much the same way the U.S.  has with Britain, or Israel, remains to be seen.

To most of the American public, actors such as Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman and, especially,  Paul Hogan, known for his Crocodile Dundee roles in film and, the hard rock music group, AC/DC, represent the crux of Australian culture. The wealth of Australian literature and, its contribution to the global English speaking community, for example, is little known beyond these shores. Like people everywhere, Australians enjoy the spinning of a good yarn. One such source of ‘good yarns’ is the riveting series of books on Australian crime figures known as UNDERBELLY.

The books, co-written by authors Andrew Rule and, John Sylvester, became a television series of the same name and, could be compared to the HBO gangster series, The Sopranos. Unlike the fictional Sopranos, however, the Underbelly television series generated headlines and, became a sensation, as the real-life characters depicted in it were arrested locally and, in international man-hunts across the globe. In fact, because of the on-going criminal trials related to the so-called Gangland Wars, the television series was banned from the airwaves in the state of Victoria for much of the first season.  That helped to spawn, ironically, a Black Market in pirated copies of the series. Now in its third year, UNDERBELLY continues to generate high ratings, while survivors of the Gangland wars, such as Mick Gatto, a reputed underworld figure, go public with interviews and, write books, to discuss their relations with some of Australia’s most notorious figures of recent memory. (Gatto, who wants to make a splash on the American scene, is reportedly planning a dinner and telethon, to be jointly hosted with comedian Jerry Lewis, to aid the fight against Muscular Dystrophy later this year.)

Like America, Australia, too, continues to grapple with matters of race relations and, its image abroad. The issue of Aboriginals, who some correctly call, The First Australians, remains an ongoing and controversial topic of debate and government policy. More recently, the spate of attacks on foreign students, particularly students from India, has generated international focus. The stabbing death of Nitin Garg early this year, sparked an outcry in India.  Garg, a 21 year old student from Jagraon, a town in the Indian state of Punjab, was murdered in Yarraville, a Melbourne suburb.  His death, and other attacks on Indian students, has fuelled a debate, in both countries, over the plight of Indian students in Australia. Critics of the police departments say that cops regard the attacks as standard crime, rather than racially motivated bias incidents. One Indian newspaper, for example, published a cartoon likening the Victorian police to the Ku Klux Klan. “We perceive the Melbourne police to be a racist organization simply because it seems it is not acting fast enough, or seriously enough, on the attacks on Indian students,” said Bharat Bhushan, editor of the Mail Today newspaper.  The cartoon was condemned shortly after its publication by Australia’s high commissioner to India, Peter Varghese, as “inflaming hysteria.”

Inflaming hysteria, or not, most Australians are candid and sensitive about their feelings on racism when discussing their perceptions on it to outsiders. Following angry international reaction to the Black Face depiction of the Jackson Five, on the program, “Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday,” last October, many Australians blamed Americans for unfairly imposing their values about race, their way. Comedian Harry Connick Jr., who sat on a show panel surveying numerous acts, reacted disgustedly to the Black Faced segment on live television and, issued a ‘zero’ grade to the skit.  Within hours that local skit was found on You Tube, turning it into a global event. Yet, in a survey conducted by both THE AGE and, the HERALD SUN newspapers, days after the broadcast, nearly seven out of ten Australians didn’t find the segment offensive or racist at all. “What’s confounding to me is that at one level Australians like to pretend that they understand America and its demons better than we do,” said a fellow American ex-pat journalist during the height of the brouhaha. He added, “Then they go and do this and, it is a reminder that you’re 10,000 miles from America and, the history here is different.”

One fast peek into that different history is the superb work by author, John Birmingham, called LEVIATHAN. The book, sub-titled, “The Unauthorised biography of Sydney,” offers a candid look into not only that city but, Australian history not taught in public schools. Birmingham uses an extensive bibliography for his work that contains journals, government reports, books and, historic documents that one critic called “terrifying, shocking and convincing.” The writer has been called a ‘gonzo journalist’ and, ‘Leviathan’ with its dry, even, Black humour, is one historic work that reads like a fast paced techno-thriller.

What is also noticeably different is the changing racial face of Australia despite the tensions and controversies.  Walking the streets of Melbourne reminds this writer of a city and, country in a state of flux. It is like a hybrid of Boston and New York, with its grid system of streets and, laneways.  I feel very much at home here in this racial mix. A mix not unlike what one would find on New York’s Lower East Side. Yet, it is distinctly an Australian city alive and vibrant with great architecture, old fashioned trolleys, (they call them ‘Trams’ over here,) street life, artists, musicians, story tellers and, performers.

Australia and, the Asia-Pacific region is worth watching because, both sit on the front-line to the future on everything from immigration issues, climate change, racial matters, crime, civil unrest  and the global economy. To ignore the region with its complexities and contradictions, one will also ignore what we may be all heading towards, just around the corner.