SYDNEYTwo months ago, Australia was in cruise mode. With minimal social divisions
and an economy near the top of the OECD growth league, optimism reigned. But two
events have resurrected old issues that may linger long after immediate pain has
gone: the Bali bombing and the worst drought in 50 years. In different ways,
both go to the heart of the question: the size and culture of the population of
a small nation in a big country which lies in the East but thinks of itself as
part of the West.
The drought's economic impact on a
largely urban nation is much less than in the past. GDP growth will be just 0.5
points lower at 3.0 percent. The wheat harvest may be down 60 percent, with
farmers suffering huge losses, but the urban impact is minimal. Sydney's many
golf courses are still being watered. Yet the drought and the bush fires that
have been ringing Sydney are reminders that Australia is not only the driest
continent but has some of the least predictable long-range weather patterns.
Most people look on Aus-tralia as an empty continent that can absorb
immigrant-driven population increases for decades to come, but the drought has
given new voice to those who worry about the fragility of its ecology. In many
areas, overuse has gradually been diminishing thin topsoil.
Overuse has been encouraged by cheap
water. The drought will probably lead to major changes in water resource
management and pricing. It may boost the Greens as alternative opposition to a
directionless Labor Party. It will boost the appeal of those arguing for zero
population growth, although they are unlikely to prevail in a nation with a low
natural birthrate and an underlying belief in the merits of immigration. Bali
and the general ferment in the Muslim world are implicitly again raising issues
about what sort of newcomers Australia should accept. For more than 20 years,
multiculturalism has been the cornerstone of immigration policy. All
nationalities, races and creeds were welcome to apply. Qualifications were
essentially nondiscriminatory. Asians, from South Asia and Middle East as well
as East Asia, have become the largest immigrant group. Despite the "white
Australia" history, anti-non-European-immigrant populism has failed to take
root. Integration has been generally successful.
If a backlash against Muslim migrants
took root, could it spread to others from outside the Anglo-Celtic,
Judeo-Christian core of Australian culture? Bali followed on a crisis over
boatloads of asylum seekers, many of them Afghan, which was cynically exploited
by Prime Minister John Howard to help his November 2001 re-election.
Post-Bali strains in relations with
Indonesia and Malaysia should prove temporary, despite Howard's best efforts to
infuriate all his neighbors by claiming rights of preemptive strike and playing
the role of "deputy sheriff" to the United States. But some of Australia's
Muslims – more likely of Turkish, Lebanese or Pakistani origin than from
Southeast Asia - have been on the receiving end of abuse. One prominent
right-wing Christian suggested that the chador be banned in case bombs were
under the veil. The remark struck a chord among some Australians, and government
ministers appeared reluctant to criticize such comments even though they ran
contrary to multiculturalism.
The position of Muslims, or at least of
the more fervent ones who take advantage of Australia's tolerance of
confessional schools in an effectively secular society, could be a challenge to
liberal multiculturalism. How much diversity can the system bear?
Identification with America over Sept. 11
and support for the Afghan war and the campaign against Iraq have been evidence
of Australia's Western inclinations. Bali has underlined these. Media eager for
"terror threat" stories and a government eager to justify new security laws
compromising habeas corpus have revived self-perceptions that Australia may be a
Western outpost in a dangerous Asian world.
Australians are probably too optimistic,
too wary of isms, too instinctively anti-authority to be frightened into
changing their lifestyles or losing liberties. Economics and immigration as much
as geography now tie them to Asia, or at least to East Asia.
But drought and Bali are causing some to
think more about a future which had been taken for granted, a future with
neither limitless natural resources nor limitless tolerance for social and
religious practices out of line with local norms. International Herald Tribune