How Americans see Australia -- and thus themselves

In the minds of many young Americans, Australia at present has an unusual glamour. They see Australia as a last frontier in a shrinking world. They also see it as a land of opportunity at a time when opportunity, especially in business, seems to be wilting.

Australian movies in the last five years have become a minor cult in some American cities; and part of their fascination is that they often depict an outdoors way of life and a landscape which seems deserted.

In those wild ranges and those vast plains the camera has the appearance of being the first intruder. There, almost, is South Dakota, before the first sharp axe was heard.

''If President McKinley or Theodore Roosevelt were alive today, I sometimes think that they would be living in Melbourne, Australia.'' That comment came from a thoughtful American in his 70s, and he summed up one prominent attitude to Australia. ''I sometimes imagine that Australia is like the United States was in sunnier days.''

This quickening interest in Australia indirectly says much about what Americans think of their own nation, their own history. They have risen to success with an amplified sense of the importance of wide, open spaces.

Space meant plentiful resources; space meant breathing room and scope for individualism. Great space - when set out on a map of the world - helped to give an early sense of national security and importance. And great space fired the imagination of artists as well as immigrants.

Many young Americans, today, no longer believe they live in a spacious land. They feel hemmed in.

The heightened interest in Australia is possibly also a guide to the isolationist mood which continues to flourish in many American regions. There is still a hankering for that era - it surely ended at Pearl Harbor - when America could largely cut herself off from the outside world.

If Chicago and Des Moines can no longer hope to be Shangri-La, perhaps security can be sought in the isolation of Australia. That Australia is said to lie ''down under'' increases the impression that it is a safer retreat.

Australia is not only a mirror of moods and myths within America. Since 1945 its own economic development has been fast and its population has doubled, increasing at a faster rate than that of America.

During the quarter century 1945-70, Australians had little risk of being unemployed. A federal government almost lost an election when unemployment jumped over 2 percent. In the last decade, however, unemployment steadily increased without reaching, in any one year, America's percentage.

Australia also generated wide optimism because of the run of mineral discoveries in the 1960s and 1970s. The opening of massive deposits of iron ore, black coal, bauxite, nickel, uranium and other minerals - mainly for the Japanese market - has produced huge revenues.

The palmy era of Californian gold, even when indexed for inflation, is poverty-stricken compared to Australian mining of the last few years.

These mineral finds often give the impression that Australia is still primarily in the pioneering era - a land of ''forty-niners.'' But most of the new mining towns have a small population. Their huge machines move a mighty mass of rock, but few men are needed to drive and repair the machines.

Despite the rise of new mining regions, most Australians continue to concentrate themselves in one part of the continent. Eight of every 10 live in the southeast corner. Most Australians don't know the outback: they imagine it. In some places it is rich in minerals. But most of it, to most eyes, is dry, hot , lonely, infertile, and empty.

I think it is this great emptiness - this compound of space and mystery - which is primarily capturing the imagination of many young Americans.

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