Australia parties its way to self-knowledge

THIS STORY APPEARED IN THE 12/28 WORLD EDITION (WEEKLY) AUSTRALIA is throwing its biggest party ever. For the next 12 months, the Land of Oz will celebrate the end of an epic convict voyage and the start of 200 years of European colonization.

Kicking off the bicentennial bash is a live, four-hour Australian television extravaganza (hosted by Paul ``Crocodile Dundee'' Hogan, of course) to be shown worldwide Jan. 1.

But that's just the opening salvo. Australia plans over 3,000 official bicentennial events for 1988: from heroic reenactments (a 15,000-mile ``First Fleet'' voyage by square-rigger sailing ships) to the ridiculous (a Bicentennial Pot Boiling Championship, a contest waged with the bushman's outdoor cooking can, known as a ``billy'').

But undergirding the revelry is the fact that this Commonwealth nation is coming of age. Some 16 million people are coming to grips with their heritage and struggling to sculpt a national identity. ``Unlike America, Australia never declared its independence. It just kind of drifted into its separate existence from Britain. So it's had this drastic problem of a lack of self-definition,'' says Ross Terrill, author of ``The Australians.''

No wonder self-definition hasn't come easily. Geographically, Australia sits on the fringes of Asia. Historically and politically, it has lived in Britain's orbit. And in recent decades, it has taken cultural (and some military) cues from the United States. Its uncertain identity has led to Australian self-depreciation (some say defensiveness), a trait that has only recently begun to fade.

Australians now feel secure enough in their own accomplishments to acknowledge the nation's origin as a convict colony. The popularity of Robert Hughes's ``The Fatal Shore,'' an epic history about Australia's founding, is both a testament to and part of an ongoing catharsis. Even the 1988 Australian Almanac lists the 330 known names of the 736 convicts who sailed here in the First Fleet.

Australia's harsh terrain - once a source of national chagrin - now figures prominently in its art, theater, cinema, and literature. (Early artists softened the lines of crooked gum trees into facsimiles of European oaks.)

Until the 1970s, Australian intellectuals apologized for their twang. Australian actors rarely got to play Australians. Media personalities were chastised for using anything but the Queen's English. But today Australians no longer apologize for their dialect. Noted historian Manning Clark sees this as ``just one of the outward and visible signs of a new underlying confidence.''

At parties in Sydney, pin-stripe-suited businessmen seriously discuss Sydney's future as the heir to Hong Kong as a regional financial center.

Hungarian-born Australian financier and FAI Insurance Group chairman Larry Adler thinks such speculation may be a bit premature. ``Sydney has become a very substantial business center. One would hope it would keep growing. But one has to keep in mind that Australia is a very long way away from other parts of the world.''

Still, the successes of globe-trotting entrepreneurs such as Mr. Adler, Alan Bond, and Robert Holmes `a Court are a source of some pride here. Many school-age Australians now see these businessmen as role models.

Economically, Australia remains heavily dependent on commodity exports. It has a poor current account deficit. But the new nationalism is being harnessed to combat the trade situation. The stylized orange kangaroos on emerald tags identifying ``Australian made'' products are proliferating in shop windows throughout the country.

Nor has Australia's stunning 1983 victory in the America's Cup yacht race been forgotten. Indeed, it's seen as a landmark event in the Australian psyche.

``There are few glorious moments in Australia's history,'' says author Terrill. ``Most of those moments celebrated hither to are those in British history. But the America's Cup produced an unprecedented burst of national enthusiasm. Alan Bond said nothing in his lifetime in Perth compared to it except the end of World War II.''

Yet even that exuberance is seen by many as just a continuation of a feeling ignited by the film industry some years earlier. In the early 1970s, federal funding provided the fuel for Australian filmmaking to take off for the first time in 40 years. Out of this ``incredible release of pent up creativity,'' says film producer Phillip Adams, came ``Picnic at Hanging Rock,'' ``Breaker Morant,'' ``My Brilliant Career,'' ``Mad Max,'' and others.

``Films were the detonator. They were the most popular and accessible. And suddenly everything else in Australian culture became all right,'' says Mr. Adams, chairman of the Australian Film Commission. For example, instead of importing the music of US and British rock stars, Australia began exporting the sounds of Olivia Newton John, Air Supply, and Men at Work.

Lately, Australian rock has had a hiatus abroad. Tax changes and the stock market crash have curbed celluloid production in Australia. But Adams remains undaunted. He notes that television executives here are discovering that Australians are enthusiastic about Austra-lian programs. Thus the Australian film industry now feeds a television market that simply did not exist in the early 1970s.

A concurrent surge in aboriginal activism and cultural revival has stirred a fresh appreciation for the land. ``The arts have crystallized this sense of nationalism. And it comes back to the question of the Australian soil, because a lot of the movies exploit the unique Australian landscape,'' says author Terrill.

Moreover, advances in com-munication and transportation mean that Australians are no longer as isolated from the rest of the world. Some 10 percent of the population will travel abroad in 1988, according to Australia's Bureau of Tourism.

That, too, contributes to national pride. ``We can easily go from the beaches in Australia to the famous beaches of southern France. But let me tell you, southern France has nothing on our beaches,'' says Adler.

This nationalism also manifests itself in public policy. Historian Prof. Clark points to a recent white paper on defense. ``For the first time, we looked seriously at the question, `Can Australia provide for its own defense,''' he says. ``If it's to be genuinely independent we must face up to the question, `Can we do an Israel here or can we do a Switzerland here?'''

Says Clark: ``We've borrowed capital, ideas, literature, our religion ... from the British and the Americans. Now we've got to break with that tradition and be a nation of creators.''

Even so, there's a lot of scepticism about the bicentennial hype - especially when one gets away from Sydney, where most of the activity is centered.

``What are we celebrating anyway?'' asks a Perth resident. ``The landing of a bunch of convicts? Did Americans celebrate the Mayflower landing like this? No, they had a celebration for running the British off. ... Australia didn't get its independence until 1901. I think Australia knows its identity. The government is just buying nationalism with this bicentennial.''

Many aborigines view the bicentennial as equivalent to celebrating Hitler's birthday and plan protests throughout 1988.

But Clark hopes the ballyhoo will be ``an opportunity for us to think of where we've got and where we want to be. One of the things we've got is a recognition that this is not just a society of Britain and its descendants. It's a society of aborigines, Asians, British, and Europeans. And those four groups have got to learn to live together.''

Over 40 percent of all Australians were either born overseas or have at least one parent who was an immigrant. In recent years, some 25 percent of all new immigrants have come from Asia, though Asians make up less than 5 percent of the total population. Cultural diversity has been seen by recent Australian governments as economically and socially invigorating.

The definition of what it means to be Australian is evolving, says Terrill, noting that ``some things that are today distinctly Australian may be doomed. ... our grandchildren might think to be Oriental is just as Australian as I used to think being a rural kid in Gippsland and listening to Queen Elizabeth's Christmas broadcast was being Australian.''

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