The Dark Underside Of Life Down Under

THE world's most scenic harbor framed by the pure white wings of the Sydney Opera House and the gracefully arching Harbor Bridge. Kangaroos hopping across a brick-red-earth desert. The sunny disposition of a hearty folk.

These inviting descriptions of Australia and its citizens do not begin to suggest the country's dark underside. Few people are aware of it, thanks to an undemocratic press, says John Pilger, author of "A Secret Country: The Hidden Australia."

Born and educated in Sydney, Pilger professes that his great love for his native land motivated him to delve deep into its past, policies, and peoples. The result is a fascinating, highly critical look at the country.

The first of Pilger's five books to be published in the United States, "A Secret Country" begins on Sydney's popular Bondi Beach where "there is a shared assumption of tolerance for each other, and a spirit of equality which begins at the promenade steps." This equality took form in highly progressive laws enacted years before such laws were established in other countries: a minimum wage, eight-hour workday, pensions, maternity and child benefits, and votes for women. Equality even reached the paycheck b y the 1960s, Pilger says.

In the last decade, however, Australia's monetary stability has eroded. The "Order of Mates," a clique of politicians and rich entrepreneurs, helped each other get elected, win jobs, avoid taxes, make money, dominate the economy, and protect a complex spying network, says Pilger.

For example, while current Premier Paul Keating was treasurer during Prime Minister Bob Hawke's years in office (1983-91), he "dismantled the last major protective barriers," turning Australia into an "economic 'banana republic,' " as Keating himself once described it. Unemployment tripled, and the country is in recession.

Hawke, meanwhile, was instrumental in creating sharp divisions in the distribution of Australia's wealth, Pilger claims. Restricted wages, tax cuts for the affluent, and deregulated markets instated during Hawke's years as premier created "the Australian Bonanza Class" (a group richer than those in most advanced nations), while the poor's status regressed.

Perhaps the most egregious example of industry monopoly is media-magnate Rupert Murdoch, whose communications empire includes signif- icant holdings in Britain and the United States. In Australia, he controls almost two-thirds of the national newspaper circulation and distribution.

While the Mates have dominated political and business circles, the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has dominated the Mates and many of their predecessors, according to Pilger. Several CIA surveillance/military bases are located in Australia, making it a prime nuclear-war target. The country's own CIA-inspired agencies often work against government policy. One group helped overthrow Cambodia's Prince Sihanouk and Chile's Salvador Allende, says Pilger.

Perhaps the most shocking national policies are those affecting Aboriginal peoples. "It is a story of theft, dispossession and warfare, of massacre and resistance," says Pilger. Even black heroes - the artists - are trapped in apartheid-like poverty cycles and denied citizenship. In Australia, a black dies in jail every 14 days - a rate higher than in South Africa.

Pilger traces the histories of a "melting pot" of settlers, whose lives were generally peaceful, though some violent struggles among laborers and ethnic groups did break out.

He expresses hope that inheritors of the Evatt/Whitlam legacy can spark reform.

Dr. Herbert Evatt, a former external affairs minister, judge, and the first United Nations General Assembly president, worked tirelessly for independence. Former Premier Edward Whitlam was sacked in a mid-1970s "coup," as described by Pilger, after trying to unveil CIA and US military intentions in Australia.

Australia has a bright future if it can "break free" from US dependency and British colonial ties, and continue reforms begun in areas such as Aboriginal rights and tax restructuring, Pilger says in this important book. "A Secret Country" is a must-read for anyone seeking to move beyond the tourist-brochure perspective of Australia.

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