There’s something weird happening when John Howard accuses Kevin Rudd of holding a “pseudo-American, pseudo-ersatz” campaign launch – and it’s not because of the bizarre tautology “pseudo-ersatz”.

As Geoff Spencer notes in the SMH, “the jibe sounds strange coming from someone who has been this country’s most pro-Washington leader arguably since Harold Holt.” Yet the same contradiction underpins the whole recent debate about Australian values.

Quite obviously, most Australians know more about Britney Spear’s romantic entanglements than they do about Edmund Barton – and yet the immigration quiz requires migrants to ponder Toby Tosspot rather than K-Fed.

In a world of free-flowing capital, national cultures (at least in the simple sense) no longer exist. Sure, we’re supposed to consider vegemite and pavlovas tremendously patriotic but, in real life, Australian cuisine follows identical patterns to other industrialised nations. Starbucks coffee, yes; billy-tea, not so much.

You can see the reduction ad absurdum of appeals to Aussie values when you examine the compendium of cultural icons compiled by the Australian Nationalism Information Database. Our holy of holies consist, apparently, of:

Vegemite, Four ‘n’ Twenty meat pies, Goanna Oil, Hills Hoists, Akubra hats, thongs, the Coolgardie safe, R.M. Williams’ boots, Victa lawnmowers, the Australian Military badge, the lagerphone, Drizabone coats; Federation architecture; gold prospectors, shearers, stockmen, swaggies.

That’s right: the lagerphone. A stick with attached bottle-tops represents the quintessence of our culture. Perhaps they should have provided each APEC delegate with one!

The point is not to link Mr Howard with white power bovver boys but to draw attention to the triviality of Australian cultural clichés, something which makes them very useful for flag-draped politicians.

You can copy every dirty trick from Karl Rove’s playbook while simultaneously claiming that you’re dinky-di because you don’t rely on an auto-cue. And when you march lock-step into Iraq with George W. Bush, it’s not about “pseudo-Americanism” – no, it’s about not letting a mate down, cobber.

A bonzer trick, really.