Wow, we really are flavour of the month again here, or week, or day. Hot on the heels of the Rudd-Bush cringefest was the sourcing back to Oz of Earth Hour – that bizarre protest/ritual whereby green policies are equated with plunging modernity into medieval darkness, an environmental own-goal of Travoltesque proportions, I would have thought.

To a degree, and insofar as most Americans are aware of anything west of Hawaii, we’re functioning as a sort of double that shows the way things could be, a beta testing version if you will. If we can withdraw from Iraq, address climate change, act like we’re part of the world, and the sky still not fall, why can’t the good folks of Fat Thighs, Idaho?

Of course, there’s also a survival of the last time we were flavour of the month – the 80s with Crocodile Dundee, the first wave of aboriginal art sales etc etc. There’s a fast food chain called The Outback Steakhouse here – with a menu of items never served anywhere between Broken Hill and Broome – which is celebrating its twentieth anniversary. It’s all aboriginal x-ray pictures and didj music, the whole thing done in Ken Done colours, a pure capsule of another time, when John Howard was being written off as unfit for leadership by The Australian, the elites hadn’t been invented yet, and debate wasn’t conducted by a hysterical mob who thought that everything could be made good by lynching the QUT cultural studies department.

That it seems to be returning to such in Oz – the bubblehead operetta of 2020 notwithstanding – may be a harbinger of a similar shift. Should Obama beat the odds as they now stand and ascend to the office hitherto held by half a dozen slaveowners, the US meeja will have to alter its mode somewhat, for the simple reason that it would otherwise exile itself to a permanent irrelevance of political baiting and gaffe-watches.

This is particularly so for Fox News, which, like the local Murdoch arm, but on steroids, has served as a sort of ideological backwash system, endlessly swirling the same ideas around. Valerie Plame, the CIA spy outed by Karl Rove as revenge for her husband putting holes in the “African uranium for Iraq” story, noted in her memoir that Fox News played continuously in the company offices, and that any attempt to switch to CNN or god forbid BBC World was met with howls of disapproval, which pretty much puts the last five years in a nutshell.

Were most Americans to know more about Australia, what would they think? I suspect many would simply be unable to assimilate its hybridity – a frontier society with the sort of easy manners of all societies in which most people are strangers, yet with European style social democracy, or its remains. They thrill to tales of (Australian) Medicare, and notions like bulk billing, immediate rebates, etc, like they were accounts of exotic cuisines, the equivalent of Burmese monkey brains. Michael Moore tapped into this in Sicko – the movie that really restarted the health-care debate here by the simple collation of its many cruelties – with his panto-like tours of the NHS, looking for the cash register etc.

In fact, Moore could have dealt with the dominant fear Americans have of socialised health – that they won’t be able to get the doctor of their choice (as is the case with the UK NHS) – by featuring the Australian system which strikes me, after circumstantial comparison with the British, Swedish and US systems, as about the best in the world.

Australian Medicare gives the lie to the European/American either/or proposition, but what would really throw them is not only the arbitration system, but its restoration by the Australian public in 2007. Labour movement politics is actually more radical here because every strike, even for the smallest things, is effectively taking on the whole state, utterly disposed towards the employer. One of the reasons Hillary does well in industrial or ex-industrial states is that there’s a tradition of conscious politics, more disposed to concrete policies rather than talk of “the audacity of hope” etc.

Indeed what’s really interesting is that American union politics is what Australia’s might have been, had the Labor party never been formed, and the Harvester judgement never issued. The 1890s strikes had divided the labour movement as to whether they should have their own parliamentary representation, just as it had divided the American movement. We went for it, they didn’t, and that’s why people here pull a full shift at Walmart and still sleep in their cars.

The US and Oz have been a century-long experiment in different political systems and the results are in – social democracy, however partial, delivers a better life for more people, a more equal society, less crime-ridden, simply more civilised.

I suspect part of the interest in Rudd here is a measure of that. I think even the people who supported Dubya’s politics wondered who that little Ossie (soft s) crawler was standing beside him, willing to do the hatchet work on Osama Obama from an ocean away, and damn his own country’s separate interests.

They think the dreaming is the jumping x-ray kangaroos of the Outback Steakhouse, but really it’s a modern free-world society which actually works that they’re fantasising about. Obama’s hoping he can make them believe in that as a reality, and I would be surprised if the emerald city of Oz isnt namechecked more than a few times in the months to come.

Still, you wouldn’t want to exaggerate. They didn’t actually meet. Krudd and Hills did. They looked the couple at the end of the street who sidle up at a pool party and ask if you like to try “new things”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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