Strewth, even Oz has gone PC

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This is either my second trip to Australia or my first, depending on the way you look at it. I was physically present in Australia and New Zealand for a three-day tour in 1968, but my attention was focused almost exclusively on a non-Australian phenomenon: Dean Rusk, then Secretary of State in President Johnson's increasingly unhappy United States administration.

Australia had been more supportive than any other country (except Taiwan) of America's war in Vietnam, but by 1968 even Australia's appetite for that doomed venture was beginning to flag. Rusk went out to try and rally Australian support, and Australian opponents of involvement in the war had asked for help from those in the US who opposed the war. I was teaching at New York University and was detailed to dog Rusk's footsteps through the Antipodes to try to counteract any impression he might make on the media in favour of the war.

As it turned out, Rusk hardly needed any counteracting. The issue of the hour was the bombing of Hanoi, which had been central to American policy at the time the Secretary of State's plane took off from Washington, and the prime object of Rusk's mission was to vindicate this unpopular policy. But while Rusk was on his way to Australia his President suddenly changed his mind and announced the cessation of the bombing of Hanoi. For some reason, the airborne Secretary of State was not informed. As soon as Rusk disembarked at Sydney, the first question he faced was a tongue-in-cheek one: why did the US find it necessary to engage in the massive bombing of Hanoi? Rusk's reply was that the bombing of Hanoi was vitally necessary to the defence of the Free World.

Then the news of the change was broken to him. His only comment was that 'this was yet one more demonstration of President Johnson's commitment to the cause of peace'. The Rusk mission never recovered from this false start.

The Australians of today want to forget that they ever gave any degree of support to the bombing of Asians. Today, relations between Australia and its increasingly prosperous and powerful Asian neighbours are 'correct with a capital K', to use an expression I have heard used to describe relations between Irish and Swedish contingents on a UN operation.

Nothing prepared me for the discovery of an Australia in the grip of the politically correct, yet that is the prevailing condition of official discourse here. Asian sensibilities - that is to say, the sensibilities of the rulers of Asia - are taken punctiliously into account. Other countries may lecture Asian governments in their human rights responsibilities, but for modern official Australians, this is out of the question. It is even distressing for Australian officialdom that other white leaders should admonish Asians in this way.

Paradoxically, while official Australia refrains from all criticism of Asian internal policies, it is uneasily conscious of critical Asian eyes looking at Australia's internal policies for signs of 'white Australian' predilections. Australian aboriginals - or some of them - are benefiting from this sensitivity to Asian opinion.

At the time of my last visit, Australian officialdom was still blatantly racist. In New Zealand airports, in departure areas for flights to Australia, Australian government notices warned passengers that passengers could be turned back if their appearance or demeanour were perceived as 'uncivilised'. Some indications were given of criteria of uncivilisation: non-European dress, for example, or the carrying around of cooking utensils. Today, racism is altogether repudiated at the official level, and legislation is in preparation that could make racist statements by private citizens a criminal offence.

Many Australians, including some who have no racist tendencies and who challenged the old official racism, are uncomfortable about the current hegemony of the politically correct. This is partly because it seems to go against the grain of the Australian style and character, outspoken and breezy. The official discourse is getting dangerously remote from ordinary Strine, and has an unpleasantly hypocritical ring in its domestic context.

Another reason is that the deference to Asian sensibilities is commercially constrained, and expressive of a degree of geopolitical apprehension. I have heard reference to 'the Asian cringe'. Those who use this expression mean that the present establishment is cringing before Asian despotisms in a manner that is more repellent than was the tendency of an older Australian establishment to cringe before the British upper classes.

In discussing these matters with Australian friends during my present visit, I have put the point that surely the hegemony of the politically correct is preferable to the old official racism. That point is not contested. What is contested is the idea that the new anti- racist policies are bringing any signifi cant benefit to the aboriginal population at large. The main beneficiaries of laws supposed to protect the aboriginals are said to be an enterprising minority, claiming some aboriginal blood, but in fact long assimilated in to the white culture, and only now finding it expedient to speak for the aboriginals; to the benefit of themselves.

Racial issues, and uneasiness about the long-term future of a white enclave in Greater Asia, surface often in conversation, and are present below the surface in the media. But there is also a lot of cheerfulness in the air, as Australia emerges, with almost spectacular buoyancy, from the long recession. Official figures published this week are redolent of Australian prosperity:

Country GDP Inflation Australia 5.0 1.4 Britain 2.6 2.3 Germany 0.9 3.2 Japan 0.8 1.3

Economists, particularly those with links to the conservative opposition, discern disturbing trends beneath those figures, but for the moment Australians are feeling pretty good, whatever their long-term uneasiness. This Australian winter, which opened on 1 June, is not one of discontent.

(Photograph omitted)