The Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, has begun a three-year cultural revolution. His multi-million dollar "Creative Nation" scheme vastly increases grants to the arts - or "Yartz", as they are known in Antipodean lingo - in a declared att empt toend the popular image of Australia as a country more interested in drinking than thinking. One of the foreign correspondents reporting on this subject at the weekend was called, rather wonderfully, Bruce Manners, which sounds exactly like a Strin e expression for Australian behaviour.
As a visitor to Australia as regularly as time and money have allowed, I am sorry that Mr Keating thinks Bruce manners need improving. For a start, Mr Keating is Prime Minister of the only country in the world which is generally best known for an opera house, which suggests that his country's international profile is more complex than he seems to believe.
It is true that Barry Humphries' satirical creation Sir Les Patterson, "Australian cultural attache" to the Court of St James", is a joke that depends entirely on the idea that Australia has no culture, or that the country's arts czar, if one existed, would be a flatulent, alcoholic womaniser. It is also the case that the Australian novelist Peter Carey, catching a taxi to Heathrow airport after winning the Booker Prize, was asked by the Cockney driver: "Over here to get some culture, were y o u?" Stereotypes about Australia clearly exist, but, in England particularly they are largely the defensive prejudices of sore former colonisers towards a nation with greater cricketers and better weather. The mistake of Mr Keating's "Creative Nation" sch eme is that it panders to European prejudices, and suggests defensiveness on Australia's own part.
For example, Rebecca Hossack - the real occupant of the job that Sir Les Patterson held in jest - has been quoted as saying that "Creative Nation" is an attempt to end the "cultural cringe", a central concept in modern Australian artistic history. She e x plained: "That phrase referred to the way that Australians used to cringe at the prospect of culture." I hate to argue with an Australian cultural attache on a point of her own history, but it had always been my understanding that the "cultural cringe"r eferred to the inherited colonial belief of Australians that European - and, especially, British - culture was superior to anything the locals might produce. In this respect, Keating's three-year plan is an example of the "cultural cringe", rather than a n attempt to end it.
Bizarrely, the Prime Minister is denying what has always seemed to this outsider the most striking aspect of modern Australia: its cultural self-confidence and creation of a personality distinct from the mother country. This is true across both high and low culture. The light side is easily dismissed - Neighbours, Crocodile Dundee, Castlemaine XXXX - but these represent significant economic assaults on previous British or American monopolies.
The Australian colony of directors in Hollywood - Peter Weir, Bruce Beresford, Fred Schepisi, Gillian Armstrong - are part of the same - these days, rare - phenomenon of a cultural export business to balance the inevitable American imports. This is also true in literature, where the versatility of Thomas Keneally and Tim Winton, the exuberant intellect of Peter Carey and the innovation of Jeanette Turner Hospital are developing into a national literature that flattens any nonsense about the late Nobel laureate Patrick White being some kind of freak Australian brain. Most Australian fiction is of high seriousness, far from commercial in intention, although a critic joked of one of them that "Ms Hospital has a name known in every town in the world."
Why would Paul Keating think that this nation needed to remake its culture? The answer, I think, is that he is ruinously in love with the European sensibility. In the memoirs of his rival Bob Hawke, Keating is often quoted on the attractions of Paris, towhich he allegedly planned to decamp with his family if he failed to become premier. Given this record, there must be a strong suspicion that the "Creative Nation" scheme is part of an attempt to bring Paris to the Pacific. But cultural uncertainty has long been the Australian curse, and the Prime Minister's revival of it - at the precise moment that it has become unnecessary - will encourage international prejudice, rather than reduce it. Bruce manners are fine as they are.
Back in Britain, there have been startling developments in the past few days for two former prime ministers. Unexpected links have been revealed between Sir Edward Heath and the Moonies; and the columnist Paul Johnson has called for the immediate return of Baroness Thatcher to No 10.
Sir Edward has admitted appearing as a speaker at three World Peace meetings organised by the Rev Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church - the American-based cult better known as the Moonies, which has been accused of brainwashing young followers.
It should be made clear that Mr Heath is not himself a Moonie. He does have a certain physical resemblance to the Rev Moon - both are rotund and mysterious - but here the similarity ends. The Rev Moon is best known for his association with mass weddings,in which hundreds of young couples simultaneously take their vows in football stadiums. Mr Heath has never been associated with weddings, mass or otherwise. Equally, the Rev Moon is legendary for attracting millions of fanatically devoted followers. Mr Heath, for the 20 years since he left office, has had almost no followers.
It is claimed by the Sunday Express, which uncovered the Heath-Moon connection, that the church uses our former prime minister's name in recruitment material. But why would a cult that demands beaming obedient faces hold up as a role model a man famous for the longest sulk in democratic history and for holding out against doctrinal orthodoxy?
It would be too cheap to say that Lady Thatcher has become involved with the Loonies, but a piece by Paul Johnson in yesterday's Daily Mail does tempt you. Apparently there would be little difficulty in Lady Thatcher resuming her premiership, if she wer e to challenge and defeat John Major. Although she is a peer, the "simple" solution, according to Johnson, would be for the House of Commons to pass a motion admitting her to the Lower Chamber twice a week to take Prime Minister's Questions.
Odd, isn't it, that those who insist - on such matters as royalty, Europe and Scottish devolution - on the primacy of constitution and precedent, should be so cavalier when promoting their mad fantasy of a Thatcherite restoration?
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies