Australian Perspectives on Europe

By Leal, Barry | Journal of European Studies, June 1994 | Go to article overview

Australian Perspectives on Europe


Leal, Barry, Journal of European Studies


I Social context since World War II

When Robert Gordon Menzies, Australia's longest serving Prime Minister (1939-1941 and 1946-1966), proclaimed that he was 'British to the bootstraps', he was expressing a view of Australian identity that was only occasionally questioned during his tenure of office. Despite such developments as Australia's growing political and cultural orientation towards the United States following the United Kingdom's decision to withdraw from east of Suez; the decision of the United Kingdom to link its destiny to the European Economic Community; and the influx of migrants from European sources other than the United Kingdom, Menzies presided over a period in which Australia was, at least officially, unquestioningly oriented culturally, emotionally and in many ways politically towards the U.K. Some indications of this orientation were the enormously successful Australian tour by the young Queen Elizabeth II in 1954; the support that Australia gave to Britain's intervention in the Suez crisis of 1956; such matters as having |British' in a more dominant position than |Australia' on Australian passports; and the policy of |assimilation' into Australian society of both migrants and Australian Aboriginals. Australians quite clearly were encouraged to see themselves as forming an outpost of British society in the Southern Seas and to seek their national identity in this context.

However, at the time of Menzies' disappearance from the political stage in the mid 1960s, profound changes in Australia's position in the world and in the composition of its population were making themselves felt. Much to the dismay of many in Australia, the United Kingdom had announced its intention to enter the EEC, placing in jeopardy Australia's principal market for its primary produce. Under pressure from the United States, its ally in the 1951 ANZUS pact, Australia made its first substantial military incursion into Asia by sending troops to Vietnam in 1965. In 1973, after at least a decade of intense debate and progressive modification, the highly controversial White Australia Policy, by which non-Caucasians were effectively denied any possibility of migrating to Australia, was finally dropped. Assisted passages became available to non-European migrants, and refugees from both Vietnam and East Timor were admitted. |Assimilation' was replaced by the less threatening 'integration' as cultural policy towards migrants and Aboriginals. Moreover, it was in these years that the word |British' disappeared from Australian passports. The adoption of the Australian accent by the Australian Broadcasting Commission dates from the same period.

Many of the attitudes and values underlying these changes received official recognition in the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s. Under the prime ministership of John Gorton (1968-1971) and especially that of Gough Whitlam (1972-1975), Australia's view of its changed place in the world and particularly of its changing cultural identity was emphasized.

The Vietnamese experience, the economic rise of Japan, and the necessity for Australia to normalize relations with the People's Republic of China, all had significant consequences for Australia's political stance towards Asia. Whitlam understood this fact better than most, with the result that two of his most significant early acts were to complete the withdrawal of Australia's troops from Vietnam and to recognize the People's Republic of China. However, Whitlam's attitudes to Asia were well ahead of public perceptions of Asian realities. In foreign policy he failed to carry the Australian people with him. This was partly due to the brevity of his tenure of the prime ministership (3 years) and the controversy surrounding the withdrawal from Vietnam.

If Australian attitudes to Asia had changed only marginally by the mid 1970s, they had changed appreciably in their orientation to Europe, principally through the effects of migration to Australia. …

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