Island-Consciousness and Australian Strategic Culture

By Evans, Michael | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, July 2006 | Go to article overview

Island-Consciousness and Australian Strategic Culture


Evans, Michael, Review - Institute of Public Affairs


One of the most curious aspects of Australian national culture is the absence of a significant maritime tradition. This is a striking paradox in that, as an island-continent dependent on sea communications, trade and alliances, Australia should be the archetype of a liberal maritime nation. As the leading geographer, Saul B. Cohen put it in his 1964 study, Geography and Politics in a Divided World, Australia's geopolitical character is that of a 'trade dependent maritime state' whose interests are tied to a larger offshore Asian and Oceanic geo-strategic region. The reality of Australia's maritime environment is further underlined by the fact that its coastline is 35,877 kilometres in length while its northern approaches are ringed by 13,000 islands stretching for over 5,000 kilometres through the island archipelagos from the Cocos Islands through Java to Fiji.

Australia's Continental Culture

Yet, despite these factors, a maritime character is not imprinted on the Australian psyche. Indeed, it is arguably the missing element in the country's sense of its history. As the Western Australian maritime historian, Frank Broeze, has lamented, Australians are a coastal people with a continental outlook, an island-nation with an inward focus. To a great extent, this paradox has its origins in the tension between Australia's geographical position in the Asia-Pacific and its historical heritage as an outpost of Anglo-Celtic civilisation. Geographical position suggests that security be sought by looking inwards to the vastness of a continental island. Heritage suggests that Australia look outward as an island-continent in a maritime embrace of cultural values.

For most of Australia's history, isolation and distance ensured that it was continental awareness not islandconsciousness that dominated nearly all the major aspects of Australian culture. In politics, Australian Federation in 1901 was the culmination of a philosophy of continental union rather than of island unity. As Prime Minister Edmund Barton memorably put it, Federation established 'a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation'. Today, over a century later, a powerful 'continental regionalism' continues to dominate the outlook of many of the States, particularly Queensland and Western Australia.

Continental awareness also infuses Australian literature and art-from the poems of Henry Lawson, through the novels of Ion Idriess and Patrick White, to the paintings of the Heidelberg School and of Sidney Nolan. Lawson's poetry captures the levelling romantic egalitarianism of the bush, later upheld by Russel Ward in his The Australian Legend. Idriess's popular 1932 novel, Flynn of the Inland, tells the quintessential outback story of the establishment of the flying doctor service. By the early 1970s, the book had gone through no fewer than 24 editions. Patrick White's Voss, based on the career of the explorer Ludwig Leichardt, is a haunting story of doomed exploration into the volcanic silence of the dead inner landscape of Australia. Here, in the inland, writes White, with a piercing visual continentalism, 'the great empty mornings were terrible until the ball of the sun was tossed skyward'.

The paintings of the Heidelberg masters, such as Frederick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton, celebrate pastoral landscape, while Nolan's famous paintings of Ned Kelly capture the interior world of the bushranger, not the seafarer. In the words of Ian Mudie, it is the outback, not the ocean that grips the minds of Australians 'like heart and blood, from heat to mist'. In 1976, when John Bach published his A Maritime History of Australia, he conceded that 'there has been [in Australia] a lack of what might be called a national maritime tradition'.

Island-Consciousness and Strategic culture

Not surprisingly, continental awareness has been the major feature of Australia's strategic culture and its pervasiveness has long inhibited Australia's security and defence policies from expressing the nation's true geopolitical identity as a 'trade dependent maritime state'. …

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