by Brendan Gallagher
Australia needs a new language in the opinion of British-born journalist and author Nick Bryant. But before you get rid of your dictionaries, it is not the English language per se that Mr Bryant believes needs changing, but rather how Australia uses it.
“You have a national vocabulary that’s no longer fits the purpose,” he said. “The land down under, the antipodes, the reference point was Britain. It’s a language from the 19th century and it’s a language from the northern hemisphere.”
Mr Bryant believes that with the global focus having shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the emphasis needs to be shifted from the idea of the ‘tyranny of distance’ to the ‘power of proximity’.
He pointed to the “weird” language around republicanism as a prime example. When the subject comes up, he said Australia is seen as the “troublesome adolescent”, the “stroppy teenager”.
“The Sydney Olympics are your ‘coming of age’. The idea that Australia is an immature country is absurd. You might not be fully realised, but which country is?”
Mr Bryant was speaking at a panel discussion on ‘What is Australia For?’ at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Also on the panel were Robyn Archer, singer, writer and public advocate for the arts, and Frank Moorhouse, award-winning author. They have each contributed an essay on the subject to the latest edition of The Griffith Review.
Mr Bryant believes there is a “cringe thinking” mentality that gives too much credit for Australia’s success to its resources and not enough to the economic model it’s developed. He said that the rest of the world was viewing what he termed the “Australian Model” with awe.
“You’ve missed the last three recessions – the 2000 dot-com bubble burst, the Asian financial crisis and the GFC,” he said. “Your budget debate is about surplus, it’s just extraordinary.”
Mr Bryant also spoke of Australian cultural successes overseas, citing Cate Blanchett’s role in A Streetcar Named Desire, which won critical acclaim in New York and Christos Tsiolkas’ book The Slap, which was long-listed for the Man Booker prize.
Robyn Archer also believes Australia is succeeding culturally on the world stage. She gave the example of presenting at the Australian Performing Arts Market, where new works seek investors. She said almost every one of the companies presenting had international tours.
“I compare that to when the Performing Arts Market started and almost nobody had international tours,” she said. “The cultural reach that we’re doing at the moment, in almost every imaginable cultural manifestation, is really enormous.”
But Mr Bryant believes there is a disparity between Australia’s success and how it views itself.
“I’m constantly struck by how reluctant Australians are, outside of the sporting realm where, to be honest, you can be a bit cocky, but outside of that there is a reluctance often to embrace the idea of national success, “ he said, adding that he thought what is holding Australia back is the current state of its politics.
“The politics is junk,” he said. “People around the world, and visitors to Australia, come away with this bizarre kind of bifurcated view of this country. There are so much great things happening at moment, but then they go and sit in at Question Time and they write these excoriating pieces about the quality of your politics. The quality of your politics is a real problem and the quality of your leadership is a real problem.“
However Frank Moorhouse tempered the view of success with a caution on what he sees as a growth in inequality. “There is a growing disparity and it’s serious.”
He believes there is a “two-track system” emerging in areas such as legal redress, health and education. “We’re gradually dividing Australia on the basis of income,” he said.
Mr Bryant believes a greater focus on Australia’s international successes would help its self-image problem.
“If you sent your cultural reporters around the world in the same way that you send your sporting reporters around the world, send them to the Booker, send them to the Venice Biennale, send them to New York, send them to London, and they’d be reporting back on some extraordinary achievements,” he said.