Australian Secessionisms

By: | Post date: August 6, 2009 | Comments: 4 Comments
Posted in categories: Personal
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Léo Langlois reasonably asks why on earth I’m obsessing about Quebec (and now Acadia). That’s still a future post, though I’ve dropped hints already in comments.

John Cowan reasonably asks why I’m defending federalism, and have I not had dark thoughts of seceding from the Commonwealth of Australia, like New Yorkers had of joining the United States of Canada in 2004.

First, given my last post on Acadieman, the “United States of Canada” line just confirms the old fears of “Les Américains entament l’invasion de l’Acadie” (Ser. 3 Ep. 11: “Loyalist—Préserver. Acadien: ANNULER!”). I know noone was entirely serious about the USC (were they?), but I’m curious how the Canadians, fresh from their Molson’s Beer Declaration Of Independence, took the whole shtick.

But be that as it may, a post on Australian secessionism.

Have I hankered to secede because wowsers have impinged on me? (With kudos for John using the right word “wowsers”, of course.) I haven’t, because to the extent that wowsers impinge on me, there’s enough of them locally already, that I don’t get to secede from. The geographically delimited wowsers have wanted to secede from me, which makes more sense. And the combination of natural resources and geographical distance has made Alberta-On-The-Indian-Ocean want to secede even more. Although only one clown has managed to set up a souvenir shop micronation.

To take things in order. And a warning in advance: this post starts with a defence of porn, and ends with a craving to decapitate monarchs. Heady stuff.

A wowser—Australian slang for a censorious moralist, a stick in the mud—is what at least some Australians would call the instigators of a police raid against the only porn studio I am aware of in Melbourne (complete with Wikipedia Cabal mediation), down self-consciously bohemian Fitzroy way. (And as you’d expect, with a very Fitzroy take on porn: the producers at least proclaim they’re pro-women, although what the consumers make of it is out of the producers’ control.) And yes, I know some would not call it wowserism at all, and that’s actually the point of why I bring it up. The kicker is, said instigators are the Murdoch Press.

Let us assume that police raids against porn studios are the most pressing concern Fitzroy faces in this present day. Actually, with the feds confiscating books on jihad from the University of Melbourne library, and the Great Firewall of Australia still on the agenda (and including said Fitzroy studio, as well as random dentists’ sites), you’ll pardon my free speech absolutism for seeing it as a syndrome of something larger.

Assuming then that a bunch of Fitzroy porn consumers and free speech zealots will opt out of the Commonwealth over this… exactly who gets to secede? Not the State of Victoria, which is not restricted to Melbourne. Not the Far Eastern Suburbs of Melbourne, which have their own Bible Belt going (and whose less Far Eastern counterparts only recently repealed Prohibition). Does this end up being the Republic of Inner Melbourne? Is it delimited by the Zone 1/Zone 2 public transport boundary, or the furthest reach of trams into suburbia? I could easily end up having to show a passport to go to work each morning.

The absurdity is, a culture war issue, such as “wowser” implies, is not something to secede over, because the subcultural units at war could never work as political units. The Republic of New York City article John linked to didn’t quite know what to do with Upstate New York either, but it knew it couldn’t count on Upstate’s support. Or rather, the culture was has to coalesce into a widespread distinct regional identity, the kind that ends up being a distinct ethnicity. Fitzroy porn, or free speech absolutism, is not the issue that’s going to make latte-sipping cosmopolitan perverts a distinct ethnicity. At least, not yet.

And it’s not the culture war itself that made the Yankees yearn for countersecession in 2004, but the political consequences of the culture war. A wowser—Australian slang for a censorious moralist, a stick in the mud—is how a New Yorker must think of the culturally conservative South. Especially as it has held the North to electoral ransom in recent elections. Australia’s Deep South is the Deep North of Queensland. And in fact elections have been decided in Queensland over the past decade. Queensland saw the defeat of Keating, the flourishing of Hanson, and—through demographical changes parallel to what’s now happening in parts of the US South—it’s also seen the election of Rudd, himself a Queenslander. So there was an excuse for thinking of cutting Queensland loose. And Australia, like Canada and the US, was begotten as a federation because its colonies just plain did not like each other enough to begin with.

Yet there has been no ground for separatist sentiment to prosper in NSW and VIC. We’re too arrogant to form the United States of New Zealand, and between us, we’re still running the country; why would *we* secede from anywhere? More importantly, the heterogeneity of Australia has been substantially defanged. Melbourne and Sydney resent each other mildly, but noone I know goes so far as to say they’re New South Welsh first, Australian second. And even though the states here retain decision-making powers, they don’t have much of a revenue basis (though a spectacular constitutional powergrab by the Feds during World War II), and not much of a pull against Canberra.

Our nation building and mythology has been quite thoroughly and successfully centralist: few Australians I know could articulate an emotive defence of federalism. We have State cricket, but pay much more attention to international cricket. We have some state rivalry in football and rugby; in fact State rivalry has been conscripted as an acceptable alternative to ethnic rivalry in soccer. So we are allowed to yell at South Australians in the stadium. In the case of rugby between NSW and QLD, state rivalry is thoroughly institutionalised in the State of Origin Rugby whatever-it-is. (It’s North Of The Border; I don’t know how it works.) But think of ourselves as something essentially different? I’m not seeing it.

Even though we don’t fully get each other (“It’s North Of The Border; I don’t know how it works”), and we fall back on the shorthand of stereotypes. Tasmania: inbred. Adelaide: boring. Canberra: civil servants (and boring). Sydney: flashy. Melbourne: morose. Brisbane: parvenue. Perth: … very far away (and parvenue). Darwin: very far away and hot.

(And screw you Baz Luhrmann, for calling a movie about what one British aristocrat makes of the very far away and hot Darwin “Australia”, because a British aristocrat’s view of the homeland of Crocodile Dundee is still supposed to be the definition of my country somehow. What a drongo. But then, after the forehead-impaling folly of Moulin Rouge!, I shouldn’t have expected any, you know, profundity in his construction of Australia.)

So we all do stereotypes, and Baz Luhrmann picks antiquated stereotypes to generate US box office buzz. Because we ignore each other behind a wall of stereotypes, we also don’t know all of each others’ stereotypes. I quizzed a friend what Brisbanites thought of Melbourne: if VIC is “Mexico” to NSW, and NSW is “Mexico “to QLD (“south of the border”, and that not in a respectful way), then what’s Melbourne to Brisbane? Now, Brisbane is demographically changing, as a big city, and my friend is at the vanguard of the latte-drinking movement (he’s lived a while in Melbourne); so he may have a skewed perspective. But according to him, Melbourne to Brisbanites is a far-away place with good shopping and fashion, and doesn’t figure in their daily conscience the way NSW might.

So if Brisbane = Toronto, Sydney = Montreal, and Melbourne = … Milan. Well, that beats Sydney = San Francisco, Melbourne = Toronto.

Nation-states are heterogeneous, however they might have homogenised their ethnicities. So long as there is a majority anything in the nation state—even if they’re as identical as the Anglo cultures of the Australian states seem from a far distance: even then, someone is not going to do as well out of the deal. The aggrieved party is always the one who wants out of the marriage.

I only know of two wanting-outs in Australia that have been articulated. The first is culture-based: not Queensland, because South-East Queensland is rapidly becoming NSW in its culture and politics: Brisbane is a big city. It’s North Queensland seceding from those liberal cosmopolitan urban bits of Queensland. The issue there hasn’t been porn (that I know of); the big issue I’m aware of, because it affects my work, is that North Queensland is forcing South Queensland not to adopt Daylight Saving. (And there the issue is latitudinal more than it is cultural.) But North Queensland is finding it increasingly difficult to make common cause with The Big Smoke. The main stumbling block for them (apart from the small matter of the implausibility of the whole thing) is that they can’t agree on which small regional North Queensland town would be their capital.

The other is secessionism in Western Australia. WA is a very, very far way from the Eastern Seabord. They’ve long resented their money and their authority going eastward; in fact there was a referendum on independence in 1933. Which won! The catch is, the state government which was going to enact the independence was simultaneously voted out of office; and because Australia western and eastern both still kowtowed to London, London successfully stalled the whole thing until the secessionists gave up.

Now WA has even more money, and still resents the money and the authority going eastward. So it’s an Alberta kind of secessionism, certainly not a Quebec kind. It isn’t being articulated as an explicit move to cut ties quite yet; but the once I went to Perth, I was struck that there were the trappings of a separate state identity, something now marginalised elsewhere in Australia. The black swan of the WA state flag was everywhere; I don’t think most Victorians even know what their state flag looks like. (And with the minor difference between the state and the federal flag, I don’t blame them.) Bookstores had West Australian authors sections; bookstores in Fitzroy would die laughing at the notion of a Victorian authors shelf. There is a Buy West Australian campaign; and Dick Smith had just fallen afoul of it because his jams were made of WA fruit, but were bottled Back East.

This floored me, because I didn’t see the cultural underpinning of any sense of separateness. Well, except for driving in Perth. The fact that all the drivers around me were 10 k under the speed limit in a highway was very much a cultural identity issue to me; and as I was driving, I was constructively urging my fellow Australian drivers to adopt a common, strong national identity, by driving closer to the national speed norm.

NICK: Get with the f**ing programme already! Jehosaphat! I can’t believe I’m doing 50 in a 60 zone! I CAN’T BELIEVE AN URBAN HIGHWAY IS LIMITED TO 60 KM/H!

Luckily for me, my fellow Australian drivers could not hear a word I was speaking. Maybe because I was speaking Spanish to their Portuguese, or whatever analogy they use for Back Easterners. Or maybe because my window was rolled up…

It may be secessionism in the water that gave rise to the Hutt River Principality. I checked out the origins of this WA micronation, and was roused to a familiar fury of centralist indignation; so it’s good to know my attempts to understand What Quebec Wants have not blunted my core political values. Whatever the rights and wrongs and struggles and intricacies of Quebec, it sullies sovereigntism to mention it in the same breath as this jumped up clown, who has proclaimed himself a separate country so he’d get out of paying his revised wheat quotas, and styled himself a monarch cos you can’t arrest monarchs, quotha, that’s treason by an 1495 law.

YOU WANT TO TALK TO ME ABOUT TREASON, YOU LIBERTARIAN OAF? And while you’re at it, why dontcha ask Charles I how well that 1490s law on lèse majesté helped him out.

Australia is not sending in the troops, I’d like to think, because the jumped up clown, as a tourist attraction and printer of fake money, generates more tourist income for the Commonwealth than would be squandered by organising a raid on the middle of nowhere to recover AUD 5303.72.

But the spitting in the eye of the People of Australia is there, even if the ABC journos think it’s so terribly cute. I want to bring in the slippery slope of any number of Australian laws and treaties this guy can violate because he’s ignoring Australian law. (Gitmo on Hutt River. There’s a reason Gitmo was in Gitmo and not the States to begin with.) But the flaunting of the Australian Taxation Office is enough to get my goat already. The man is setting his souvenir shop up as a TAX HAVEN! He’s forcing my government’s ambassador in Dubai to waste time clarifying that no, the jumped up clown isn’t actually a country! ARGH!

And the pièce de resistance, the bit that wants me to don commando gear and go shoot up a souvenir shop in Middle Of Nowhere WA: the guy still professes loyalty to Elizabeth II. So you diss my country, you diss my government, you diss the founding myths of damper and Gallipoli and the inspirational fiction of a classless society (A MONARCH! He styles himself an ABSOLUTE MONARCH!) … and the core of loyalty you have kept with you, the one thing you would not sacrifice on an altar of fake postage stamps and constitutional crotchet-work, is allegiance to… the Queen of Fricking England.

If that’s not an argument for an Australian Republic, I know not what is. And the refusal of the Australian Taxation Office to collect taxes from the jumped up clown, since he declared “war” on Australia (TREASON! Mother-loving TREASON!!!), or of Australian officials to detain him at the airport when he fronts up with his own crayon-sketched passport… is almost reason enough to secede from Australia itself. Yes, I know it doesn’t actually matter. Yet in a sense, if a country is to present itself as something worth fighting for… it really does matter.

Apparently the legal black hole which has prevented the troops going in in the first place has a lot to do with the misaligned way WA was set up as a colony to begin with. Yeah, thanks a bunch, colonial administrators from 200 years ago.

… Maybe that’s why I like Quebec in the end. They don’t do libertarianism either…


  • jcowan says:

    And okay, my favorite Newf joke:

    "Why are your ears bandaged?"

    "I was ironing my clothes and the phone rang."

    "But why both ears?"

    "I had to call 911, didn't I."

  • jcowan says:

    The "in lieu of mentioning" was a rhetorical stratagem too: praeteritio, though I'm sure it has a Greek name as well.

    I think killjoy is rather dated, though not because the article itself has disappeared; it feels vaguely pre-Sixties to me.

    The right question is not, I think, "Why is French spoken there at all?" but "Why isn't French spoken across much of the continent, instead of in a few relic areas of which Quebec happens to be the largest?" The answer is that Britain beat France in the Seven Years War, called La Guerre de la Conquête in Quebec, of course.

    Things went otherwise in the alternative universe of Ill Bethisad; see the North American map about halfway down the atlas page, which shows plenty of French. (Bethisad means 'universe' in Brithenig, the Brito-Romance language spoken in what would be Wales.)

    As for Newfoundland, it's sort of like why German unification didn't happen sooner, only without the Russians: Newfoundland, the "Senior Colony", was too proud, and Canada didn't want to spend the money.

    An anti-(Newf joke) joke:

    After 1949, a bunch of Newfie fishermen are stopped by the Canadian Coast Guard.

    "Are you sure those are Newfoundland fish you're catching, and not Canadian ones?"

    "Yes, sor; we only keeps the Newfoundland fish, the Canadian ones we throws back."

    "Oh? How can you tell?"

    "Simple. If the fish's mouth is open, it's a Canadian."

  • opoudjis says:

    The double definition was a rhetorical strategem. 🙂

    Wowserism is a relative thing, and I'm sure there are pockets in reserve elsewhere in the world. Latin America is probably largely untapped at the mo'.

    Isn't killjoy in use Stateside? There's a word to designate them.

    Back from Quebec, I've burbled about my enthusiasm to several friends, who've asked in response "So… what's the history of Canada?" (Meaning, as I immediately realise, "Why is French spoken there at all?") Pardon us Canadians, we don't learn much at school. *I* certainly didn't. I'm grateful we at least gave a glance at the Weimar Republic and the Eureka Stockade.

    But this whole Newfoundland stays out of Canada until 1949 thing—which means they fought in Gallipoli as yet another British Dominion: that's bizarre to me too. I have met a couple of Newfie linguists, btw: it looks like a fun place for reasons of its own.

  • John Cowan says:

    In lieu of mentioning that you defined wowser twice, I will quote the bit from Mencken's masterly The American Language where I first learned the word:

    It is a pity that American has not borrowed the Australian invention wowser. Says a writer in the Manchester Guardian: “Wowser, whether used as an adjective or a substantive, covers everyone and everything that is out of sympathy with what some people consider la joie de vivre. A wowser, as a person, is one who desires to close public-houses, prevent shouting (Australese for treating), and so on — in short, one who intends to limit the opportunities ‘of all professions that go the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire.’ ” In the United States fully 99 per cent of all the world’s wowsers rage and roar, and yet we have no simple word to designate them.

    I love how Tasmanians, at least according to WP, refer to the mainland as "the North Island". Subtle.

    Speaking of Gallipoli (and Canada), who knew there were Newfs there? This should give rise to a whole new line of Newf jokes….

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