Order the autumn edition here

The blonde, friendly giant

The Australian self-image is a # &% § @! imagination.


[nation pictures] Banneord is a well-known minefield in a foreign language. It is difficult for a foreigner to calculate their strength and not exceed the invisible limit. Germans and French spice up their language with scheiße or cage to emphasize the meaning, while we English speakers never become as liberal with our shit. That said, it is probably not possible to speak a language very fluently without using at least some mild expressions. They create a relaxed intimacy between language users who, by using such, tacitly put the formalities aside.

Australians are notorious for being direct and informal. It was probably the desire to create a friendly intimacy that was the driving force behind the use of language in a newly-produced advertising campaign. The price tag was 180 million Australian taxpayer dollars, and the purpose of the internationally targeted campaign was to lure tourists to the continent.

The commercial is a smooth production where sugary music accompanies the image as it glides across rainforests, coral reefs, the red monolith Uluru, Sydney's harbor and other truly magnificent sights. The actors tell what they have done to prepare for the arrival of the visitors: "We have washed the camels", "We have fished the sharks out of the swimming pool" and "Dinner is ready". Finally, the camera stops at a woman sitting alone on a virgin sandy beach, wearing only a bikini. She smiles and asks, "So where the hell are you?" (So where the bloody hell are you?)

Bloody is not a terribly nasty word. I might not use it with my grandmother or when I talk to the tax office on the phone, but if the word should slip out of me anyway, I wouldn't feel the need to apologize afterwards. It's a common word: it's a comedian who calls himself Kevin Bloody Wilson (presumably to get his critics in the lead). If you really don't want to do anything, say no bloody way and the like.

Nevertheless, the British censorship authorities stopped advertising because of unseemly language. Here in Australia it led to a good deal of kneading over British stuffiness. It also led to a good deal of stuffiness on our part. The question many asked was whether a mild form of obscenity actually reflects this nation's soul? Or is it damn Australian?

No one expects a tourist advertisement to truly reflect reality. At least not in the case of something as indefinable as the soul of the nation. While it is true that there are stunning, Australian landscapes that are almost deserted, it is equally true that Australia is by far the world's most urban nation. We have the highest percentage of people living in cities with more than two million inhabitants, and also the record for cities over 500.000. While it is true that there are people here who welcome foreigners, the opposite is true.

I've been thinking a lot about the "soul of the nation" because I'm still trying to understand the dramatic change in the Australian mentality. It may have happened gradually, but the difference hit us in the face of August 2001. It was then that Norwegian ship captain Arne Rinnan in Tampa both bravely and correctly saved a boatload of mainly Afghan refugees from drowning just off our coast. And that was when our government, to smuggle in with its (and my) people, refused to help them.

The government then went on to win the next election after a racist anti-refugee campaign that included locking women, children and men inside detention centers indefinitely, sending them to makeshift prisons in Nauru, and inventing stories of refugees who threatened to drown their own children if they were not saved. (This latest story, supported by a cropped image that turned out to be of a father trying to lift his child to safety from a sinking boat, must be one of the most offensive racist inaccuracies that has occurred in a Western country since World War II).

I grew up in the 1980s, when one was proud of Australia's peace, and of the vibrant multicultural, multi-ethnic community we had. A local TV campaign showed child faces in all colors to the slogan "I am, you are, we are Australians". Some twenty years later, the country is flooded with detention centers.

I see the beauty of the new tourist advertisement, but I can't help but think that in the deserted deserts and the sad outer suburbs of this country, innocent asylum seekers have been locked in indefinitely by a sitting government in search of votes.

The British authorities eventually changed their mind and allowed the advertisement. The truth is, of course, that it is not our language that is offensive. It is our government.

Anna Funder is an Australian journalist, author and lawyer. Her book Stasiland has been published in Norwegian. Funder writes exclusively for Ny Tid.

Translated by Anne Arneberg

You may also like