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November 02nd 2012 print

Merv Bendle

Gillard’s Asian ‘cargo cult’

Heavy on cliches and light on substance, the Prime Minister's hope of placing Australia at the forefront of "the Asian Century" is written in the ink of delusion and political desperation


Who gave Julia Gillard a mandate to Asianise Australian society? While there are obvious reasons to maximize our commercial engagement with various Asian countries that doesn’t require Australia be re-made as some sort of ersatz Asian community.


Moreover, “Asia” is in no way a monolithic or homogenous entity, but rather a geographical construct, with Japan, China, or Korea, having less in common with India than Australia does. Nor is there any indication that Australians of Asian (or other) origins have any desire to see the Western liberal democratic values and institutions of their adopted country replaced by “Asian” values and institutions.

Indeed, Gillard’s sudden desire to Asianise Australia illustrates the ideological bankruptcy of the federal Labor government. Having failed abysmally in so many other grandiose ‘nation-building’ exercises it has now embraced a ‘cargo cult’ view of Asia as its latest narrative to justify its increasingly illegitimate hold on power.

Consequently, Gillard apparently hopes that the manifest failures of the Labour government will be obscured by extravagant claims that Australia will be able to exploit economic opportunities generated by the alleged rise of the “Asian middle class” to propel our living standards into the Top 10 in the world, and that this will occur without actually doing anything about many difficult issues, especially in the area of economic reform, where much hard work is required to improve productivity, free up the labour market, eliminate rent-seeking, and to combat corruption, especially in the union movement, as it continues to spread its tentacles across the economy.

As one commentator has noticed, Gillard’s speech promoting the Asianisation of Australia was “a succession of sentences without a verb”; a litany of desirable outcomes without any indication that real action, resources, sacrifices, and compromises will be required to achieve them.  

Perhaps it is fitting that under Gillard’s reign Australia may belatedly join other societies in the southwest Pacific in succumbing to the cargo cult mentality. This first emerged in New Guinea and other Melanesian and Micronesian societies shortly after the arrival of Western explorers and settlers in the 19th century, but it was the Second World War that really drove these cults, as the native people in the region marveled at the immense resources deployed by the military forces. After the war they then attempted to restore the flow of goods through various religious rituals and by mimicking the activity they had witnessed – even building rudimentary airstrips and control towers and lighting up the runways with fires, while also making crude copies of the mysterious technologies they’d observed.

The essential idea of these cults is that unearned and undeserved wealth will come to a people through relentless exhortation, magical incantations, ritualistic ceremonies, and unquestioning obedience to the cult leaders, irrespective of their inevitable incapacity to deliver on their promises. They never grasped nor were they encouraged to recognize the fundamental principle that wealth has to be generated through the judicious combination of capital, labour, innovation, and entrepreneurial spirit.

Once it was observed, the cargo cult phenomenon was quickly identified elsewhere in the world. For example, in The Trouble With Nigeria (p.9), the famed author Chinua Achebe observed that Nigeria’s leader had fatuously declared in 1979 that his country “will become one of the ten leading nations in the world by the end of the [twentieth] century”, foreshadowing the extravagant but empty promises of subsequent statists like Gillard.

Condemning the prevalence of such “imaginary self-concepts” amongst the regime, Achebe observed that there is a “tendency among the ruling elite to live in a world of make-believe and unrealistic expectations. This is the cargo cult mentality that anthropologists sometimes speak about – a belief by backward people that someday, without any exertion whatsoever on their part, a fairy ship will dock in their harbour laden with every goody that have always dreamed of possessing”.

It is an indication of Gillard’s failure and desperation that she has been reduced to mouthing the same sort of empty promises previously made by defunct leaders of bankrupt and corrupt third-world kleptocracies. Unfortunately, far too many journalists have naively accepted the ‘spin’ surrounding this latest attempt to yet again re-badge Gillard and her cronies. The challenge the Australian people face is to rise above such vacuous rhetoric to fully comprehend the difficult tasks and decisions that lie ahead if Australia is to survive, flourish, and realize our destiny in the Asian Century.