When Nick Bryant began his Australian stint as a foreign correspondent for the BBC – the only international broadcaster with a permanent presence at the time – he was worried about relevance deprivation syndrome.
“But from my first week, when Steve Irwin was lanced in the heart by a stingray, to my last, when Kevin Rudd came back from the dead, the tumble of news came thick and fast,” he writes in his book, The Rise and Fall of Australia – How a Great Nation Lost its Way.
Australia, it seemed, was a pretty fascinating place at the arse end of the world – to borrow a famous phrase – and Bryant has been a keener observer than most. His seven years reporting our stories on the international stage saw an intriguing arc that he tracks in his book: the rise of a positive national story at odds with a paucity of inspiration, talent, and achievement in our national capital.
Bryant explores this mystifying paradox in his book. Entertaining, erudite, and very very funny, he delves into many layers of the Australian psyche and identity, into culture, sport, lifestyle, and most particularly politics, providing a compelling argument that it is past time for a “rhetorical rethink” about who we are, and where we’re going.
We asked Nick Bryant, who is now the BBC’s UN correspondent in New York, 10 questions.
According to your book and its title Australia is experiencing a moment of high paradox. How can we be rising and falling at the same time?
The world marvels at Australia’s growing economic might: the ‘wonder from down under’ economy that has produced 22 years of uninterrupted growth. There’s the growing commercial success of companies like Westfield, the largest shopping mall owner in the world. Australia has never enjoyed so much artistic success abroad, and it’s not just stars like Cate and Hugh. We’re talking authors, painters, architects, orchestras, musicians and dancers. The Australian Chamber Orchestra is the best in the world. This country is also the great lifestyle superpower of the world.
The fall is Canberra politics. The developed world’s most stable economy has produced one of the most unstable politics. As Australia has become more prosperous, its politics has become more impoverished. So an overwhelmingly positive national story has been at odds with a deeply unattractive Canberra story.
What do you mean when you say we are suffering a “crisis of overpoliticisation”?
Politics is about politics – a brutal and bloody game that seems increasingly irrelevant to people outside of Parliament House. Canberra has become the coup capital of the developed world. And because of the shortfall in political talent right now, politics not only looks alarmingly brutal but scandalously feckless.
What’s the solution?
There are lots of thoughts on how politics could be improved in the book, but here’s a simple one: longer parliamentary terms. Three year terms are so short that Australian politics has become a permanent campaign. Politicians are always in campaign mode, with all the prefabricated sound-bites and banal photo-ops that come with it.
What role does the media play in this?
The media is also culpable. It is obsessed with polling, and all the leadership speculation that goes with this poll fixation.
In your book you forensically rake over a nations search for a sense of self – what’s up with this Australian obsession with national identity?
There was no great wave of public enthusiasm for federation more than a hundred years ago, and it remains a surprisingly fragmented country. So Australia is still a work in progress.
In your experience as a foreign correspondent, what does the world get wrong about Australia?
Where to begin? It starts with the ludicrous idea that “Foster’s is Australian for beer.”
Is the cultural cringe elucidated by A.A. Phillips in the 70s still alive and well? Are we still looking for approval on the international stage?
I believe strongly that the cultural cringe has been replaced by the cultural creep. Australia’s artistic success abroad – and not just in the movies – is extraordinary. Alas, it doesn’t get enough recognition at home. Australia is enjoying more global cultural success at the moment than sporting success.
You worked here for 7 years before moving to New York for the BBC – what was the most surprising thing you learned about Australia and Australians?
I was surprised by the officiousness in a supposedly laid back nation: the sight soon after arriving of stewards puncturing beach balls at the cricket rather than throwing them back into the crowd.
The novelist Janette Turner Hospital once said that being an outsider sharpens the powers of observation – do you still regard yourself as an outsider in Australia?
I’m finding it harder and harder to maintain my outsider status, even though I now live in New York. After all, my three favourite people in the world are Australians – Fleur and the kids. What started out as an unexpected detour ended up being the happiest journey of my life.
Your personal stake in Australia’s future is cemented by the fact you and your wife (Australian designer Fleur Wood) are parents to two little Australians. What is your most fervent hope for their homeland’s future?
That fear, hatred and aggression are not a permanent feature of politics.