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Opinion: Australian exceptionalism? What a photo of beach bathers and other works reveal

Australia, a nation the U.S. can look up to, is celebrated as ‘the lucky country’

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The Sydney Opera House sails are illuminated during the Vivid light show in Sydney, Australia, on Thursday, June 2, 2022.

The Sydney Opera House sails are illuminated during the Vivid light show in Sydney, Australia, on Thursday, June 2, 2022. The annual festival of light, music and ideas includes outdoor immersive light installations and projections, performances by local and international musicians and an ideas exchange forum featuring public talks and debates with leading creative thinkers.

Mark Baker, Associated Press

In October 2021, the United States announced an alliance with the United Kingdom and Australia for activities in the Indo-Pacific, shorthanded as AUKUS. While these kindred nations from the Commonwealth might appear as like-minded partners that require no second thought, it is important that we take measure of each one and learn what we can from their perspective. In the case of this opinion piece, Australia especially.

In many ways, Australia is a nation that the United States can look up to in its global activities due to its egalitarianism, exceptionalism and current existential concerns. These three elements of Australian identity can be represented by fundamental works on view at the New South Wales Art Gallery in Sydney.  

First, it may come as a surprise to many Americans that Australia is a wealthy nation with a greater sense of egalitarianism than other former settler economies within the British Empire. Economic historian Ian McLean has written an insightful book entitled, “Why Australia Prospered: The Shifting Sources of Economic Growth,” where he demonstrates that Australian per capita prosperity exceeded that of the United States until the late 19th century and since that point has surpassed most of Europe, leading some to call the nation “the land of plenty.”  

Opportunity beckoned early in the 19th century as barriers to sheep-raising and later gold mining were exceedingly low. A sustainable mining industry, as well as emergent manufacturing, accelerated during World War II, set the stage for an economic boom after World War II and a resurgent minerals market after 1990. Tom Robert’s evocative painting of “The Golden Fleece” exemplifies this prosperity as it was known in the 19th century.

A measure of its enduring prosperity can also be found in Australia’s enviable ranking of eighth among nearly 200 nations in the 2019 Human Development Index, well ahead of the United States in 17th place. This diagnostic tool considers factors such as life expectancy, educational opportunity and economic per capita income.  

These favorable aspects of Australian life have led it to be called, particularly after World War II, “the lucky country.”

More recently, renowned television personality Ray Martin observed during his recent documentary, “The State We’re In: Australia’s Border Stories”: “I think if you were born in Australia, you’ve won the lottery.” He did not say this in the spirit of lifting one nation above another, but only to reaffirm that Australia’s history, even with its troubled past of aboriginal-Euro/Australian relations, has been one of exceptional opportunity and accomplishment.

This is exemplified in a photograph entitled, “The Bathers,” which was taken at Bondi Beach near Sydney three decades ago. A confident woman strikes a commanding pose as she prepares to serve a volley across the net, while a gaggle of swimmers survey the surrounding beach. In relation to our alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom, this image and Australian exceptionalism suggest that we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our partners. There is no looking down.  

Finally, like other nations, Australia is in the midst of an existential search for its identity, both at home and among the countries of the world. Marlene Gilson has explored Australia’s aboriginal past, including its interactions not only with Europeans and Australians, but also with an emerging Asian population of immigrants beginning in the 19th century. Her painting, “Ballarat, My Country,” caused a sensation when it was acquired by the New South Wales Art Gallery in 2020 for its historical and allegorical significance, as well as its inimitable style.  

Globally, Australia looks to the future by way of the past.

In 1915, Australians and New Zealanders proved their mettle on the Turkish shores of Gallipoli. Although they, along with their British allies, were defeated by the Ottomans, they demonstrated their valor as a worthy partner. Australians continue to demonstrate the same courage standing with the United States and the United Kingdom, but, as the soaring stained glass windows on the Australian War Memorial in Canberra attest, they value control as much as strength and are leery of provoking unnecessary conflict in the Indo-Pacific. We would do well to learn more about their point of view and take it into counsel as we engage throughout the region.  

Ultimately, Australia represents a peerless partner in our global relations. Its history of egalitarianism, exceptionalism and existential yearning share much in common with the United States, and we would be wise to take under counsel their perspective in the region moving forward.  

Evan Ward is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University, where he teaches courses on world history.