Down Under Finds Itself On Top

Only one English-speaking nation has run government surpluses for most of the past two decades: Australia. As the European Union crisis continues its slow-motion implosion, one credit rating agency took an odd turn this week. On the same day that they scolded Europe and warned France of a potential downgrade, they reaffirmed Australia’s AAA bond rating, as if to say to the world, “Why can’t you all be more like them?”

We know that bankers prefer lending money to people who don’t need it. Bankers treat nations no differently.

Australia’s unemployment is half what we’re seeing in the United States. “Too high” would be an on-the-street estimation, but it’s not accompanied with that sense of despair that we’re becoming accustomed to in the West. The liberals in government have run up some deficits the past few years, but austerity has returned as the order of the day.

The government proposed budget cuts that will return surpluses next year, despite the worldwide economic gloom. While Britons take to the streets to protest cuts, Aussies have quietly gone about their business. The cuts will hurt the vulnerable and increase unemployment, but they are accepted nonetheless.

Why? Because Aussies don’t dare lose what they’ve got, and what they’ve got is better than a job. They have confidence.

Every job is necessarily limited. It is what it is. But the hope of a job can be shaped by each imagination, completely filling the space of that person’s need. Full employment was a Soviet ideal. Full aspiration is what Australia offers. Hope is any nation’s most valuable resource.

America had it for a full century. But the world has now turned upside down and Down Under finds itself on top.

Confidence creates its own rewards. Australia’s postal service faces the same daunting trends as we face in the United States, connected people across open spaces. While we contemplate closures, Australia has opened its first 24-hour postal superstore, with 300 more being planned.

In the same way that America outfitted Europe with raw materials and frontier bravado, Australia now supplies China and the Far East’s ascendant consumerism. Aussie farmers have seen profits double in the last three years. The mining industry is doing even better.

As Australia exports its commodities to Asia, Asia is shipping a more valuable commodity back — its children. When Asian families invest in their children, their investment strategies use an unnervingly clear eye. English-first schooling provides a calculable competitive advantage. Australia and New Zealand offers the nearest and most afforable option. Immigration and tourism from Asia is exploding.

The Sydney Opera House attracts more than 8 million visitors each year. Tours are offered every half hour in English, every hour in Chinese. Quantas, Australia’s national airline, has announced it will fast-track plans to launch a super-premium airline catering exclusively to Chinese destinations.

Mix cosmopolitan with confident and you have a cocktail of character that surprises most locals. They’ve built their self-image on being out of the way, forgotten but unbothered. Their children are seeing the world coming to them, not knowing how new it all is.

At a dinner party for a journalist and her family friends, I had a question posed on my behalf. I wanted to know what they considered their native cuisine. The answers revealed a generational split. Those closer to my age acknowledged the deficit, admitting that most of what’s typical isn’t very original. They’ve repurposed cuisines from the United Kingdom, but they have nothing to call their own.

The younger set barely understood my question. Ask a young person today “Where are you from?” and they may tell you where they slept last night. Origins interest them less. So the lack of a distinctive cuisine didn’t crowd their cosmopolitan sense of self. “How do we eat?” came their clarifying question.

One answer gathered consensus: the Asian Food Court. They’re as common here as burgers or pizza back home. Surround a common seating area with Asian food kiosks, add bustle for ambience, and dinner is served. Choose between Vietnamese, Thai, Korean, Malaysian, Japanese, and several Chinese regions. Then gather with your friends for a lunch or dinner that typifies a newly interconnected life in the Pacific.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.