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Australia Has A Serious PR Problem

Have you heard the one about the dumb Australian?

Aug 23, 2009

You know you are in real trouble when you become the butt of jokes on the internet.

Take this one doing the rounds in India: A Muslim was seated next to an Australian on a flight from London to Melbourne and when drink orders were taken, the Aussie asked for a rum and Coke, which was placed before him.

The attendant then asked the Muslim if he would like a drink. He replied in disgust, ''I'd rather be savagely raped by a dozen prostitutes than let liquor touch my lips.''

The Aussie handed back his drink and said: ''Me too. I didn't know we had a choice.''

I did chuckle momentarily before considering what such jokes say about us. There are many, and a common theme is that Australians (often Melburnians) are stupid and morally vacuous. And we drink too much.

There is nothing particularly new or unusual about the use of cultural stereotypes in humour. But it does say something interesting about the way Australia is perceived in the region.

Readers' comments on the websites of English-language newspapers such as The Times of India also make for depressing reading. A common set of assertions is that Australians are crass, poorly educated and genetically predisposed to be stupid, racist and dishonest because of our convict heritage.

According to one reader, only ex-convicts from Indian jails should be sent here to study.

North of the Himalaya, comments posted on the website of the state-controlled China Daily are equally vitriolic. Headlining the website late last week was a report that Trade Minister Simon Crean had confirmed free trade talks between China and Australia would go ahead in Beijing in September, despite rocky relations between the two countries.

This was a fairly typical comment posted in response: ''the blood running in these crooks cannot be change with time … Australia funding terrorists is absolutely unacceptable. It takes a crook to support a crook.''

Australia has a serious PR problem.

In the case of India, the anti-Australian sentiment is partly a manifestation of recent events. Cricket shenanigans aside, there was anger about the AFP's treatment of Indian-born doctor Mohamed Haneef, who was falsely arrested on terrorism-related charges.

India, the world's largest democracy, was also hurt by Australia's refusal to sell it uranium because it has not signed the impotent Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, despite Australia exporting tonnes of the stuff to China, a communist dictatorship.

The relationship soured more recently over violence against Indian students, fuelled by feral reporting in the Indian media.

In the case of China, a string of recent incidents has also seen the relationship sour. Included were comments by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Peking University students about human rights abuses in April last year; reports of Joel Fitzgibbon's relationship with Chinese-born businesswoman Helen Liu; a decision by Rio Tinto to pull out of a proposed merger with the state-owned Chinalco; the detention of Rio executive Stern Hu; and a decision by Australia to grant a visa to Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer, seen as a terrorist by China.

The ruckus reached a crescendo last week when Chinese state media largely failed to report on a $50 billion gas deal, calling for sanctions against Australian tourism, education and iron ore and accusing Australia of "siding with a terrorist".

The Opposition has been keen to make political mileage out of the flare-ups.

After accusing the Mandarin-speaking Rudd of being too close to China, Opposition foreign minister Julie Bishop last week appeared to change tack, accusing him of ''incompetent'' handling of a relationship. Included in her claims was that Rudd should not have lectured China about human rights and had ''needlessly offended the Chinese'' by releasing a Defence paper singling out China as Australia's greatest military threat.

She accused Rudd of ''bungling'' the handling of the visa to Kadeer and failing to ''work constructively with China'' on the issue.

Was Bishop suggesting Australia should not have given Kadeer a visa? Or that the White Paper should not have identified China as a threat? Or that the Government should not have voiced concerns about human rights? Could Bishop be Australia's true Manchurian candidate?

In the case of both India and China, there is much at stake. Last year, Australia exported $37.2 billion worth of goods and services to China and $16.5 billion worth to India.

For the Rudd Government, balancing domestic political imperatives and Australian values against commercial interests will be a tough act.

Have you heard the one about the dumb Australian?
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