From: David Walker (2019), Stranded Nation: a White Australia in an Asian Region, Perth: University of Western Australia Publishing.
The Empty Bookshelf
Richard Casey advanced many schemes to improve Australia’s position in Asia. He was particularly enthusiastic about a book distribution program to introduce Australian works to Asian readers. A library of attractive-looking books which told the national story in convincing detail could only improve Australia’s reputation in the region as Asian readers were introduced to the Australian character and the hardships and triumphs of the pioneers. The stories would tell of the courage, enterprise and ingenuity required in subduing and settling a new and difficult continent. This was a pet project.
The conviction that Australia was misunderstood and misrepresented in Asia was not new. In the 1930s, Ian Clunies Ross wanted educational materials, including films, to help his Japanese colleagues understand his country. Clunies Ross had grown tired of pointing out that Lake Eyre, such an impressive expanse on the map, was no more than a dry saltpan surrounded by desert. It was certainly not another Lake Biwa foolishly neglected by selfish Australians determined to keep an entire continent to themselves. Clunies Ross thought a concerted effort was needed to overturn the idea, so widely promoted during the 1920s, of ‘Australia unlimited’, a potential home for 100 million people or more. Such rhetorical flourishes only encouraged the view that Australians must be a very selfish people in wanting to keep such a richly endowed continent entirely to themselves.
In the growing propaganda war from the mid-1950s the Soviet Union and China often depicted the capitalist West as decadent and racist, a place where the rich and powerful puffed away on cigars while the poor starved. Granted that Australia had a relatively modest role to play in the Cold War compared to the US or Britain, Casey believed that Australia’s distinctive democracy was worth promoting. Moreover, he believed communist depictions of racist Australia should be combated by highlighting the physical prowess, pioneering spirit and hospitality of Australians. Australians were understood to be a virile, sun-bronzed people. It now needed to be shown that they had created a mature democracy with its own distinctive character.
External Affairs had drawn up a detailed set of principles for the conduct of ‘Australia’s public information activities in South and South East Asia’. Key principles were:
our belief in democracy is greater than our fear of communism; that we have and should express an individual Australian point of view; that Australia’s co-operative relationship with the Commonwealth might benefit us in Asia; that Australia supported the United Nations; that we seek to extend Australian influence in Asia by showing that although we are a relatively advanced country we face development tasks in common with Asia and that our interests in Asia cannot be reduced to a self-interested desire to use the region as a buffer against communist advances.
The document also drew attention to areas of potential criticism particularly Australia’s restrictive immigration policy and its support at the UN for the retention of West New Guinea by the Netherlands. Diplomats were advised to ‘avoid discussion of these policies wherever possible’. And if that proved impossible? Defend the legitimacy of the policies while also insisting that they reflected ‘no animosity towards Asians’.
Reversing each of the department’s key statements is instructive. Doing so provides a way of emphasising the problems of image and reputation that External Affairs faced. A reverse reading would go like this. Australia was gripped by a fear of communism and was suspicious of the new multiracial Commonwealth that had emerged after World War II. Further, Australia had a weakening attachment to the UN and an undeveloped sense of its own independent status and identity. Its defence and foreign policies were increasingly indistinguishable from those of the US. In so far as Australia looked to Asia, it focused on the menace of communism and the threat this posed to Australian security. Australia was a prosperous, technologically advanced and literate society with little in common with the Asian nations to its north, while its immigration and foreign policies were widely seen as racist and anti-Asian. There is at least as much evidence to support this inverted reading of the departmental document as there is for the original, rather too flattering, representation of Asia-friendly Australia.
It was going to be more than difficult to show that Australia’s interest in Asia came from a genuine desire to forge deeper ‘human and cultural contacts’. Throughout the External Affairs document can be heard the familiar evasions of the 1950s: ‘examples of the ready acceptance of Asians by the Australian community and the non-existence of colour consciousness should be discreetly used where appropriate’. The language of ‘ready acceptance’ and the ‘non-existence’ of racial prejudice underline the impulse to regard positive statements as truth while treating criticism as the work of the misinformed or the troublemaker. Finding books to support such thinking was the challenging task of the ‘Cheap Books’ program. However, weeding out books that sent the wrong message had already emerged as a problem.
Towards the middle of 1954, the National Library of Australia sent a consignment of Australian books to the High Commission in New Delhi as a goodwill gesture from the Federal Government. They were intended for the reference library – a facility open to the Indian public. Leafing through the books, someone alighted upon The World in My Diary by Norman Banks, MBE. Banks was then a household name in Australia as a broadcaster and sports commentator. His book recorded impressions of a trip he had made from Melbourne to Helsinki to observe the 1952 Olympic Games. This seemingly inoffensive book acquired a different character in New Delhi. The reader did not have long to wait before a worried Banks, his nose pressed to the window of the plane, discovers that Darwin is not only terribly isolated from the rest of Australia, it is awfully close to the islands of eastern Indonesia. A fellow passenger, a rather shady Welshman, cheerfully claimed to know these islands and their numerous inhabitants very well. He told Banks that empty Australia looked pretty tempting to the Indonesians.
Once in Jakarta, Banks becomes even more rattled. Adopting a prophetic tone, he announces that the reign of the ‘white race’ is over and the era of ‘Asiatic domination’ has begun. He shudders at the thought that, during the war, Australian girls had married ‘some of these arrogant little people’. Surely Australian women deserved better than to be shut away in some sordid ‘native hut’. Banks may have subscribed to the view that the future would be Asian, but he took no comfort from this discovery.
The officer reading Banks’ book in New Delhi grew alarmed. The book was sent back to External Affairs with a pointed note warning that it was ‘not only unsuitable for inclusion in the library here but if read by the general public in India, or any other Asian country, it could be damaging to Asian-Australian relationships’.The ‘ill-informed, colour conscious prejudice’ exhibited by Banks was ‘doubly regrettable in a man who is so obviously in a position to influence others’. The book had to be withdrawn immediately from all Asian posts. Banks was banished.
The World in My Diary was widely reviewed in Australia by mainstream newspapers including the Argus, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Adelaide Advertiser, the West Australian, the Hobart Mercury and by many smaller provincial and regional papers. While some had a higher opinion of the book than others, no reviewer commented on the colour prejudice that so concerned the officer in New Delhi. The World in My Diary was variously described as ‘packed with interest and well illustrated’; ‘humorous and highly entertaining’; ‘a book to enjoy greatly by the fireside with a pipe on and the radio muted’. The Mercury believed that as a travel writer Banks ‘observed more keenly than most’, while the Wagga Wagga Daily Advertiser considered the book a ‘delightful commentary on the peoples and countries through which the author passed’. Banks may have been viewed as unsuitable reading in Asia, but his views were hardly unrepresentative of Australian opinion in the 1950s and his prejudices were either not noticed or not thought sufficiently unusual to warrant comment by Australian reviewers.
The Banks case anticipated the difficulty of finding Australian books that could be read in Asia without embarrassment. Difficult though it may have been, the task was considered urgent. It was widely accepted that the Soviet Union and China were winning the ‘war of books’. Casey certainly believed the West had been ‘tagging along behind the communists’ for far too long. It was high time for some creative thinking about winning hearts and minds. Books had become a prominent weapon in the new offensive.