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Roger Clarke explains it all for you

"You'll hear this term a lot," Roger Clarke said. "Cultural cringe." The initial explanation was long and rambled from the 20th century world wars to the 1986 movie Crocodile Dundee. Meanwhile, we were on a whirlwind tour of Canberra: the old and new Parliament houses, Anzac Memorial Drive, the bus station. The hills were alive with kangaroos, despite my extreme inability to see animals from moving vehicles.

Clarke later boiled it down to two shorter versions:

"It's always done better somewhere else."


"The need for external approval."

It turned out to be a phrase no one I met used but everyone seemed to recognize.

The neighbour of one of my hosts along the coast north of Sydney put it this way: "It's a lack of belief in your own history."

To some extent this is true in a lot of places. The US, which has such an apparently similar history, seems to have gotten all of Britain's arrogance about its place in the world: what American feels the need to prove themselves outside their own country? But, says Clarke, late 19th century Australian artists went to Paris for validation while late 20th century Australian intellectuals went to London. Today, American TV sets the standard, which all may at least partially explain why the morning news sounded so...familiar. The snow in Buffalo, NY and Britain's raised state of terror alert have both made the morning news in the last two weeks. (On the other hand, wandering the TV dial unearthed French, Chinese, and Indonesian news.)

I doubt Clarke himself, probably Australia's longest-serving and best-known privacy advocate, would claim that his view of the country he's lived in most of his life is typical of Australia's 23.6 million inhabitants. Even so, his thoughts resolve the confusions of last week into some kind of coherence.

"We've been an outpost from the beginning," he says, and points to the Australian flag as a slightly fanciful example: Union Jack in the upper left corner. Then the remaining three-quarters, in his view, available for the Japanese flag, the US flag, and whoever comes next. "We started with the mentality that elsewhere was better."

It's a roundabout way of explaining why Australia, as remote as it is, isn't as distinct in terms of policies and culture as you might expect. Foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop looks and sounds like Theresa May's understudy. Australia is in the process of passing new-to-them, familiar-to-us anti-terrorism laws. The National Security Legislation Amendment expands the surveillance powers of the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO, Australia's equivalent of Britain's MI5). The Foreign Fighters bill expands overseas surveillance and prohibits speech "advocating terrorism". The Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Amendment (Data Retention) Bill seeks to require ISPs to retain communications and location data for two years.

"Australia had regarded ASIO as being largely buffoons until quite some years after 2001," Clarke says. ASIS, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, the equivalent of Britain's MI6, "were more dangerous because they were armed" - but they functioned overseas.

"Somewhere around the mid-2000s they all ended up with crew cuts or no hair, and they sounded more and more like Americans. From then on, they began taking the kinds of measures the US and equally scared UK came up with and dropping them into Australian law."

For Clarke, all of that is explicable as part of the country's psyche. The Anzac troops rushed to help fight Europe's wars (and the memorials are everywhere here). When the country's northern outpost, Darwin, was bombed in World War II, it was American, rather than British, troops that kept the rest of the country from being invaded. "The reliance gene transferred."

And then came the Internet, created by laying US-invented TCP/IP over networking inventions created jointly around the world. Australian computer scientists immediately saw the benefits, and connections were up and running as early as 1989 and Australian engineers were involved in all of the Internet bodies. Electronic Frontiers Australia was founded in 1994, only a few years after the US's EFF - and ten years before Britain's Open Rights Group. The 14th Web server in the world was in Australia. For the first ten years, all of Australia's international Internet traffic flowed via the US.

Meanwhile, although Australia was involved in the creation of and has acceded to both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it hasn't given them force in domestic legislation even though that's one of the obligations inherent in accession.

"It wouldn't matter if we had something like the Bill of Rights," says Clarke, "but the actual situation in Australian law is that the Constitution embodies about six rights for individuals, none of them human rights." Among the six: the right to vote, the right not to have property seized by the government. "Any human rights that exist in Australian law derive from common law, which in large part derives from 1901 British law." So: no statutory right to freedom of expression or privacy, and no framework via which new laws can be challenged - and it is hard work to prevent the government from succeeding in passing laws that in the US (for example) could be challenged on Constitutional grounds.

"We are such a British country and such an American country, and yet so different."

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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