Team Australia: From Bad Fashion to Bad Politics

The current prime minister of Australia may have never had it. If he did, he has certainly lost the plot. Every national image is bound to be wrapped in some ghastly ribbon, the sort that, when untied, looks as absurd as its producer.  For Prime Minister Tony Abbott, it has become necessary to articulate the worst and the dullest of patriotic slogans. His latest addition, only cursorily dusted from his days as a brash pugilist, is that of Team Australia.

If you want to fight terrorism, embrace Team Australia. If you want to back counter-terrorism laws that will roughen, rather than toughen, the state of civil liberties, then join Team Australia.

Like any term drawn out of some faux nationalism (can there be any other?), it divides on the pretext of uniting.  It is typical of cheap demagoguery that such things should even exist.  Identifying Australian nationalism is a hopeless task revolving around fundamentalist pragmatism and a derivative Anglo-Saxonism.  It starts in Britannia, and ends on the hills hoist of Australian suburbia.

Such a term is also bound to trouble Australians from the same ilk who feel uncomfortable being hurried into the united fold: you are one of us, part of that open family, a grand team meeting that revels in the great outdoors and bad fashion.  “The thing about teams,” worries Anne Summers, “is that you cannot just join them. You have to be picked” (Sydney Morning Herald, August 23).

Tony Wright, national affairs editor for The Age, was reminded of the 2004 animated film Team America, World Police.   “Using marionettes, the film satirised the high ribald style of American politics and the less than sophisticated efforts of George W. Bush’s scatter-gun war on global terror and evil empires.”

Wright tends towards the idea that Team Australia is a cheap exit for pedlars of bad speech (Australia does not have free speech so much as a mania regarding bad speech).  Unfortunately for Wright, Abbott is on some solid ground when batting for the side of ailing free speech, even if he is unlikely to believe it.  Speaking openly on subjects without being shouted down with ad hominem statements is a rarity that is tolerated.

A free speech code, if there is every such a thing, can only work if it permits what is otherwise intolerable.  But as no one in Australian politics, least of all its supposed defenders, believes it, it becomes simply another charade that fills print columns and the cluttered blogosphere. It becomes a respectable debate when it is, in fact, an absurd one.

Team America certainly enchanted that booby of a foreign minister, Alexander Downer, when he was in the service of the Howard (read Bush) government.  At a restaurant in Canberra, Downer yelled out the chorus of Team America with some enthusiasm: “America, FORK YEAH, comin’ again to save the mother forking day, yeah/America, fork yeah, freedom is the only way, yeah.”  Satire was never Downer’s strong suit.

Downer’s former colleague and Treasurer Peter Costello, was baffled by the whole exercise of promoting Team Australia, the sort of term you would more commonly find on hideous underwear.  “I have heard it used in tourist and trade promotions. But as far as I am concerned, when it comes to stopping terrorism, it is not a matter of getting on the team” (ABC, August 12).

As for Team Australia, various activists and advocates – certainly those of communities somewhat besieged by the latest newsflash about terrorism, executions and beheadings – feel that it is a band wagon they should get on.  Jamal Rifi, a prominent figure in the Sydney Muslim community, has openly stated that he will buy Islamic radicals “a one-way ticket out of Australia never to come back” (AAP, August 28).

Rifi makes much sense in so far as he wants less problems for Muslims living in Australia.  “Why would they [the radicals] care so much about the oppression of the Muslims overseas and through their actions and statements cause so much oppression and trouble to the Muslims in Australia?”  But he decides to lunge for the Abbott cart, going for Team Australia in the belief that most in the Muslim community would agree with it.  He confuses the fact is that many Muslims never had a bone of contention with Australia to begin with.

Such a narrative necessarily excludes, because Abbott and his front bench are terrified that they are being excluded, reminders of a history that is being left further behind. Lakemba in Sydney is about as popular to Abbott and his ministers as Anacostia is to representatives living in Washington, D.C.  Go there at your peril, white boy.  Journalists such as The Daily Telegraph’s Tim Blair pretend to go on a frightful journey of pseudo-anthropology into areas where nerves get the better of him.  The bombs, the bombs, where are the bombs?  Only the austere Aussie pub offers sanctuary.

The new arrival peering in will find Team Australia archaic and bewildering, just as they would find gazing at the culture of the Australian National Action party archaic and distant.  As writer John Birmingham explains, “They had their own brand of toxic far-right propaganda. It’s (sic) existence no more made southern Sydney the Fourth Reich than a couple of jihadist pamphlets threaten to turn Sydney’s west into the caliphate.”

Defenders of the Team Australia concept end up embarrassingly defending something many find an embarrassment to begin with.  The argument that Abbott is actually using such an expression to unite is as plausible as assuming that the politics of division can ever unite. Such ideas are bound to send groups scurrying over to their clusters of insularity, protected by fictitious moats of comfort.

But do no treat such statements on Abbott’s part as entirely foolish, even if they do have a tinge of the addled. It is only as foolish as it is allowed to be.  And given the current climate, there is considerable allowance for it.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: Read other articles by Binoy.