The highly publicised visit by Oprah Winfrey and her planeload of fellow travellers has reminded us that in addition to the Australia that Australians know, and which finds expression in local culture, there is an alternate, export version of Australia. It is an Australia whose image is shaped by tourism marketing meetings. It is a postcard culture on a grand scale, a giant outdoor movie set as big as a continent. For better or worse, what is presented for consumption overseas is an image of Australia that could almost be America.
The reigning king and queen of this parallel Australian world are Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman. Since they starred together in the big-budget Baz Luhrmann-directed historical outback romance Australia, to which taxpayers contributed about $40 million, Kidman and Jackman have become regular guests at the annual G'Day USA expo in Los Angeles, have appeared in the promotion of Australia's unsuccessful $46 million bid for the FIFA World Cup and, inevitably, featured as guests during filming of Oprah's Australian shows.
Kidman, who is American by birth and has a home in Tennessee, intimated to Oprah that her mum thinks her UNESCO ambassadorship is more impressive than the best actress Oscar she won for portraying the English author Virginia Woolf. Australia was Kidman's first Australian film in nearly a decade, although her absence from involvement in the local film industry did not preclude a nomination for Australian of the Year in 2004.
As his setpiece for Oprah, Jackman attempted a spectacular aerial entrance in action-movie style. Jackman thus followed the Errol Flynn example in doing his own stunt work. Flynn, the first Australian leading man to become a major star in Hollywood, made his name swinging on a rope from ship to ship during the battle scenes in the 1930s pirate film Captain Blood. Jackman, however, was merely arriving for an interview segment on a daytime talk show.
In January last year Kidman appeared on stage at G'Day USA, an event partly sponsored by taxpayers through Tourism Australia. Jackman's scheduled appearance on stage with Kidman and her husband, expatriate country singer Keith Urban, was thwarted by filming commitments. Awards for most successful Australian actor in Hollywood were presented to Simon Baker for his starring role in the TV show The Mentalist and to Toni Collette for United States of Tara, while the sporting award went to Greg Norman. Like Baker and Collette, Norman lives in the US. G'Day USA will be doing it all again later this month.
Also last year Jackman hosted the American Australian Association Benefit Dinner held in New York, where he has a home. According to the association's website, one of the key supporters of its philanthropic endeavours is Rupert Murdoch, the Australian-born American citizen whose company News Corporation owns 20th Century Fox, the movie studio that, in association with Tourism Australia, produced Australia, a film that self-consciously referenced Golden Age Hollywood epics such as Gone With the Wind.
In the export-oriented image of Australia, Americans may be welcomed as honorary Australians. The award to Greg Norman at G'Day USA was presented by John Travolta, who is associated with the national overseas airline as a pilot ambassador with a vintage Qantas-liveried Boeing 707 that is parked in the garage at his home in Florida and whose fervour as a fan of the Socceroos gave him entry to the team dressing room for post-match victory celebrations during the 2006 World Cup. Travolta's apparent enthusiasm for Australia is shared by Oprah, who while taping her Sydney shows proclaimed herself "an unofficial ambassador for Australia".
Among Oprah's guests during her "Ultimate Australian Adventure" were the American-born Terri Irwin, widow of Steve Irwin, and her two children. The Irwins became familiar figures to many Americans in part through guest appearances on Oprah's show, and Steve went on to star in the Hollywood-backed 2002 feature film The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course.
As the apparent personification of a certain type of earthy outback frontiersman, Irwin in many ways filled the boots of Paul Hogan, who pioneered the confluence of American-oriented movies and tourism advertising campaigns with Crocodile Dundee, still the highest-grossing Australian film, and the "shrimp on the barbie" ad campaign. Hogan also married an American.
We may wonder why all this effort and public money have gone into generating an image of Australia that is inextricably bound up with America when Americans account for less than 10 per cent of tourists to this country, according to the latest official figures released by the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism.
The simple fact is that, for ordinary Americans who typically get no more than two week's annual leave, Australia, no matter how welcoming, is too far away and too expensive for a casual vacation. Oprah thanked Australians for teaching her to "work to live, not live to work", but her compatriots may not have the luxury of choice in that regard. Besides, Americans, the vast majority of whom never apply for a passport, do not yearn to travel overseas to the degree that Australians do. Why travel to Australia, for instance, when Australia, in common with the rest of the world, wants so much to come and be with you?
The creation of the export image of Australia cannot be just about persuading Americans to travel here in greater numbers. No doubt there is an asymmetrical marketing strategy at work in tapping into the American popular culture that, in turn, permeates the world. As Oprah was quick, and characteristically shrewd, to point out: "It is immeasurable what four hours of a love festival about your country, broadcast in 145 countries around the world, can do.
Presumably New Zealanders, Chinese, Japanese and Britons, who comprise the overwhelming majority of the tourists most likely to travel to Australia, will be suitably impressed by Oprah's American-flavoured Australia while being entertained by international guests such as Bon Jovi, U2 and Jay-Z, each of whom just happened to be passing through during the Australian leg of a world tour.
The selling of Australia to and via America is also the conscious promotion of Australia to itself. This aspect of Oprah's government-sponsored visit was revealed in an announcement made last month by Australian Tourism's managing director, Andrew McEvoy, who said that by visiting sites such as Uluru and Byron Bay, Oprah had renewed interest among locals for travel within Australia. "We are seeing a reawakening of Australia in our own backyard," McEvoy declared.
Apparent confirmation of an immediate "Oprah effect" on tourism within Australia came from the Tourism Minister, Martin Ferguson, who produced figures of a $71 million boost to local tourism from Oprah, and $14 million in new tourism business originating in the US.
Perhaps it really does take someone like Oprah to induce Australians, one of the most urbanised peoples on earth, to see some of the more remote parts of their country. Meanwhile, the likes of Hogan, Jackman and Kidman are simply making the best living they can by being professional Australians when the assignment calls for them to assume that role. It would be unfair to pillory expatriate celebrities for simply going where the work is and doing whatever well-paid job they've been offered.
The deeper truth about the alternative Australia is the need Australians evidently still feel to seek attention from and to attach themselves to America, just as previous generations subsumed themselves in all things British. Australia's undiminished, if redirected sense of cultural dependence continues to manifest our sense of geographic isolation and our small population size. In attempting through tourism marketing campaigns to overcome the physical distance that has always shaped life and culture in Australia, we may only have become more distant from ourselves.
In the preface to the 2001 edition of his classic The Tyranny of Distance, first published in the mid-1960s, Geoffrey Blainey cautioned that "distance is tamed but far from dead". Blainey was responding to the prediction by the British academic Frances Cairncross, in her 1997 book Distance is Dead, that modern communications and transport technology would soon close the previously yawning gap between different parts of the world. The internet, Cairncross prophesied, would encourage greater competition in the travel industry, forcing down the prices of tickets and accommodation.
All this has come to pass, yet Australians still feel the need to reimagine their country in American cultural terms in order to entice people to travel here, or simply to register our existence. As Blainey observed of Australia and its distance-conditioned national psyche, "distance was tamed more quickly on the map than in the mind".
According to Alain de Botton, author of The Art of Travel, "Wherever we choose to go, we're apt to come up against the inevitable gap between our dreams and the reality, but once we accept that, we're on the road to recovery."
The Australian identity crisis is far from resolved, but the somewhat cartoonish export image of Australia has not passed without criticism.
In the wake of the failed FIFA World Cup bid, the script of which called for the Prime Minister to appear alongside an animated surfing kangaroo, and even found space for the ghoulish resurrection of Hogan's character Mick Dundee, the film director Peter Weir attacked what he described as "childish symbols and campaigns" used to sell Australia.
Weir vowed to an interviewer that he would never follow other prominent Australian directors such as Luhrmann and Philip Noyce in making short promotional films about Australia: "I couldn't do it. It's not my sort of script."
Mercifully, serious independent creative endeavour in this country is still possible. For every embarrassingly overblown fantasy like Australia there is a Samson and Delilah or a Ten Canoes. Similarly, for every Ned Kelly, another excessively romanticised period movie that was heavily backed by government tourism authorities with the stated aim of attracting overseas visitors, there is a Chopper or an Animal Kingdom.
While we're told that the export part of the two-speed economy is booming, its cultural counterpart sadly is bogged down in cliche and celebrity worship.
In some of the more realistic, sophisticated and subtle images we choose to make just for ourselves, Australians seem so much freer to rush forward.
Simon Caterson's Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds, from Plato to Norma Khouri is published by Arcade.
The Age January 8, 2011