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God’s own country

I have been visiting Australia for the last 20 years. Physically, at three million square miles, the Australian continent is over 30 times the size of the United Kingdom or Italy, yet with only a third of their population. Distances in Australia breed differences and none more so than in Perth in Western Australia where I have come to stay at Christmas every other year.

Perth is as far from Sydney on the East coast as Lisbon is from Belgrade. The tyranny of distance has separated Australians not only from each other but from nearly all the inhabitants of the globe with whom they have most in common. Australia is placed in a corner of the world where it feels no natural, spontaneous sense of identity with its neighbours, apart from New Zealand.

The environmental element too is divisive. The original, authentic Australia is the Australia of the bush and of the outback. Until this year, I had spent the duration of my stay in Perth, which I have come to love. It is a modern, gracious, sybaritic coastal city of almost two million people with the majestic Swan river running through it. It is not the largest city in Australia, but it must be one of the most civilised and thoughtfully planned in this great country.

Although individual house architecture cannot match the beauty of the (ever-diminishing) well-designed traditional houses built of golden limestone in Malta, the planning of Perth is outstanding. It is a model of good layout and land use, which makes me hang my head in shame when I allow myself momentarily to contemplate the mayhem we increasingly endure in Malta.

Spacious, tree-lined streets, a road network which is uniformly laid out to the last detail and drivers who are courteous, considerate and law-abiding. Perhaps Australian adherence to the rule of law – not just in their driving habits, but also their observance of planning law and the urban landscape, where height restrictions, whether aesthetically-pleasing high-rise, medium-height modern apartments or single-storey structures in their allocated building zones, are meticulously observed – is the most striking aspect for those newly-arrived from Malta.

The Australians have never had to fight for their political freedom. They were lucky in their democratic legacy, simply going along with some well-founded British habits. The original settlers were of predominantly British and Irish stock and well over a million have come from Britain since World War II. The “new Australians” – Europeans from Malta, Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia, and now also India and China – have assimilated well.

Australia thrives from being such a friendly place. As Mark Twain said, what he met here was “English friendliness, but with the English reserve and self-consciousness left out”. That is an accurate observation. But there is more to it. The Australian personality and the Australian way of life have been created out of British stock and inherited British attitudes shaped by the harsh, yet ultimately fruitful environment of the bush and the outback.

It has been a triumph of character over matter. The Australians are genuine, full of goodwill, self-deprecating though also forthright of expression and externally blunt. They are generous, courageous and “good mates”. Like the British, they are pragmatists and love (and excel at) sport.

No government wants to look lax on border security. The EU’s inability to manage the large migration flows over the last 20 months have haunted politics and made European governments look weak

It is a country that is rich in mines, commerce, wool, farms, schools and universities, art galleries, museums, libraries and hospitals. It is the hospitable home of every species of culture, of every species of material enterprise and every species of wild bird, fish, reptile and animal. Despite difficulties with the indigenous Aborigines – whose conditions successive recent Australian governments have sought to alleviate – this is a homogenous, prosperous country, though currently going through testing economic and political strains.

Materially, Australia is the lucky country – “God’s own country.” It is rich in minerals, a leading producer of iron ore, bauxite, lead, manganese, gold and others. On this visit, for the first time I travelled inland from the coast hundreds of miles into the outback to the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie.

This is where gold was first discovered in 1893. Since then, well over 56 million ounces of gold have been extracted from the “Golden Mile” outside Kalgoorlie. The Super Pit, which we visited, covers more than 35,000 hectares and produces around 700,000 ounces of gold each year. The operation runs all day, every day. It is not planned to stop processing until 2029.

But the slow-down from falling commodity prices has led to the first drop in Australia’s economic growth since 2011 and only the fourth in 25 years. For a time this month Australia’s triple-A credit rating was vulnerable. The economic storm clouds still linger even though Australia’s 1.8 per cent annual growth rate is above that of the United States or the European Union.

Politically, Australia’s Liberal Prime Minister is under siege from both Right and Left. But the threat from ultra-Conservatives in his coalition and the far-Right populist, anti-immigrant “One Nation” party are of the most concern.

As in Europe, security worries – three terrorist attacks in Melbourne and Sydney were thwarted on Christmas Day – have been aroused by the weight of refugees and fears about border protection. Many Australians have an atavistic dread of an uncontrolled flood of Asian migrants.

There are lessons here for Europe, which has struggled abjectly over the last few years to control waves of immigration through the Mediterranean, Greece and the Balkans. The response to a similar problem by successive Australian governments since 2001 has been to impose ever more stringent measures to deter asylum-seekers. They detain refugees on the Pacific Islands of Manus (part of Papua New Guinea) and Nauru while their claims for asylum are being processed. Australia is also seeking third countries to accept those deemed refugees.

No government wants to look lax on border security. The European Union’s inability to manage the large migration flows over the last 20 months have haunted politics and made European governments look weak. The upheavals have presented an unprecedented challenge to the EU’s identity, administrative capability and ability to combine a humanitarian response with hard-headed realpolitik.

There is an urgent need for Europe to take a leaf out of Australia’s book. While Australia’s approach is tough – indeed, harsh – the European alternative of well-meaning muddle and drift is no longer sustainable. The stability of the Union itself is threatened.

It is time for Europe to take determined steps to introduce bold and wide-sweeping reforms on the Australian model to secure its frontiers. Friendly countries in North Africa should be persuaded to act as the Manus and Nauru holding areas for refugees before being allowed into Europe on the basis of tightly regulated quotas.

As I return to Malta, I reflect that Australia is still a young and resilient nation. It is unburdened by the obsolete hierarchy and customs of the old world we live in. Developments that took centuries in Europe, such as the growth of the rule of law and democracy, happened here in Australia seamlessly and practically overnight. As the Chinese century dawns and the shift in the US-China power balance continues, Australia has the capacity and the human and natural resources to play a crucial, steadying strategic role in Asia.

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