Newcastle, Australia: a Place of Contradictions

Photo: Kenneth Surin.

I’m in Newcastle, a coastal port 117kms/73 miles north of Sydney, to participate in a conference on Chinese Marxism, organized by the University of Newcastle and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Newcastle is a place of contradictions.

As Australia’s leading port for the export of coal, Newcastle was at the forefront of the country’s three-decade-long economic boom driven primarily by the mining industry, as Chinese coal ships packed the harbour to take coal mined in the nearby Hunter Valley back to China.

When I was here 2 years ago, there were Chinese coal ships in the harbour, today there are none—China is phasing-out its coal-fired power stations, and has declared a moratorium on the import of coal. Newcastle locals believe that coal exports to China will not resume even when the moratorium ends.

There was only one ship in the docks when I was there (see photo below).

At the same time, Newcastle is undergoing a boom led by the property market. As housing in Sydney becomes over-priced (in Australian terms), people are moving out of Sydney to places like Newcastle. To quote from the local paper the Newcastle Herald:

‘Lucas Gresham, from Dowling Real Estate Wallsend and Stockton, was among those predicting the boom would continue.

“The middle of the Sydney market is about [AU] $1.5million and it’s about $650,000 in Newcastle. It’s no wonder we are seeing a lot of people from Sydney looking further to areas like the Central Coast, Newcastle and the Upper Hunter for a better quality of life,” he said’.

People who have to show up to work in Sydney 2-3 days a week can use the excellent commuter train to travel there while living in the more affordable Newcastle.

With a property boom comes legalized corruption. It was explained to me that the quickest way to make a lot of money here was to become a property developer, find a local politician or two willing to form a “working relationship” (a euphemism for taking kickbacks from the developer, not necessarily monetary in form, in return for preferential treatment in contract bidding). Both sides are thus mutually enriched.

While politics at the local level is fairly stable (a well-known side effect of cronyism), the opposite is the case where the federal government is concerned.

Australia has had 5 prime ministers in just over 5 years. Since 2010, 4 prime ministers have lost office, not at elections, but after being given the boot by their own parties, leading some to call Canberra “the coup capital of the Pacific”.

The current Liberal (it’s anything but in the American sense of the term) party heads a ruling coalition, having just made the hardliner and conservative evangelical Scott Morrison prime minister, after ousting the relative moderate Malcolm Turnbull.

Morrison is supported enthusiastically by Donald Trump– not surprisingly, since Morrison is the architect of Australia’s offshore detention camps for refugees, the Pacific island camp on Nauru being the veritable equivalent of an island prison.

Rupert Murdoch’s media also threw its weight behind Morrison.

Things were hardly different when the opposition Labor party was in power. Bitter personality clashes marked its leadership, as Kevin Rudd the prime minister was deposed by Julia Gillard (who then became Australia’s first woman prime minister). Having lost power in the 2013 elections, it chose Bill Shorten as its leader.

Labor leads the Liberal-led coalition by 10 points in the latest opinion poll (its lead has been in the double digits for several months), and Aussies I spoke with are fairly certain it will return to power in next year’s election.

Labor flirted with neoliberalism during the Rudd-Gillard era, but Bill Shorten has changed tack and edged it towards a trade-union-based social democracy, with “a fair go for all” as his slogan, and Labor has gained in popularity as a result.

At the Chinese Marxism conference, I found some people willing to discuss two issues, namely, Australia’s relationship with China, and China’s dealings with Trump.

Australia is a major US ally, but as a Pacific nation, it is aware that it’s only a matter of time before China becomes the new hegemon. Aussies have responded to this with some ambivalence.  Record numbers of Chinese students are coming to Australian universities, eschewing America because of Trumps’ xenophobia, and the UK because of uncertainty over Brexit.

The universities have become a veritable cash cow for Australia.

At the same time, media here report an upsurge in Sinophobia, carrying echoes of the “yellow peril” fearmongering during the Cold War. An Aussie-based Chinese academic said she and her family have been racially abused several times.

Revealing to me was the lack of interest in Trump’s confused and shambolic personage.

The Chinese academics I spoke with indicated that Trump is a mere symptom of a longer-term pattern whose basis is America’s irreversible hegemonic decline, and that China is ignoring Trump’s antics and focusing instead on the long-term trend (I suspect this is the line taken in Beijing as well).

Hence China will prevail in any trade war initiated by the US (saner Americans realized this from the beginning).

Already China has increased its trade linkages with Russia and Germany (China is already Germany’s main trading partner). In addition, while trade between the US and Latin America has doubled since 2000, China’s trade with the region multiplied 22 times in that time.

The horrendous financial burden inflicted by out-of-control American military expenditure will only reinforce China’s “soft power” approach in Central Asia and on the African continent, and in any event the US has not won a war since World War II—it has either been dragged into a stalemate (e.g. Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan) or lost (e.g. Vietnam).

Tongue in cheek I suggested that this was not quite correct, since Reagan’s tremendous military success in invading tiny Grenada had surely to be taken into account. At this, we all had a good laugh.

While in Newcastle I was at an outdoor cafe when the high school students ona strike that was nationwide marched by in protest at inaction over climate change. This was most heartening, and of course it needs to be repeated over and over again elsewhere.

At the same time, I felt sadness and anger. These youngsters were protesting something my careless and indeed reckless baby-boomer generation had inflicted on them– we were now expecting this new generation to clean up the mess we created. Hopefully they will be teaching themselves (because the official education system won’t) something about alternatives to capitalism that are so badly needed.

Next, off to Sydney.



Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.