Fear and suspicion of Tokyo was a reliable mainstay of Australia’s cultural landscape for nearly a century. This is the story of Australia’s last boilover of anti-Japanese hysteria.
By the middle of the 1980s, Japan had emerged as the world’s largest creditor nation. Its automotive and tech industries were unparalleled, it had the second-highest GDP in the world and there was serious talk that its economy would eclipse that of the United States by the end of the century. With America’s manufacturing industries entering their era of structural decline, the rapacious and amoral Japanese businessman was beginning to emerge as the trope du jour in that country’s culture industry—the Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard, Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun, and (a year or two behind the zeitgeist) the Kanemitsu Corporation in Robocop 3, which deploys ninja androids and buys a controlling stake in Omni Consumer Products on the back of the latter’s failed attempts to “revitalise” Detroit.
Australia’s attitude to Japan at the time had more of an antebellum flair—the likes of Bruce Ruxton, the Victorian secretary of the Returned and Services League and World War II veteran, never missed an opportunity to fulminate over Japanese atrocities in Burma and the Pacific. At the same time, Australia was not immune to the same vicissitudes of global capital and migration that were fuelling a backlash elsewhere in the first world. The arrival of large numbers of Asian immigrants—some forty percent of the annual migrant intake throughout the eighties—was leading to increasingly public expressions of resentment. On the back of booming property markets in both Japan and Australia, a cohort of wealthy Japanese investors were forking out for massive resort developments on the Gold Coast. As in the US, Australia’s automotive industry had entered its terminal phase, and the local production arms of Japanese manufacturers had begun their domination of the roads. Though it was a full decade before Pauline Hanson’s “swamped by Asians” maiden parliamentary speech, the spooky ghost story of the federation era—a feckless Australia sleepwalking into an Asian cultural and economic takeover—was re-emerging from the fringes.
It was in this inauspicious climate that the Japanese government attempted to elevate overseas real estate investments to the status of national policy in 1987, following a ministerial summit between the two countries in Canberra. Seeking to offset the effects of what had become a burdensome trade surplus, the Japanese delegation proposed the development of a mixed-use residential and high-tech industry site with special trade concessions, to be built in Australia and populated with and utilised by the employees of companies from both countries.
The “Multifunction Polis” proposal came at a time when much of the current architecture of global trade was in its infancy. Shenzhen, China’s flagship special economic zone, was less than a decade old. The North American Free Trade Agreement would not come into effect for another seven years, and the World Trade Organization wouldn’t commence for another year after that. As governments around the world made their first tentative steps towards the New World Order,¹ both the public and private sectors fell into the age-old pattern of irrational exuberance.
So it was when Industry Minister John Button began to champion the project in cabinet. A joint steering committee was formed to explore the proposal, headed by ANZ bank chief executive Will Bailey, one of the many recurring figures in the long boom of Australia’s eighties and one of many more to escape criminal prosecution when the country hit the wall. Soon more than 100 companies from both countries had signed on, eager to get a slice of the tax concessions and public infrastructure outlays on offer—firms covering the gamut of biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, aerospace industries, defence manufacturing and higher education all committed to the proposal. At the heart of the emerging vision was a development where workforces from both countries would live, work and play in an outsized gated community—a low-rent preamble to every urban planner’s wet dream, the arcology.
Every mainland capital bar Darwin announced their intention to compete for the eventual tender. By the end of 1990, all but one would drop out. When Premier Wayne Goss resolved to distance himself from the gaggle of white-shoe-brigade spivs who had dominated the latter years of the Bjelke-Petersen government, the preferred Japanese site at the Gold Coast was nixed. With the collapse of the State Bank of Victoria’s investment arm putting the state on the brink of ruin, Melbourne declined to submit a bid. Public servants in Western Australia were reportedly instructed to scrap their tender at the eleventh hour, when the minister responsible decided not to risk what was shaping up as a community backlash.
By then, the backlash was most certainly on. Alf Garland, the national head of the RSL, labelled the proposal as an “Asian enclave”. Ruxton, his offsider, was less polite, referring to the MFP as a “Jap City”. Public meetings were held in bid sites across the country, characterised by one campaigner as “a political movement in Australia which turned back the tide of Japan Inc in Australia.”
After someone close to the steering committee leaked a wad of documents to the ABC, the 7:30 Report threw a bunch of shit at the wall to see what stuck in the most egregious muckraking traditions of gutter journalism.² In a 13-minute feature interspersed with the opening scenes of Blade Runner, the reporter asserts that the MFP would host a radioactive waste dump (presumably a matter of indifference to the eventual residents), fronts a sociologist from Melbourne University to say the site would develop human RFID implants to be used for crowd control, and claims the Japanese funding commitment would be bankrolled by the Yakuza with money laundered through gambling.³
On an episode of Channel Seven sketch show Fast Forward, one segment cast Marg Downey as a Play School presenter, building a model MFP out of construction paper and toilet rolls. Proudly surveying the end product, Downey cues the customary jaunty piano music and breaks into song:
“A Multifunction Polis or an M-F-P,
We don’t know what it does but it’s good for you and me.
It’s high-tech fun, and everything is free,
But you won’t get in the door unless you look like me.”
By the time a site had been selected at a vacant tract of land at Gillman, in Adelaide’s northern fringes, what meagre political capital the project possessed had already been expended. The project’s scope was changing every couple of weeks as companies with a stake turned their R&D pipe dreams into phonebook-sized briefing papers. The Hawke government, determined to push ahead, thought they could allay community concern by coming up with a less-threatening name, even though no one in cabinet seemed able to articulate what the final development would look like. When opposition leader Andrew Peacock said during the 1990 election campaign that he would shelve the project if the Coalition won, the Prime Minister accused him of cashing in on anti-Japanese feeling, telling the press that his opposite number was “tapping into the worst elements of Australian thinking.” As a measure of how heated the subsequent debate became, Paul Kelly, the journalist and later editor of The Australian, criticised Peacock’s stance, prompting this response from the Liberal Party leader: “I’ll get you after the election. I’ll deal with you in another forum, you bastard, because I don’t deal with cowards.”
The final project was scaled down to a golf course, shopping complexes, medium-density housing and international standard education—hardly contentious these days, when every university in Australia depends on full-fee paying international students to remain solvent. Yet public opposition remained strident.
Appalled at the community response, and disappointed by the shelving of the preferred site at the Gold Coast, Japanese investors began to cool on the project. On an organisational level, Japanese members of the steering committee were aghast at the conduct of Clem Doherty, Bailey’s deputy and a consultant at McKinsey. One source said that Doherty’s negotiation style was “both offensive and ill-informed”, at one point presenting a 350-page interim report to the Japanese project representatives and demanding an immediate response to the issues raised. The Japanese delegation could not read English.
South Australian Premier John Bannon attempted to steamroll local opposition, insisting that the project was vital to prevent the state from becoming a backwater. Then in 1991, the State Bank collapsed. Adelaide has never recovered, though the rest of the nation remains fond of Margaret River wines. Japan’s property bubble burst, the nation began its descent into 25 years of economic torpor, and fancy cyberpunk theme parks no longer seemed like a prudent investment. After the government attempted to spend its way out of chronic stagnation, Japan’s public debt is now more than two times the size of its annual GDP.
Work stopped on the MFP in 1992, and the project was officially terminated in 1997. More than $150 million was spent without a sod being turned, though the publicly funded Technology Park stands on a small part of the allotted land.
Will Bailey was forced out of the ANZ bank at the lowest point in Australia’s last recession, and on the back of the Australian property market’s collapse, the bank immediately announced a $600 million loss arising from a surge in bad debts. His retained his position on the board of Coles Myer, until he left ignominiously amid a four-year investigation into the company’s attempts to conceal an $18 million dollar loss on a share trade in a shelf company. As was the fate of all prominent McKinsey alumni, Doherty was last seen on the NBN Co board.
In 2013, the state government sold the vacant 407-hectare site at Gillman to a developer without an independent valuation. Earlier this year the decision was the subject of a damning Auditor-General’s report, days after the Supreme Court of South Australia found the deal to be unlawful. Echoing Bannon’s trenchant support of the MFP two decades earlier, Premier Jay Weatherill came out full bluster: “We are going to have to do some incredibly controversial things if we are going to turn South Australia around.” A Royal Commission into the Gillman deal is a reasonable prospect after the next election. With the Japanese economic ascendancy quashed, China has returned to its traditional place as Australia’s Asian bête noire—a few dead whales notwithstanding.
1. To borrow the term first coined by Ministry.
2. I don’t believe it’s very often that the phrase “reminiscent of a flock of imperial concubines” is used to describe the disposition of state governments when considering investment decisions (2:10), but then it’s been a while since I could watch Australian current affairs shows without voiding the contents of my stomach.
3. Perish the thought.