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A Friendly Kangaroo: Spanish Perceptions of Australia

24 Jun 2021
By Professor Florentino Rodao
The flags of Spain and Australia. Source: ibreakstock/Shutterstock

The Spanish perception of Australia is uniquely positive. The enduring bonhomie is the foundation of a close friendship and strong bilateral relationship between Australia and Spain.

In March 2021, something strange happened, although it was strange precisely because nothing happened. The partial takeover by an Australian fund of one of the main Spanish energy companies, Nedgia, was totally absent from the Catalan elections, the region from which the company originates (first as Gas Natural, and before then as Catalana del Gas). As the famous columnist Enric Juliana recalled in La Vanguardia, “Australia wants to enter Spanish history.” The lack of debate is far from the norm. Nationalism is a weapon that is usually deployed to combat fears of the loss of sovereignty, but criticism of the takeover announced in January did not go beyond the initial surprise or the fear that a gas pipeline of some geostrategic value would remain in the hands of foreigners. The takeover did not jump into the political arena even during the electoral period.

There are several domestic policy reasons to explain this, but the fact that the foreign fund, IMF Australia Ltd, is Australian has certainly helped quell xenophobic reactions, alongside, of course, other technical issues (as it was submitted via Luxembourg). In fact, it has not been the only occasion in which the potentially more difficult issues of the image of Australia in Spain have been brushed away by a Spanish population, which is not predisposed to respond with criticism of this particular country. Few countries are spared negative opinions on issues of national sovereignty – the United States, Germany, France, and Japan are routinely questioned when there is a conflict with a company in Spain. Yet Australia seems to have an enduring excellent image in Spanish public opinion.

Perceptions throughout history have helped the lack of current tensions. Australia’s location in the Pacific Ocean evokes the Spanish exploration and navigation that have made Spaniards proud for centuries, even though Australia was never part of the Spanish empire. The Spanish did not disembark in Australian territory, but it is well known that they were the first to pass through the Torres Strait and that Spaniards made trips in Australia’s close surroundings, from Vanuatu to the Solomon Islands. The island of Guadalcanal, scene of the famous naval battle in World War II, was named by Spanish explorers.

Secondly, personal exchanges have been another factor that has improved Australia’s image in Spain. For Spanish emigrants, private contacts have played a more decisive role in Australia than in other territories. The most significant case is that of Teresa Mendiolea, who facilitated the arrival in Australia of 700 Spaniards from the Basque Country, helping them with their expenses. Those Basques came to Australia as cane planters but, before all of them, Catalan Esteban Parer became the “father” of the community after earning a living selling saveloys and hot parathas to gold prospectors in the mid-nineteenth century. Later, a significant number of Australians went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War. These Australians not only fought in the International Brigades and established human ties, but they also saved many lives.

Starting in 1958, during the Franco regime, thousands of Spaniards migrated to Australia by ship. Migration groups were organised with specific objectives, including farming sugar cane, felling eucalyptus, working in industrial zones, and even the provision of same-language partners for the Spanish migrants already in Australia. The names of these migration schemes denote the image of Australia in Spain: Kangaroo, Eucalyptus, Karri, and Marta. These emigrants did not return home with money and boasts of the success achieved, like the classical fortune-finders that returned from the American continent. Even though problems have come to light, such as an especially high proportion of psychiatric cases among single women that left for Australia, it can be said that these schemes improved the image of Australia in Spain. The emigrant experience is shown in a recent book by Jorge Carrión, a descendant of these emigrants who, after visiting relatives who did not return, recounted in Australia: A Journey how he searched for and found part of his own identity in Australia. A more recent example can be seen in the Spanish word canguro (kangaroo), which has come to mean “babysitter” in Spanish.

The current image of Australia in Spain is also full of an attractive exoticism, from the aboriginal style of painting to the animals, such as the kangaroo, the koala, the platypus, and the Tasmanian devil. In short, Australia has an excellent mix of associations in Spain. The two countries have a shared history devoid of tension, a shared Western identity, a certain remoteness that avoids excessive contact, and an association with an especially extensive evocative world. It is not the neighbourly identification that exists with close neighbours like Italy, but the friendly Australian kangaroo is removed from fear or potentially problematic disputes. Australia holds a unique place in the perceptual world that, as can be seen, is of great help to the bilateral economic relationship.

Florentino Rodao is a professor of modern history in the Department of International Relations and Global History at Complutense University in Madrid, Spain. This article was translated with the support of the Embassy of Spain in Canberra, Australia.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.