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The Oprah invasion: Aussie taxes at work

The TV diva thrills fans Down Under — but the Winfrey windfall comes with a big bill, and suggests old insecurities won’t die. Paul Hogan now fights the taxman, not crocodiles. A drawn-out election fight delivers a shaky minority government with some bold policies to push through. And a sporting tradition almost dies.

Top news: In many ways she’s the perfect Oprah guest star. America, meet Australia — the first foreign land ever to be blessed with the lavish personal (and televised) attention of the most influential woman in world media. It’s a good fit indeed. The land down under is as ready for an Oprah close-up as any Hollywood star: She’s exotic, beautiful, successful, desired, dynamic, and with a curious past that offers shadow to balance the light. But when the Winfrey bandwagon arrives in Sydney in December, it will be another aspect of the national character that many Americans might detect for the first time: this is a country prone to surprising insecurity.

It is the Australian way, and always has been: a national inferiority complex that demands regular reassurance from other countries that it matters. It’s a phenomenon most famously and lastingly described as “the cultural cringe” — a phrase coined in 1950 by writer Arthur Phillips to describe the nation’s all-but-total subservience to its British colonial masters, and its tendency to automatically regard anything from abroad as superior. Much has changed since then, but the instinct to fawn over foreigners is a trait hard to shake.

Witness the hoopla two weeks ago when the talk-show queen revealed she was taking her show — and 300 American audience members — on what she calls “an unforgettable, once-in-a-lifetime Oprah Show experience.” Winfrey’s studio audience went wild —and so to did the Australian media, which greeted the news with a reverence even Barack Obama would be hard pressed to inspire. And in the avalanche of excited coverage, one astonishing fact stood out: The junket will be paid for by Australian taxpayers.

Yes, the taxpayers. Winfrey — who has a net worth estimated by Forbes magazine at $2.7 billion — is taking her show abroad with the financial aid of a foreign government. Not a whimper has been raised in protest, for which there are reasons presently sound and historically predictable. Yes, the Oprah exposure should be a bonanza for Australia’s crucial tourism industry, hence the multi-million dollar government investment. But it was hard to escape the feeling that Aussies were once again succumbing to their old we-are-not-worthy ways.

Bold and brash? Well, yes they are, but in many ways it’s a front. Ironically, news of the Oprah-led tourism revival fought for media space with a bizarre saga that in some ways highlighted another aspect of the same problem. “Crocodile Dundee” star Paul Hogan, long based in California, returned home for his mother’s funeral only to find himself barred from leaving the country amid allegations of tens of millions of dollars in unpaid taxes.

Hogan was the star of the original Aussie assault on American hearts when he starred in a hugely successful 1980s campaign famous for the catch cry “slip an extra shrimp on the barbie”. Tourists flocked Down Under by the jet load, especially after Hogan complemented those commercials with the “Dundee” blockbuster.

But today Hogan, a comedian whose working-class roots first endeared him to his compatriots in the 1970s, is more inclined to see himself as a very rich victim of a national trait as ingrained as that old cultural cringe. Aussies call it the “tall poppy syndrome” — a tendency to lop the head off any local success story seen as getting too big for his or her boots. Hogan is not the first Aussie-made-good to identify it as a small-minded national habit, and one that leaves them more comfortable enjoying their success in a land that reveres rather than rebukes their rise to the top. (After days of legal negotiations, Hogan was allowed to fly back to just such a place: California.)

One imagines not even Oprah Winfrey could lure him back to Sydney until his tax tiff is properly resolved. Poor man: the erstwhile national hero would kill for the sort of adoration with which his fellow Aussies are about to smother a woman who may be the most compelling human evidence yet of the fabled American Dream. The Oprah invasion will be a time for celebration — and also perhaps for Aussies to ponder why the Australian Dream often seems to come with strings of doubt and cynicism attached.

That’s an insight into the national character Winfrey should explore, perhaps in an interview with the Australian now most likely to share space with her on a list of the world’s most powerful women: Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

Talk about a nation unsure of itself. Gillard, installed as PM in a Labor Party leadership coup in June, sought the voters’ verdict at a national election in August. The people declared that they really couldn’t make up their minds, delivering a hung parliament — with crucial deciding votes in the hands of a quintet of independent lawmakers.

It took what felt like an age, but on Sept. 7 Gillard won the nerve-wracking battle to sway the renegades to her side. A bewildered and increasingly bored nation focused on little else for almost three agonizing weeks. No wonder the out-of-the-blue Oprah news inspired such a fuss — cultural cringe or not, there was good reason to look abroad for some good news that didn’t make your head hurt.

Money: Australia’s cliffhanger election had serious implications for the economy and the stock market: Three major policy differences between the ruling Labor Party and the conservative opposition ensured investors were paying close attention to the outcome. Much attention was focused on the crucial role to be played by the left-wing Greens party, which now has a seat at the government table. And it’s that influence that will have the longest-lasting impact on national policy and business confidence, largely because the Greens have already forced Labor to take a far bolder stance on climate change. Result: a fresh push for a carbon tax. That’s just one of the new uncertainties for big business. The most immediate and controversial economic issue — a Labor policy for higher taxes on mining company profits — is also back for a revamp. And then there’s the biggest national investment project of all: Labor’s $43 billion dollar plan to bring super-fast broadband to every corner of the land. It all sounds bold and daring — all the stranger for coming from a minority government that is brand new and shaky.

Elsewhere: We’ve touched on the cultural cringe, one of Australia’s less inspiring colonial legacies. Others are more worthy of celebration, and typically the Commonwealth Games would number among them. The Games — held every four years, sandwiched between Olympics — bring together competitors from 54 nations bonded by their history as British colonies. Britain competes too, of course. But for many years the event has been an Australian-dominated spectacle, as the sports-mad Aussies effortlessly dominate rivals ranging from Canada to Cameroon.

The 2010 Games are about to begin in the Indian capital Delhi, and while Australia is geared up for its standard gold-medal romp, few are looking forward to them. Just days before the opening ceremony, the city’s preparations were revealed as a shambles: Unsafe construction work, filthy athlete accommodation and a bridge collapse grabbed headlines. Then there was the ever-present terrorist threat. Athletes — including some high-profile Aussie champs — withdrew, and for a few days the unthinkable seemed possible: Australia, one of only six national teams to have contested every Games since the first in 1930, might withdraw completely. For a country that more than anything defines itself by its sporting prowess, it was unthinkable — but for a while seemed a realistic possibility. The threat seems to have passed, the Aussies are going to India. But it’s fair to say fans back home will be watching the Delhi Games unfold with more dread than pride.