Sydney Morning Herald

By Peter Hartcher

In the days after the terrorist attack on the US in 2001, a small group of Australian primary schoolchildren held a solemn candlelit moment of mourning and reflection for the dead. It was a touching scene.

But when questioned, it turned out that the children thought the attacks on New York and Washington had occurred in Australia.

They had conflated America and Australia. They could not distinguish between events in their own country and a foreign one.

Cute, certainly. And understandable, too. We spend so much time watching American TV shows and movies and listening to American music that the national boundary dissolves. The mind magically transcends centuries of distinct historical experience and 15,000 kilometres. It's not only children. We forget to ask directions to the toilet. It's somehow become the bathroom.

In small matters, so it is in large. It's interesting that, as the Herald reports today, an overwhelming 72 per cent of Australians would vote for the Democrats' Barack Obama if they had a vote in the US presidential election while a mere 5 per cent would choose the Republicans' Mitt Romney.

That is probably evidence of two facts. One is that, as the incumbent for four years, Australians know a good deal more about Obama than Romney.

Second is the fact that Australia is a much more left-leaning country than the US. In aggregate, Australians naturally incline to a Democrat world view more than a Republican one. And not only Australians, but the entire developed world, as it happens.

In Canada, for instance, the balance is similarly lopsided with voters preferring Obama by a margin of seven to one, according to a poll by Canadian Press-Harris Decima. And a Pew poll across 21 countries in June showed that ''Obama would cruise to re-election in November if Europeans and Japanese could vote,'' as Agence-France Press put it.

''The centre of gravity of American opinion is much further to the right'' than it is in any other rich country, as John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge wrote in their book The Right Nation.

The US is the only country in the developed world that does not provide paid maternity leave, for instance, and the only one that does not pay child support to all families.

''America upholds the right to bear arms, the death penalty and strict sentencing laws,'' write Micklethwait and Wooldridge, Englishmen both. ''The US is one of the few rich countries where abortion is a galvanising political issue, and perhaps the only one where half the families regularly say grace before meals.''

But Australians' answers to another poll question on the US election were troubling. Asked which candidate they expect to win, 65 per cent name Obama and only 9 per cent Romney in the poll conducted by UMR Research.

This is not a question about preferences but expectations. And it is far removed from the realities in the US. The contest for the presidency is finely balanced.

The average result of eight leading polls of US voting intentions shows 46.9 per cent of Americans support Obama and 45.5 per cent Romney, according to That's a difference of just 1.4 percentage points, which is within the margin of polling error. For statistical purposes, it's a dead heat.

''Australians could be in for an unpleasant surprise on November 6,'' the UMR Research pollster Stephen Mills observes.

The inability of Australians to distinguish their reality from America's is leading to delusional thinking. Why?

''The mental transformation for Australians to put themselves into the shoes of average Americans is immense,'' the chief executive of the US Studies Centre at Sydney University, Geoff Garrett, says. ''I think it's close to impossible for Australians to understand why the centre of gravity in US America is so far to the right.''

For example: ''[Tony Abbott] has decided that major industrial relations reform is off the agenda. In the US, Australia would be considered profoundly anti-competitive and anti-market.''

A much more realistic way for Australians to assess the US is as a foreign country. As soon as we take that view, the question changes dramatically. It's not which candidate you prefer, but which is likely to be better for Australia's national interests?

One of the most important American influences on Australian interests is how it manages the return of China. A war between the US and China would be immensely damaging to Australia's interests.

''My view is that the similarities between Obama and Romney are as striking as the differences in foreign policy and in particular on China,'' says the new head of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, Michael Fullilove, who is writing a paper on the subject. ''Obama is less doveish and left-wing than his groupies believe, and Romney is less aggressive and hawkish than he would have us believe. I think both are pretty cautious realists.''

Garrett has a similar view. The important difference between Obama and Romney for Australia's interests, he says, is most likely to be economic. Obama offers ''a lot more predictability'' on economic policy, he says.

There is a big risk attached to a Romney presidency, Garrett says. If the US political system is unable to reach a compromise on how to cut the US deficit, it will send the country over the so-called ''fiscal cliff'' of swingeing automatic cuts in spending.

If so, the US is likely to plunge back into recession, as the Congressional Budget Office reported last week.

''If Romney wins and the Republicans read their own press clippings'' and refuse to compromise on allowing any tax increases, ''they will tell themselves that the fiscal cliff is what we have to do. And that is not in the US interest or the Australian interest or the international interest,'' Garrett says.

Children are allowed delusions. Grown-ups will just have to hope.