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Similar Lands, Same Problems

SUNBURNED COUNTRY: Uluru (Ayers Rock), Northern Territory.

David M. Kennedy is the co-director, with fellow historian Richard White, of the Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West. In November 2007, under the auspices of the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue, Kennedy lectured throughout Australia about the rising political, cultural and economic influence of the West in the United States. In Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Gold Coast, he discussed the themes that have shaped the West's distinctive identity: the importance of the California Gold Rush and especially the railroad in populating and energizing the region, the post-World War II boom, the aridity that characterizes so much of the West, and the enormous inflow of immigrants in the past generation.

“Australians resonated warmly to these topics because they are so familiar in their own country's past and present,” Kennedy says. Australia's great gold rush began just three years after California's and attracted many of the same people who clawed at the Sierra foothills. Western Australia remained exceptionally isolated until the railroad connected it to the Eastern seaboard in 1917.

Australians live on the world's driest continent—in many regions rainfall averages less than 20 inches per year—and are now confronting its worst drought in 1,000 years. And immigration since the 1960s has occurred at an even higher rate, relative to population, than in the United States.

The issues facing Australia and the western United States are so similar, says Kennedy, that new partnerships between the countries have formed to help address them. In 2007 and again this year, Stanford played host to the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue, which semiannually brings together political, business and opinion leaders from both countries to discuss issues of common concern. In 2009, the Bill Lane Center, the Graduate School of Business and the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies will co-sponsor the event.

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