Tuesday, 8 May 2007

An Australian Experience-egalitarian vines

A common perception of Australians is their evident tendency to relax. This could be seeking shorter work time or spending much of the time and attention on leisure. As vividly shown in the movie "the Nugget", Aussies in the types of Eric Bana acting usually take frequent breaks to "grab a beer". This laid back attitude shows a determination there to resist intrusion into easy and enjoyable life and a disgust of ugly aggressive competition. It is very hard not to be influenced by this take it easy persuasion in this bounteous and blessed country.
It is inevitably in this easy life setting that drinking has become a problem. The consumption of beer is high, and drink driving caused road accidents and fatalities from early times on. One public ad warning of drink driving was notoriously catching in the 1980s, "if you drink and drive, you are bloody idiot". Pretty rude and shocking, but it worked for some time. In comparison with the other famous drinking country, Russia, there is probably a dividing line between drinking insensibly for a worry free good time and that for relieving one from loads of worries, especially the harsh, bitter winter.
This seemingly over relaxed environment attracts curiosity as well as some criticisms from outside. When I made a query to an Aussie tutor of mine about the fact that Sweden, half of Australia's population but producing excellent industrial brands, such as Volvo and Saab, the very patient and knowledgeable lady replied sarcastically without slightest hesitation: what could those people do in severe and lengthy winters, with several months of dark, sunless days? Surely they would have to stay inside and have plenty of time to contemplate, design, and invent something slightly amusing to do. That might just be the origin of their amazing abilities to configure and build fine crafted machines, including cars. Australia is without those nearby competitors, but with abundant resources to sustain a society of liberalism, and with nice and diverse climate to enjoy outdoor sports and leisure. Innovation is a relatively less urgent matter, and a lack of creativity drive appears not posing unsettling threats. Put it simply, how can people spend a lovely sunny day not at beach or outside but in a tight, dim cubicle for a dull task? This is quite an eye opening observation, a candid defence of the Australian way.
The good life of Australia can be seen from tranquil suburbs spreading out of downtown Melbourne. It is deafeningly quiet around. You may fall asleep by passing along some of the streets and neighbourhoods. Living in and around the city centre has yet caught on as a trendy fashion, and most prefer free standing houses with yards and gardens. Although a quarter acre land for a house site is now a luxury for most property owners, small lots of land and townhouses with separate yards and garages are acceptable alternatives.
This extension of suburbs has reduced the lure of urban centres, leaving few people around after work. The central Melbourne district used to look like a ghost town, with seldom passersby and crowds, though this has improved a great deal in recent years. A lecturer of Chinese origin from Hong Kong taught at the economics department where I was studying. He blended in quite well with Australian and American colleagues, but after merely two years when his initial contract was out, he returned to Hong Kong. His parting words were:"It is too quiet here, unlike Hong Kong, and there is not much to do". I found it hard to believe when heard these words from a Hong Konger, since the quality of life is definitely a notch up than that in Hong Kong, and enjoying a quiet weekend is the dream of most people. Regardless, this tranquility in Australia remains an advantage, nominally with less thrills and stirring, but standing out as a major indication of the kind of quality life many other peoples would die for.
Australians have maintained their spirit of "fair go" and equal rights for all deep in political institutions and people's mind. These have not been fundamentally polluted by political nastiness and negative politicking prevailing in the US. A pretty serious charge of offence is being un-Australian, meaning unfair, unscrupulous, and unenlightened. This is shown in many aspects of life in Australia. The funeral of a former Queensland Premier Sir Joh Bjelke Peterson in early 2005 cause some stirs, since protesters opposed to this veteran state politician accused him of cronyism, corruption, curtailing of civil liberty, running a police state, and damaging environment during his reign. Some unforgiven protesters announced plans to picket his funeral. This was quickly denounced not only by Peterson's enlarged family and loyal National party supporters, but also by the Labour Premier, whose party suffered badly in the hands of Sir Joh. The Premier called the proposed picket to be dropped, because it was a union action, and a picket line at a funeral would be, in his words, "inappropriate and un-Australian". Anywhere in life, a fair go is urged to be exercised, despite emotions, anguish, and feud.
On the other hand, wealth and opulence receive certain unkind attention and remarks. Few brag what multimillion dollar homes or expensive limos they have, unlike in the US. The Rich 200 list composed by "Business Review Weekly" is the place to line up and parade the super rich of the country in a good light. People in business pay adequate attention to this list, but there are often readers who just hate the list for its repulsive glorifying of those people of wealth.
Australia used to carry a system of colonial titled, borrowed from Britain, giving people knighthood on behalf of the British monarch. For Prime Ministers on the Liberal side were bestowed British titles and honours, such as Sir Robert Menzies. As expected, no Labour Prime Minister has been a "Sir". The Whitlam government instituted a new honour system in the place of the British honours, the highest being the Australian of the Year. An Aussie friend of mine received a Federal honour in 2004, the Order of Australia, for her distinguished service to Australian children education overseas.
The largely blurred line between classes in the open serves to remind people that one can be extraordinary in certain aspects but is not high above the ordinary. Bill Bryson described a life example of this Australian egalitarianism in his book "Down Under", concerning the former deputy prime minister and treasurer Jim Cairns who was reduced to selling his books at market places in Melbourne. This is a true story. Years ago, on a visit to a south Melbourne market, a friend of mine there made a an excited announcement about his stall being just next to a former government minister and him having a brief chat with the guy about his books for sale. Mr. Cairns' place was next to a gate where crowds passed to lines of small stalls. His set was not even a designated stall, just on a card table, so I gathered he would not have to pay much fee for doing this "commercial" business. Mr. Cairns had a tough time after exiting office. He once led massive street protest in Melbourne against the Vietnam War and Australian involvement. Imagine that! Those thunderous rally calls from the participants must be deafening and music to the ears of this brilliant organiser. There must be some high leadership quality in this man sitting at the corner of a market chatting idly and aimlessly. After his passing away in 2003, certain recognition was accorded to him from Labour Party and those once in the left wing government. (to be continued)

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