Saturday, December 16, 2006

Reflections on Australia

I was going to post something about our recent trip to Australia but I just didn’t have the time. Originally, it would’ve been a travelogue, but I realised that that sort of thing can be found anywhere (you can check out my photos on Flicr if you want more of a travelogue; the photos have captions and such).

The thing is, it’s odd being born in one country, living in another and visiting a third. In travelling to
Australia, I couldn’t help but look at the place through two prisms.

I last visited
Australia eleven years ago, immediately before I arrived in New Zealand and found a job, which set everything in motion for me to move here to be with my partner. Both times I thought that Sydney is a good place to visit as a tourist because there’s a lot to see and do.

However, I couldn’t live in
Sydney: It’s too expensive, too crowded, too hectic, and too aggressive. On weekdays, and even on weekends, parts of Sydney’s CBD are as busy and crowded as Manhattan. Sydney’s streets and footpaths are much narrower, which makes things feel more crowded than they actually are.

This crush of humans is, I think, the cause of noticeable aggressiveness among people. Pedestrians and drivers alike push hard and fast, often paying little or no attention to the law, let alone common courtesy, as they hurry their way around the city.

We picked up a rental car so we could drive up the
Central Coast. We crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and I was surprised to see that there was no median barrier, not even a moveable one like we have on the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Little wonder the lanes on either side of the centre line are called the “suicide lanes”.

But the real surprise was that on the other side of the bridge, the motorway ends: To head north along the coast, you have to drive through pretty ordinary city streets. This, the Pacific “Highway”, is the main road north and yet the only way to get through it is to put up with slow moving traffic held up by the sheer volume, traffic lights, and the fact it’s just a street, not a highway in any sense of the word (apart from ironic, maybe).

Central Coast is beautiful, there’s no doubt about that. Personally, I wouldn’t want to live there for two reasons: Spiders and snakes. But that’s just me.

To me,
Australia is a combination of energy, enthusiasm and pride. Unfortunately, this veers too often toward jingoism, nationalism and xenophobia. Their prime minister, John Howard, is almost more George Bush than George Bush. He once famously described Australia as America’s “deputy sheriff”, and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently described Australia as a staunch ally of America.

Howard is a lot like Bush in his conservative politics, and, like Bush, he’s frequently used fear and division as campaign tools. He may have over-played that, just as Bush has, and like the US Republicans’ losses in Congress, Howard’s conservative coalition may lose power to an Australian Labor (they spell it the same as America) Party now led by a “centrist” Christian.

America, the safety of gay and lesbian people and of racial and ethnic minorities varies widely from place to place. Howard’s government hasn’t exactly been a friend to these communities, but he’s probably been slightly better than Bush has been toward America’s minorities. That’s mostly because Australians are generally more laid-back and less fevered than Americans can be, especially on issues like gay rights (though Howard went out of his way to outlaw same-sex marriage).

And yet,
Australia is not America. Its culture is different. Like America, its traditions may have descended from Britain and other parts of Europe, but when they took root in the Southern Hemisphere they changed and became distinct. It’s part of what makes Australia so interesting.

I’m not going to compare Australia and New Zealand, mostly because I do that from time to time when talking about specific subjects. However, one apt way of pointing out the differences in this context is this: Suppose the US asked New Zealand and Australia to become part of the US. New Zealanders would laugh and tell the US, firmly, “no”. Australians would think about it.

By all means, visit
Australia. Spend a lot of time there. But make sure you spend time in New Zealand as well. You won’t regret it.

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