I have spent a great deal of time in Australia over the last 20 years and it has consistently failed to live up to the narrow stereotypes I held about the country before I first arrived.
It’s the sports reporter shorthand, something I see as an essentially narrow conservative worldview that I believe needs challenging. Shorthand like, “All Aussies love cricket, barbies and beer.”
While it’s true that there is nothing easier to find than an Aussie bloke who is obsessed with all three, I have also met many Australians who are bored by cricket, are vegetarians and only drink wine.
But even that doesn’t really tell you anything about the place. It completely ignores the political history, it’s fractious relationship with ‘the mother country’
It also ignores the fact that Australia is a country that has radically changed even in the 20 years I’ve been coming here, partly because of immigration from Asia, Greece, the middle East and Eastern Europe, partly because a new, well travelled generation has taken over.
There was a certain red neck quality visible when I first visited. I remember sitting on a lonely beach in Queensland in 1990 reading ‘A Secret Country’ a book by the Australian journalist John Pilger.
He described his home country as;
‘The British working class raping paradise forever.’
Okay, fairly strident, he wrote the book in 1989, he’s lived in London since the 1960’s and has been a long time critic of Australia’s policies toward the Aboriginal community among many other topics.
I remember being very shocked when I read that. I have always admired John Pilger, he’s an amazing journalist (I’d love to record a Carpool with him) but when I read that, I was a little put off.
For a start, I generally preferred to blame the British ruling class, the public school pillocks who’ve abused the United Kingdom mercilessly for many hundreds of years as if it were their God given right. The bankers who fiddle their taxes, indulge in polite corporate corruption, hold bank accounts in off shore tax havens, all the fiddles and selfish con tricks we are so familiar with, of which of course they are proud.
And yet in Australia Mr Pilger blamed the British working class.
The Australia we know today is a country built by immigrants, for the first couple of hundred years the vast majority of those immigrants were white, working class British and Irish people, rightly sick of the cold, hopeless daily grind of earning a stale crust under the hand made boot of the British ruling elite.
What it appears they have done is create a society that in some ways is fairer, more decent and less riddled with class restrictions and assumptions than dear old Britannia.
My Australian nephews and nieces illuminate a clear example of that legacy; they have recently finished school and have got summer jobs for the first time.
A teenager with a part time job in Australia is in a completely different position to their equivalent in the UK. The simple difference is they are paid a decent wage, a wage that means taking up what in England would be considered a dead end, low status job very much more appealing.
I’m talking shelf stacking, kitchen work, hotel and office cleaning. They are paid £10 to £15 an hour. This is part time casual work I’m talking here, not a full time job that requires qualifications; it’s what students do in the holidays.
The average wage for similar work in the UK is offensive, derisory, wicked, pathetic, cruel. £4 a hour, if your lucky, less in many cases. So why is this?
Is it just because the UK is far more crowded, after all, Australia is abut the size of Europe with a population roughly the same size as South East England. Is it that we have higher immigration and all those desperate asylum seekers lower the wages?
Is it because Australia is a much richer country without the massive debts we’ve been lumbered with by lazy, selfish management, short sighted politicians getting back handers from mobile phone operators to allow them to avoid paying tax?
I would suggest none of these arguments have anything to do with it. I would like to politely suggest it is to do with the jolly old class system.
It feels to me that in Australia it’s not seen as demeaning and hopeless to work in a supermarket, it doesn’t say that you are a sad loser if you work in a fast food outlet, or clean rooms in a hotel. Basically, there isn’t the same snobbism connected to jobs as there is in the UK.
We’re all guilty of this snobbism, it’s totally acceotable to make derisory comments about ‘losers’ working for Maccy D’s.
Of course, the Daily Mail argument would be the one most popular. ‘Well, if we paid people any more, the cost of living would go up. Tesco’s would be more expensive if people got paid a decent wage just to stack the shelves.’
Yes, it probably would, because our food costs are subsidised not by governments, but by the fact that all through the supply chain we exploit people by paying them ridiculously low wages.
The problem is, because we are still so class riddled in the UK, we think people who work for low wages are by definition stupid and unskilled, lazy, feckless and essentially, lower class.
But our shelves need stacking, hospitals need cleaning well, food needs cooking, why should people who do essential jobs we all rely on be paid so absurdly little.
More importantly, why are people who do wasteful, lazy, greedy jobs that fiddle about with other people’s money so ludicrously well paid.
Yes, okay, throw bloody TV presenters into that, but let me quickly point out that bloody TV presenters are not paid as much as they were, and nothing like as much as bankers.
‘Well, if we paid unskilled workers more, the shareholders would be up in arms.’ Say the charming corporate spokespeople. In other words they wouldn’t get the massive swollen dividends they’ve become used to. The subtext being the only way we can be as obscenely profitable is by paying most of the people who work for us the absolute least we can get away with. Obviously our management teams and shareholders need massive remuneration that far exceeds anyone’s needs.
So is what I’m suggesting communism, where we all have to be paid the same and all creativity and individuality is crushed?
I don’t think Australia could be considered a communist country. Australia exhibits rampant, U.S. style capitalism, the only slight difference seems to be that they pay people a reasonable wage for doing the essential jobs that require the least skill.
I think it’s because most people in Australia genuinely respect anyone who works. I’m also sure my arguments are full of holes, but show me a teenager in the UK working in a supermarket who’s earning £15 an hour and I’ll eat my lap top.