Septic Tank, an american high up in the ranks of the advertising industry, spent five years in Australia in the 1970’s and reckons we’re a nation of bums.

I spent five wonderful years in the “Lucky Country” before returning to the United States. Five years living and working amongst some of the best people I have ever met. Not a day goes by, 20 years later, I don’t remember some aspect of Oz most fondly. But why is it Australia seems to flounder along year in and year out, while America gets bigger, stronger, more powerful? I often ponder that.

Of course, I have formed a few opinions.

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In America, there is an entrepreneurial spirit I don’t remember encountering much in Australia. A drive to succeed, a drive to realize your full potential, disappointment with anything less. This is drummed into you from an early age, in school, on the playground, at home, on the television, in films. Success is cool. Mediocrity, well, sucks.

Of course there are the exceptions here, mostly amongst the government sector not surprisingly. Why try when you will be taken care of? When no matter how poorly you do, you cannot be fired. If you work hard, you can get your RV, your boat, your house at the lake, always have enough for beer. Isn’t that enough for any man or woman?

Well, in Australia I got the sense it WAS enough for almost everyone. Even outside the government sector and labour unions. After all, she’ll be right, correct? I had to consciously try and reduce my instincts for success, for achievement, my unwillingness to settle for anything half-assed while I lived there. “You Yanks have got it all wrong,” I was often told. “Just relax, she’ll be right.”

Because I didn’t grow up in Australia, didn’t go through the school system, I have no idea where people begin to be ingrained with this attitude that it’s okay to be just okay. I do know I was amazed one year to hear that Australian university students were going on strike because they weren’t being given enough money to go to school. Excuse me, not GIVEN enough money? In the states, the vast majority of university students get zero dollars from the government, me included. You work hard in the summers and during the school year to pay for your tuition, your housing, your food. You take out a loan, that MUST be repayed, if you need more to make it through.

So, in the USA, by the time you hit the work force, you already know what it’s like to fight for survival, to struggle for success. You don’t want to go back to those days when all you could afford was peanut butter and potatoes for an entire school year.

And, when you succeed, you have a pride in your accomplishment because no one handed it to you.

I think, if I may speculate a little further, you can look at the history of the two countries and get a little clue as to why things have turned out differently. Both were founded about the same time, both as English prison colonies, and havens for the rejects of other cultures and countries. But in America, people decided to cut the cord with England (there were a million reasons but the point is the same), while in Australia, it didn’t happen. It never happened. Apparently, people liked being taken care of, being under the wing of the Empire. Or got used to it. “She’ll be right” grew out of that, I think, even though the British horribly abused Australia’s loyalty over the years (see Gallipoli et al).

I remember when I lived there the Governor General strolled into Canberra one day and summarily dismissed the P.M. I think it was Gough Whitlam. And you know what? Instead of total outrage and revolutionary fervor, people basically said, well, I think you can figure out what they said. I couldn’t believe the arrogance of that move. But then, the British knew what they were dealing with.

Today, I cannot even tell you who the sitting PM is in Australia, or what Party is in power. Even though I care much more about Australia than most Yanks, what goes on Down Under doesn’t even scratch our consciousness. Why? Because Australia is not a “player” in our view. Your news is on our back pages only occasionally, like when half the country is aflame thanks to a bushfire out of control. Otherwise, except for Qantas and Australian tourism commercials that reinforce the stereotype of Australians as a nation of Crocodile Dundee wannabes, we don’t hear much.

It’s interesting that even when given the opportunity to portray yourselves as something aspirational to the rest of the world, you fall back on that old “she’ll be right” personna. Exported films that get a decent run over here do the same, and I am thinking of “Muriel’s Wedding” and “Strictly Ballroom” when I say that. Americans that saw those films asked me, “is it really like that down there?” I had to say, “yes, it really is”.

Now don’t get me wrong. There is a charm about Australia and her people that exists nowhere else on earth. I had the good fortune to play a bit of “aerial pingpong” while there, and a better set of mates you will never find than I found at the local football club. Likewise in my chosen professional field, the people were wonderful.

Interestingly, after living in Australia several years, I used to shy away from Americans I ran into either touring or living there. They were simple, too intense, too loud, too demanding, too driven. To my bemusement, I too, had become somewhat of a “she’ll be righter”.

It was a difficult adjustment when I returned to the States, having to rev up to the speed of life there.

Now, assuming you would even want to change things in Australia to put yourself on a more equal footing, I would say it has to begin in the schools. Make it harder, encourage competition. In America, sport is played in the school systems, not in outside clubs. Children learn the value of competition, teamwork, the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat if you will on a daily basis. Everyone is encouraged to participate.

A university education is not given to anyone but the severely underprivileged. While there is some financial assistance for others, it is given on the basis of merit: either academic or athletic. Otherwise, you work your arse off at some form of employment to get the benefit of a university education. I didn’t think I was anything special for doing that. Everyone did it.

Does it work? Well, I think the accomplishments of the USA are well documented. I don’t see anything changing, not with the Asians and the Europeans working overtime to try and knock us off in business, in sport, and in the case of despotic regimes, right off the map.

Anything less, and “she” definitely would NOT be right.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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