It’s Australia Day, which tends to bring out the best and worst in Australians. I’ve celebrated by having a couple of drinks, as is my duty, and so this post may not be as coherent as it otherwise may be.
Like many others, I don’t think this is the best day to celebrate all that makes our country great. The events of 26 January 1788, and what they represent, are not the most glorious part of Australia’s history. But that’s not to say there’s not a lot to be proud of.
Travelling gives us the opportunity to compare our society to the rest of the world, to see where we are doing well and where we need to improve. I’ve been away for six of the last seven Australia Days, spending one in Nepal, one in the USA, two in India, one in Vietnam and one in Singapore. Along the way I’ve visited Vanuatu, Bosnia and Herzogovina, Pakistan, Italy and a lot of places in between. To be honest, I’d almost forgotten that Australia day existed. Thank god we have Facebook to remind us of such things.
As an Australian I’m lucky to have the ability to hop so easily around the world. Very few people in the world can travel as easily as we can. I have friends across Asia who will most likely never be able to visit Australia, or any Western nation. As Australians we can’t imagine having such restrictions placed upon us.
I personally think this should change, but even if it doesn’t, I think Australians would do well to appreciate their unique position. The KC family in Palubari, Nepal, welcome me into their lives whenever I get the chance to visit. They cook my meals, clear a bed and share every aspect of their lives with me. Even if I could afford to return the favour, I wouldn’t be allowed to: the KC family would have to demonstrate that they had stable, well-paying jobs, bank accounts full of savings and treasured possessions to draw them back to Nepal. They have none of the above, yet they still treat me like a son.
Travelling makes me grateful for the wages I can earn as an Australian. Last year I shared an office at UTS with a man who told me hated dole bludgers, hippies and anyone who took anything from anyone else. He particularly hated trade unions, which he saw as hotbeds of corruption. His job was historically heavily unionised, his wages were set by a collective bargaining process that over the years had led to huge wage rises, important improvements in working conditions and extra goodies like extended parental leave and five weeks of paid leave. Every three months his wages went up 2%, and he barely noticed.
This year I’ve been living in the USA, where many people share my coworker’s views. In September I applied for the same job that I had at UTS, only the pay was three times less. I didn’t get the job; unemployment here is several times higher than at home. If I had got the job I would have had one week of annual leave, and would have needed to visit a doctor and obtain a medical certificate to take a day’s sick leave. It would cost $50 to go to the doctor. Sometimes it takes a bit of distance to see how lucky we are.
Travelling lets me see how people live without iPads, smartphones and all the rest of it. I’ve lived for extended periods without electricity, without running water, without meat, without telecommunications. Some people I know in Australia would call waiting an extra month for the iPhone 6 an economic crisis. Some people I know in South Asia call living without power life.
Being overseas makes me appreciate how safe I feel in Australia. Here in Richmond, multiple people have to die for something to become a “shooting”. In Sydney a shooting is when shots are fired at the front wall of an empty house. Richmond, a city of just over 200,000, has more murders than Sydney, a city of just under 5 million.
This is a day we should recognise how lucky we are. Above all we are lucky because we earn more than almost anywhere else in the world for the work we do. That gives all of us the ability to make our own choices, to consume as we wish, to exercise our political power in our everyday decisions as well as every few years at the ballot box. Our society is closer than most to an egalitarian one, because on the whole we don’t believe that people should make more money simply because they started with more money.
But I worry we’re becoming increasingly complacent with what we’ve got, forgetting why we have it, and presuming that someone else will preserve it. A nation where everyone’s rich – which, more than anywhere else, is what we have become – is at risk of forgetting what it’s like to be poor. The ex-colleague I mentioned above received a good public school education and a free university degree, but now he can afford to send his kids to private schools he sees no use in supporting the public system. We can’t let that mentality take hold, because there will always be people who are poorer than others.
And it might make me a dreamer, but I feel that we can do more than revive our egalitarian spirit for ourselves, and start to share it with those beyond our borders. Most of us still agree that someone who works a hard day’s work deserves a decent wage, but we don’t feel the same about the Bangladeshi that sews our shirts, the Indian who answers our phone calls or the Malaysian who processes our credit card transactions. At the very least we can start to think about them, and how we might go about including them in our lives, and not just in our economies.
It’s my shout. Happy Australia day, and happy ruminating.