Some thoughts on Australia Day

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.

An American paradox

There’s a lot of things I don’t understand about the USA, but one in particular has had me consistently confused over the past few months.

Why is it that the people who are most scared of the US government are the people who are most supportive of its foreign policy?

Why is it that people who believe in small government are the same people who believe in a massive military, controlled by the government?

Why is it that those same people tend to believe in strong policing, massive jails and state-sponsored executions?

Why is it that the people who distrust the government most are the same people who believe every fear-mongering thing that comes out of the government’s lips about Muslims, communists, socialists, terrorists and various other sorts of scary foreign things?

Why is it that the people who don’t believe that the US government can ever do anything good refuse to listen when the rest of the world tells them that the US government is doing something bad?

Why is it that people who are scared of the US government keep large stockpiles of guns to protect themselves, and practice by going to the local shooting range, where they fire their guns at posters of Osama bin Laden, possibly the only person in the world who hated the US government as much as they do?

I’m just waiting till the people working for $7/hr in a company that makes $6bn/yr start complaining that they don’t want anyone to take their hard-earned wealth away. Then I’ll have heard it all!

A letter to the “Prime Minister”

Dear Leader,

As a member of the Australian public, I’m glad that you’ve explained the Syrian conflict to me in terms that I can understand.

However I’m a little rusty on my history. I’ve been thinking through all the wars we learnt about in school – you know, the big ones – and I’m struggling to work out which ones were baddies vs baddies and which ones were baddies vs goodies. There might have even been some goodies vs goodies wars in there, but I’m so confused right now I don’t know if that’s even possible.

So I need you to help me out here, because I’m not that good at complexity, and that’s why I elected you to do the heavy thinking for me.

Let’s go.

The Boer war was the earliest war we learnt about in school, but with Australia Day coming up we should probably think about the wars (you can think of them as skirmishes, if it makes you feel better) the British invaders fought against the Aborigines who lived here in 1788. It seems to me the Aborigines were just hanging out on their land when the white guys decided to rock up, land a few hundred prisoners and turn the place into their own. The British also had guns, and smallpox, so I’m going with goodies vs baddies on this one.

The Boer War, then. I don’t remember much about it from school, but Wikipedia tells me that “27,927 Boer civilians died in concentration camps, plus an unknown number of black Africans (107,000 were interned).” So that’s baddies for the British (and us). It also tells me that “Many Boers were dissatisfied with aspects of British administration, in particular with Britain’s abolition of slavery on 1 December 1834”. So baddies versus baddies it is.

World War I seems to have been fought between the Belgium-raping Germans and the shipwreck-surviver-massacring English. Baddies on both sides.

World War II is too long to get into here, but definitely seems to have been baddies vs baddies.

I’ve been to Vietnam, so I can tell you that the US (we were on their side) were definitely baddies, they poured Agent Orange over hillsides, wiped out whole populations, destroyed their land for decades and left landmines everywhere. Apparently the Viet Cong also did a massacre or two. Baddies vs baddies.

Yugoslavia and its successors: I’m a little rusty here, but Wikipedia suggests this one may have been baddies vs baddies vs baddies vs baddies, until NATO arrived and ended the war, eventually, but also caused more war crimes to be committed, killed a lot of civilians and destroyed a lot of buildings. So baddies vs baddies vs baddies vs baddies vs baddies?

Afghanistan (you can certainly help me with this one, you were in government when we decided to fight in it!). On the one hand we have a country that refused to immediately turn over some people who had planned an attack which destroyed some buildings in New York. On the other we have a country that invaded another, that kidnapped, tortured and abused prisoners of war, and that fights via unmanned planes that routinely bomb entire families. Not to mention the fact that it trained the people it was trying to capture in the first place! I think we can go with baddies vs baddies again.

Iraq: this one is actually difficult. The US (that’s the side we fought with, you were at the front of that charge as well) are definitely bad. First they made up a whole list of reasons to invade another country that were lies, and the rest of the world knew they were lies, and the UN body that exists for the sole purpose of determining the truth of such lies knew they were lies, and everyone was telling us they were lies, but the US and the UK and Rupert Murdoch and you, Mr Abbott, you said they weren’t lies, and you went to war. Then this is what you did to the people you went to war with. Iraq on the other hand, who knows. I’ll leave that one to you.

I’m going to stop now, because I don’t think this is helping at all. In fact, isn’t it starting to seem like all wars are just baddies vs baddies? Actually, isn’t that kind of the whole point of war?

I know I said your statement made sense to me at first, but I take it back. Right now I’m even more confused than I was before you explained it to me!

When you say that this one is baddies vs baddies, what do you mean? Do you mean it’s a war? Do you mean people are killing each other? I really hope you don’t mean – though I kind of suspect you do – that it’s Muslims vs Muslims? Or do you just mean you don’t understand it?

Please explain.