Australian holiday

2008-07-28 00:00

I am watching the television news. Things seem to be collapsing. The communications network crashed today with neither cellphones nor the Internet working. Power station strikes threaten country-wide electricity blackouts. There have been protest marches about a pending increase in electricity tariffs and a local demonstration about cuts in local medical services. Petrol costs have gone up to R11.50 a litre and there are frequent incidents of naughty motorists driving off from service stations without payment. Oh, and on the human news level a local man has just shot dead his rival for a girlfriend’s affections.

No, I am not at home but in Australia. The further away you move, the more things stay the same, it seems. And you were thinking of immigrating here? Don’t misunderstand: I like Australia. But it is a country under strain as it tries to find its own identity. A local soldier has just been killed in Afghanistan. “He was a real Aussie Digger”, his father said. What he meant was, he was tough, a hero, a bit of a rebel, but a bloke with a heart of gold beneath.

I have no doubt that the young man in question was brave and admirable. But the Australian self-image of themselves springs from Gallipoli and the heroism of the World War 1 trenches. The Australians lost more men per capita than any of the Allied Forces in World War 1. Anzac Day is still huge here. Aussies see themselves as tough, rebellious, likeable (and white). The self-image bears scant resemblance to the modern reality. Indeed they are mostly likeable.

But far from being tough they live hugely protected lives, with generous state benefits covering unemployment, health and child care. They are not at all rebellious but the most biddable and obedient of citizens in one of the world’s few remaining welfare states. And they are certainly not all white.

Not that the indigenous aborigines form any significant part of the population. Since the official “keep Australia white” policy ended in 1953, and especially in the past 20 years, huge numbers of Asian people have flooded here. So Australia, from being firmly British and white for 150 years, has become a multicultural, multilingual, multifaith population. And it struggles to find its identity.

There are tensions. There is plenty of crude racism, although mostly hidden under a polite veneer. The veneer slips. The local Gold Coast Bulletin carried a crassly racist piece some months back when the new prime minister apologised to aboriginal people for the way they have been treated. But there is more subtle racism too. The current newsletter of the Anglican Cathedral in Sydney carries a letter from the Dean, brother to the notoriously conservative Anglican Archbishop of Sydney (nepotism is alive and well in Australia too).

Responding to suggestions that given its multicultural nature

Australia should explore permitting the use of other languages for educational purposes, and be open to a variety of religious expressions, the Dean asserts roundly that Australia is an English-speaking Christian country and nothing should be permitted to weaken that heritage.

The Dean is not entirely wrong. While typically the Australian media claim that Australia is a secular country, the census figures belie that. Some 80% of Australians claim to hold religious beliefs, 70% of them Christian. Catholics, at around 27% of the population, are the largest Christian group followed by Anglicans at 20%. The Pope is visiting as I write. Some hundreds of thousands of young Catholic pilgrims from many countries are gathered in Sydney for World Youth Day.

This has exacerbated the debate about Australian identity. The media are divided. The Sydney Morning Herald and some TV channels are sceptical about the papal visit. They complain that the lives of ordinary citizens are being disrupted and that state money is being used to bolster a religious event. Old scandals of clergy abuse of children have been resurrected and have been much in the press, with conservative Cardinal George Pells having been caught out in what looks like a cover-up (although the Pope has made a heartfelt apology). Pells in his own way is as conservative as the Anglican Archbishop.

Defending the Catholic ban on contraception, he encourages Catholics to have large families, presumably to offset the Asian influx. The secular media are outraged.

But most Australians seem at the moment to be thoroughly captivated by the papal visit. He has urged them to embrace “a new age in which hope liberates us from the shallowness, apathy and self-absorption” of the modern secular world. For the moment it has raised them out of their self-doubt about the prevalence of alcoholism, drugs and “hoons” (Australian for louts and hooligans). It is all part of learning how to be a national family.

And for us personally as we try to strengthen family links with children and grandchildren here, it has been a testing but reassuring visit. A generous son-in-law had promised a week-long cruise on a catamaran in the Whitsundays, a group of tropical islands forming part of the Great Barrier Reef discovered by Captain Cook on Whitsunday in 1832. We had looked forward to it greatly, placing our trust in the fact that the said son-in-law had once crewed a yacht in the Cape-to Rio race. I had bought sleek Speedo bathing trunks (Australians call them “budgie smugglers”) and reef shoes to wade among the coral.

Alas, just before our cruise there was snow in New South Wales. The wind blew off the snow to us in the Coral Sea, gusting icily to 25 knots. The waves were large. It turned out that the sailing experience of said son-in-law had been 30 years ago. But worst of all, I took on board the beginning of a dread virus. One by one in the close quarters of a yacht, the whole party succumbed. My eldest granddaughter had been chosen to represent South Queensland in the Queensland state athletics in a week’s time. She had been training for months. A special coach had been hired to advise on her training. And on the yacht she caught my virus. Her race was cancelled. The air tickets were cashed in. My granddaughter has forgiven us. My son-in-law remains polite. Family ties have been tested but seem to have withstood the strain.

There are three weeks left to mend any broken bridges. And despite it all the Whitsundays were lovely.

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