Australia – a land of carefree larrikins? Probably not.

Having been brought up from the age of three in Australia, I “knew” that Australia was a land of larrikins. We did what we wanted when we wanted. We broke the rules and had a laugh about it. We looked overseas at other “funny” countries with their “weird” customs. We weighed them in the balance and found them wanting. We were glad we were Australians.

When we travelled abroad (which we did frequently) we took our culture with us. We established Aussie ghettos and settled in. We ventured out of our bubble to have a look, but we knew where we could get some Aussie beer. (Not Fosters by the way. That’s a myth. Nobody drinks Fosters in Australia). More recently we’ve moved on to coffee. We make the best and are pretty smug about that too.

So we are a culture of carefree larrikins. Free thinkers and funsters. Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage) and Paul Hogan (Crocodile Dundee) are our icons. But maybe they’re not.

We built Facet5 in the UK but the first country outside of the UK where we had enough data to provide a comparison was Australia. I was keen to see what a nation of “carefree larrikins” looked like on paper. But then the results came in. I was living in the UK by then so was seeing my country from afar. And in the cold light of data there was a different picture.

We weren’t the freewheeling people of my upbringing. We were a bunch of compliant, obedient, quite gentle, very decent, conservatives. We followed rules. Hell, we made up rules. If there’s a problem, first establish the rules. We made rules about how to make rules. We made people wear seatbelts before anybody else did. We make bike riders wear helmets. We introduced random breath testing for drivers. And we think anybody with a title might be just a bit superior to the rest of us. We’re happy to tug a forelock and hobnob with our betters. Just look what happens if the Queen decides to visit. Any Queen. And we now have our own Queen. Well she’s Denmark’s actually but we’ll claim her. Good woman that Mary. Technically a Princess now but a Queen in waiting. Hey, I know a bloke who knows a bloke who knows her brothers!

This was a bitter pill to swallow. I had to revise my thinking. If we were not the freewheeling bunch of my childhood what were we? Perhaps other countries might be more creative. They might be more flexible and free thinking. They might be more assertive or tough. So what are we good at?

This was addressed in a great article by Waleed Aly*. Waleed discussed all this and draws on some great writing to show that Australians are very good at some things. And in some circumstances, these serve us very well. We were clever enough to sit on an island. A big island but it’s still an island with water all round. And it’s a long way from most places. We have some clear ideas about who should be allowed to call themselves Australian. And how should they be allowed to come here. Well, we’ve got some pretty tight rules about that.

So with those things in place, a virus was behind the eight ball. For a start it had to get here. And when it did, and we knew about it slammed the door shut. And we shut the internal doors as well. And then we told people to go home and shut the front door too. And people did. We had been told by people in authority what to do and we did it. And, without demeaning those that have suffered, some greatly, by doing as we are told we have had a very good result against the COVID-19 virus. Better than many much more adventurous, creative and free-thinking countries whose people resisted being told what to do.

We grumbled about a loss of freedom but, in general we obeyed. And we became very judgemental about those who didn’t. We glare at the unmasked in the supermarkets. We go “tsk tsk” at them in the streets. There’s a long narrow peninsular in the northern part of Sydney (often called the “insular peninsular”). There is a bridge to get to it. A lifting bridge. They got a COVID-19 outbreak out at the end. So we slammed that door shut (well lifted the bridge actually). We told them to isolate and behave better in future.

So there it is. Our national character, obedient and civic minded, gives us advantages and disadvantages compared to other countries. But this time it just might have worked for us.

Author: Norman Buckley

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