The aqua sky’s cloudless and the chirps of the birds are carried by the gentle breeze. I casually cycle past a man watering his front lawn, my skin and spirits feel pleasantly warm. My yellow bike reflects my mood.
Me: Perfect day for a ride!
Him: Mmm. It’d be even more perfect if you were wearing a helmet.
Ugh. The sun’s gone behind a metaphoric grey cloud.
I cross the road to go for a walk in the park beside the creek. A car drives past.
I spontaneously laugh. It feels like a 5-year-old just called me “poo-face”.
Are there people out there who genuinely think jaywalking is a crime so severe that it needs to be policed by civilians? Really?
Yes must be the answer, since three separate jaywalking vigilantes have reprimanded me in the past year.
I stand at a pedestrian crossing with six others. There are no cars in sight, and we can see the road for miles. I want to cross, but I know the rules here. I can also do without the crime of “jaywalker” being yelled at me twice in a week.
No one moves. We all stand still, dead still, waiting for the green robot man to tell us we can walk. Minutes pass in silence, the vacant road glaring in front of us. Finally the green robot man blinks on, instructing the humanoids who obediently step forward.
I open a small bottle of wine and cross the road to the creek.
“Um, you know you’re not allowed to drink on the street”?
Sigh. Of course you aren’t.
Bike helmets are compulsory in Australia, jaywalking is illegal (and the law is actively enforced), drinking in public is banned, and you cross the street when you’re told to cross the street.
Last year it was proposed that Melbourne becomes a smoke-free city. No smoking in the entire CBD. Prohibition in 2014. Oh and voting’s also compulsory – not voting incurs a $74 fine.
This is a land of laws.
Compliance is everything.
It’s tiring, it’s absurd, and it’s a constant challenge to those who have lived anywhere else. It’s not the snakes, or the spiders, or the bushfires, or the sharks that’ll get you in Australia. It’s the rules, the laws, and the cultural mindset.
Like a stint in prison, you have to brace yourself to live here – and the final sentence in this note from one American to another about living in Australia reads like the end of a custodial sentence: “Those of us from the American south know an unbridled, exceptional amount of freedom and (aside from missing our loved ones), the rules and general rigidity of Australia can seem oppressive. It wasn’t until my Aussie hubby came here and experienced our freedoms, that he understood why I found it so difficult to adjust in Sydney. Living in Australia was extremely challenging for me, and it was an experience that made me a stronger, more resilient person.”
Australia’s refreshingly wide and open land contradicts the human oppression and indoctrination. A friend who visited Australia last year sent me an email which captured how it’s strikingly restrictive to those who have spent years in more relaxed countries.
“I never thought of the UK as free until I visited Australia. Whenever people have asked about my trip, the dismaying nanny-state rigidity of Australian society is all I’ve been able to talk about. I couldn’t believe the constant, on-going presumption that various public authorities know best! The rules and ever-present rigidity of Australia is genuinely amazing. I’ve never experienced anything like it in any other country”.
Of course, there’s a positive side to the compliance. The rules mean that we have high quality standards, cleanliness, “good” behaviour and civic order. These are good things … though they also describe Germany. I guess it’s a matter of whether you consider the price of those things to be worth it. I’m not sure I do. I’m okay with a few cycling fatalities if it means all of us can have the wind in our hair. I’m okay with the occasional smell of smoke if it means we can have the freedom to make our own choices. I’m okay with a few drunks in the street, if it means I can enjoy a cold glass of wine by the creek on a warm summer evening. Hell, with any luck, I’ll get a little tipsy and be one of those drunks! (And yes, I realise the risks of drinking by a river. Yawn).
18 months ago, I had a word approved by the urban dictionary; Convictistan. It’s used by non-Australians (often New Zealanders) when referring to Australia. I meant it as a nod to our convict history. Perhaps it’s not history. Perhaps we’re all currently inmates in an open prison.
In October last year Jeremy Clarkson wrote about Australia in “The Times” …
“So I was in a helicopter. The doors were off, I had a rifle and the pilot was hovering 100ft from the ground so I could shoot a wild pig. Later we butchered it and over a few beers fed it to his pet crocodile. This is the all-male, rough-and-tumble image we have of life in Australia. But it’s wrong …
The following morning, all I wanted was a cigarette and a cup of coffee in the morning sunshine, but down under, this is no longer really possible.
I made the short 300-yard walk from the restaurant to what was billed as the smoking terrace. But a waiter sprinted over to say that the actual smoking terrace was even further away, in a cave by the bins.
And that, yes, he could bring me a coffee, but only in a paper cup.
This is because he’d have to walk past the swimming pool. Never mind that it was completely fenced off, and accessible through a gate so complicated that only a child could possibly work the latch, there was a chance that he would trip over one of the signs advising visitors that it was 0.2 metres deep, that diving was banned, that no lifeguard was on duty and that the water may contain traces of diarrhoea.
I’m not sure there’s a county on earth where the global perception is as far removed from the reality as Australia. We see it as a land of spiders and snakes, where you are born drunk and with an ability to barbecue yourself. But it’s not like that at all.
Today the unholy alliance of the nanny state and the trade union movement has created a culture of health and safety so all-consuming that no one is allowed to die, or even fall over. Cigarettes are sold in packets made from the diseased lungs of dead babies, drinking outside is not allowed and there are speed limits on roads where there is literally nothing to hit. You could have a crash lasting two hours and you’d still be fine.
The last fatality from a spider bite was in 1979, and every single river in the outback is garnished with floats … Australia can keep its ludicrous attitude to health and safety …”