Australia, You’re Standing In It

Contemplation of life in Australia, as compared to the same in the United States, has been an occasional topic of conversation. Many of my friends are Americans so it’s natural that we’d sometimes compare circumstances.

Before we start, here’s where I’m coming from: I’m a white guy in his mid-40s, living in a country where being a white guy is easy mode. My economic circumstances are what you might call lower-middle-class (in Australian terms: “middle class” is one of those phrases that has a different meaning here to what my American friends might expect), which is to say that I make enough to live with some comfort, but not enough to own a home or to have any great pile of money set aside.

Also, I’m to the left, even by local standards.

Economy

Australia didn’t get hit too hard by the Global Financial Shitstorm. Our PM at the time, for all his many faults, took the advice from experts that things might go horribly wrong in the USA and thought a bit about how to respond to that.

So when the US sub-prime mortgage market tanked our government was ready to go with big fat cash injections. Not everything they did worked out brilliantly, but between that and the Chinese appetite for mining products we did pretty okay. No recession, continued growth, all that stuff.

Our economy is still theoretically growing but there’s been sod-all wage growth for years now, while inflation continues to be a thing. So in terms of real wages most of us are a little worse off than we were. The mining boom is very much over.

The move to casualisation of employment has continued. What this means is that rather a lot of Australians no longer have full-time jobs. Many who do are on fixed-term contracts. Regardless of what the unemployment stats say, a lot of people are doing it tough and there aren’t enough jobs to go around.

There’s a housing bubble. It’s been going on for quite a while. There are government policy settings that encourage it, because nobody wants to be in charge when the bubble bursts. If you don’t already own a house, or have access to a big wodge of cash courtesy of your parents or your very-well-paying job, you probably won’t be buying. And if you aren’t making halfway-okay money then you may struggle to rent anywhere there’s a job for you.

Work culture

I’ve worked in the US a bit. Office stuff in IT, but not startup-land.

My experience has been that it’s usually a little more laid-back here.

There are also real live genuine workplace protections for many, though at this point not all, people. There are some particular industries where salary theft is not uncommon, or where minimum wage is ignored. Hospitality and big-chain convenience stores seem particularly bad about this.

If you can get a full-time job then things are pretty nice. We don’t do “at-will” employment, though if you work for a small business the boss can fire you for any non-discriminatory reason. Larger organisations have to go through formal processes.

The gig economy is chewing up protections. If you have any sort of social conscience, stay the hell away from the app-based food delivery services. They’re horrifically exploitative.

Politics and Government

We’re a federation of states and territories. We generally don’t devolve as much stuff down to the local level as in the USA: for example police are (generally) run by state governments, not local.

(There is a federal police agency, in theory a bit like the FBI.)

There are things you guys are still arguing about very loudly that are more or less settled here. Abortion is… legal-ish, in that nobody has been prosecuted for decades, but it’s technically still illegal in several states. It’s a giant mess we ought to clean up, but it hasn’t happened because of a vocal minority.

(Sound familiar?)

There’s a fairly broad agreement, at least if opinion polls are to be believed, that marriage equality ought to be a thing. Hasn’t happened yet, though the previous government did pass legislation to remove discrimination from everything but the Marriage Act.

However, our government can’t computer.

We also have a serious ongoing structural budget problem: during the mining boom the government used the bonus tax revenue for tax cuts rather than long-term investment. So yeah, once that lovely lucre disappeared they’d blown a huge hole in the budget. But we’ve got a crazy-good credit rating regardless and we’re definitely not poor.

Australia is moderately conservative in general, though there’s far less interest outside the hard-core right in policing what people get up to in the bedroom.

Which leads on to…

Religion

We have it. Very few of our politicians will openly admit to being atheists, though there’s not quite the same degree of religious grandstanding either. Most (white) Australians seem to be one variety of (usually non-observant) Christian or another.

The 2011 census results were:

  • 61% Christian
  • 22% “no religion”
  • 9.4% “decline to state”
  • the rest is a mix of Hindu, Buddhist, Islam, and so on

That “Christian” number used to be rather higher. It’s mostly fairly low-key, in any case. There are some very loud evangelical communities but they’re a minority: most Australians won’t mention it at all unless you ask, and in my experience unless they’ve got a particularly strong view they’ll be a bit awkward about discussing it.

Prosperity theology hasn’t really taken root here much. We have a few American-style megachurches but most of it’s traditional Catholic, Church of England, or Uniting.

The Wikipedia article on religion in Australia makes for interesting reading.

Healthcare

We have that, too.

It’s a mixture of public and private. It’s not as all-encompassing as Britain’s NHS, and it’s also only been around in one form or another since 1975, but Medicare covers most hospital and doctor visits (though often with a co-pay for doctors), and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme provides heavily-subsidised medication.

It’s definitely not perfect, but it’s pretty good as these things go. We spend a lot less on healthcare per person than the US, with better outcomes. And yes, there’s pharmaceutical and medical research here too, despite what some American conservatives might suggest.

Social safety net

Everyone who’s unemployed is entitled to an unemployment benefit. There are also disability, single parent, carer, veteran, and old-age pensions. They’re all administered by Centrelink, an organisation which has been embroiled in a scandal that has seen a mass grassroots campaign and a Senate inquiry, and which may well lose the government the next election if they don’t come to their senses.

In many respects it’s better than unemployed Americans get — there’s no “running out” of unemployment payments, for example — but the system has become deeply dehumanising and is very difficult to navigate. This is by design.

Racism

Totally a thing.

We’re fucking horrific about refugees, particularly the most desperate ones who try to get here by boat. We lock them up in island concentration camps as a lesson to others.

Since World War 2 we’ve been… okay-ish with immigrants. Ish. From the 1970s on multiculturalism has been policy, though different governments have been more or less supportive over time. At this stage we’re almost half either immigrants or the children of immigrants, and that is freaking out some of the white folk.

We’ve been absolutely reprehensible in our treatment of indigenous people. There’s been a really slow “process” toward reconciliation which has gone in fits and starts. Both major parties express support but neither is usually willing to do much more than lip-service.

If you’re interested in hearing indigenous people speak for themselves, check out IndigenousX.

Oh, and Islamophobia is also very much alive and well over here.

Sexism

Yup, got that too. It’s about as depressingly awful here as it is there.

There are some bright spots. One of the two major parties has a quota system to get more women into Parliament. We have at least had a woman Prime Minister, though she was subjected to some pretty unsavory treatment. There’ve been a handful of female Premiers (state leaders).

But there’s a gender wage gap, and homelessness among older women is a serious concern. And as much as lip-service is paid to dealing with domestic violence, it doesn’t seem to be taken as seriously as it ought to be.

Other things

There’s other stuff of course. Booze is a bit of a thing here, more so than in the States. We’ve got some really glorious wildlife, a wonderful range of parrots in particular.

A sulfur-crested cockatoo
By JJ Harrison (jjharrison89@facebook.com) (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
(I’m a particular fan of the sulfur-crested cockatoo, but we’ve got every colour and size of parrot you can imagine, and probably a few more too.)

If you like beaches then we’ve definitely got those. It doesn’t snow in most of the country. We have a decent range of climates to suit most tastes. We’ve got mountains (though they aren’t very tall), we’ve got rolling plains, we’ve got coastal cliffs, we’ve got desert, we’ve got rainforests, and we’ve got temperate forests. It’s a bloody big country after all.

Conclusion

I realise there’s a bit of a negative slant to a lot of what I’ve written here. But it’s mostly pretty good if you’re white and educated — I can’t speak to the experience of people of colour, or of people who’ve had limited educational opportunities. But let’s face it, we’re pretty picky about immigration so if you’ve not got a good education you’re probably not coming here anyway.

It’s generally a pretty nice place to live. Possibly not the best, but certainly a long long way from the worst.

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