What does it mean to be Australian?

I read an article in The New Yorker recently by William Finnegan called, The Miner’s Daughter. It’s about Gina Rinehart, the world’s richest woman. This post isn’t going to be about her though but about what it means to me to be Australian, and I think Gina Rinehart is the antithesis of it. Finnegan made a couple of points in this article which struck a chord for me. See below:

Australians are not known for their deference to the moneyed. I once worked as a pot washer in a casino restaurant in New South Wales. It was a big kitchen, and the pot washers were at the bottom of the job ladder, below even the dishwashers. And yet we made an excellent wage and, as employees, we had entrée to the casino’s private members’ bar, which was on the top floor. We would troop up there after work, tired and ripe, and throw back pints among what passed for high rollers on that part of the coast. Once or twice, my co-workers spotted the owner of the casino in the members’ bar. They called him a rich bastard, and he, in turn, bought us all drinks.

That was 1979. Australia, to my enchanted eye, was a country full of wisenheimers, smart-mouthed diggers with no respect for wealth or authority. Jack’s as good as his master, the saying went—and “probably a good deal better,” Russel Ward wrote in “The Australian Legend.” This skeptical, irreverent, proud self-image was rooted in the early experience of convicts transported from Britain and, later, in labor conflicts with landowners and industrialists. Australia was the land of the fair go—of equal opportunity, and a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. People used to make fun, in the nineteenth century, of the “bunyip aristocracy”: nouveau-riche Australians who wanted to settle themselves on top of the colonial social heap.

The saying, Jack’s as good as his master, is exactly what being Australian is all about. No-one gets special treatment for being wealthy or for having a PhD or a high IQ. Equality and respect do not depend on these qualities. Or at least, it used to be this way. It is possible Australia is slipping in this regard, certainly that is the view of William Finnegan. But these values of equality, fairness and rejection of supremacy are dear to my heart.

Along similar lines to this is the concept of power distance which is the extent to which a society is governed by an authoritarian hierarchy and how much members of society submit to this authority. Countries with a high power distance tend to place high importance on rank, subordinates are given menial tasks and are not treated with respect by superiors. By contrast, countries with a low power distance demonstrate much more equality between superiors and subordinates, responsibility is shared and often superiors and subordinates will socialise together. Australia has always had a fairly low power distance, that is, society is quite egalitarian.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote quite a bit about power distance and its contribution to airplane crashes in his book, Outliers. He uses the example of Korean Air Flight 801 which flew into the side of a hill in Asan, Guam. Here’s the dialog between the flight crew shortly before the crash.

First officer: Do you think it rains more in this area?
Captain: (silence)
Flight engineer: Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot.
Captain: Yes. They are very useful.

Notice the subtle hints from the engineer and the first officer. Rather than saying directly that it’s raining and we should probably use the weather radar to help land the plane they are afraid of offending the superior officer and so make subtle hints. I’m a bit obsessed by plane crashes and have written about one before, Colombian flight 52, which crashed because of similar communication problems but between the flight crew and air traffic control.

I am a big, big fan of forthrightness and I don’t believe someone should get special treatment simply because they are rich or clever. This to me is what being Australian is all about.

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