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.

14 thoughts on “What does it mean to be Australian?

  1. I agree with the not getting special treatment. And I think it should extend to the blogosphere too.
    Just because some folks have such clever blogs, they should not receive more likes and comments than those of us (not you) who just blog foolish nothings.

  2. Hi Rachel, this is interesting! Having met quite a few Aussies in the UK and then spent time there on holiday, I wonder what your view is about the Aussie attitude to women and Aboriginals (and immigrants)?

    In my experience, and also to generalise, I find there’s a misogynistic streak in the Aussie culture, and that it’s kind of about by how much of a ‘bloke’ you are. The treatment of Julia Gillard, I thought, was appalling (as one example).

    As for the attitudes towards Aboriginals, I was rather struck by how poorly they were treated. Despite efforts to recognise when buildings had been built on land stolen/taken from them, or have cultural centres built, or protect sacred sites, etc., it felt like it was more of a grudging concession rather than any heartfelt desire to recognise what settlers had done in the past. Sure, much better than the situation in the USA where the colonists haven’t even apologised to the the indigenous peoples, but compared with NZ, it was definitely lacking. Anecdotally too, Aboriginals and immigrants get short shrift, which I find odd given how modern Australia started out.

    Is this to do with perceived lack of a desire to work hard? Or a lack of tolerance? Or arrogance? Most of the Aussies I meet in the UK go on about how much better it is at home!

    I’m absolutely not saying that you, your family, or friends are like this, but this has been my experience! I hope you don’t take offence. And it’s not like I don’t like Aussies – I found them very warm and friendly in my short time there and would love to go back.

    1. Hi Kit,

      Yes, my view of sexism and racism in Australia is that it is rife. There’s also a deplorable “old boys’ club” mentality whereby if you played football or went to the right school then you get the good jobs. I did think of these things when I wrote my post and wondered whether someone might mention them. Or whether someone might mention the treatment of refugees which is equally deplorable. So I’m not going to make any excuses here.

      My post was meant more to be a celebration of the lack of “deference to the moneyed” than anything else and the idea that titles don’t make someone superior to others. This is a generalisation too and probably one that is fading. Plenty of people in Australia are impressed by wealth and status, just that I am not and this is a quality that I attach to my being Australian.

      New Zealanders are similar in this respect but not to the same extent. I felt there was a more pronounced class structure in New Zealand than Australia when I moved there. On the topic of natives though, New Zealand wins hands down with much better treatment of Maoris than Australia’s treatment of Aboriginals. There is racism in New Zealand too though. I would almost say that it is worse in New Zealand than Australia – but this is anecdotal and my opinion only – because Australia is much more multicultural and has been more multicultural for some time so they have had longer to adapt to a range of cultures. In Auckland particularly, there is quite a bit of resentment towards the growing Asian population.

      On the topic of Australian Aboriginals, I don’t have the solution. But my views align with those of Bill Bryson, so in keeping with my Bill Bryson theme, here’s what he said:

      As I sat now on the Todd Street Mall with my coffee and watched the mixed crowds – happy white shoppers with Saturday smiles and a spring in their step, shadowy Aborigines with their curious bandages and slow, swaying, knocked-about gait – I realised that I didn’t have the faintest idea with the solution to all this was, what was required to spread the fruits of general Australian prosperity to those who seemed so signally unable to find their way to it. If I were contacted by the Commonwealth of Australia to advise on Aboriginal issues all I could write would be: ‘Do more. Try harder. Start now’.

      source: Down Under

      That’s my view too. Do more. Try harder. Start now.

  3. Sorry, I didn’t mean to derail your post! I just think it is interesting that there might be a link between the work hard attitude, and the treatment of Aboriginals who are viewed as lazy scrounging alcoholics [who should solve their own problems].

    I read Bryson’s book before going over and I agree. What can you do? Although given the book was published 15 years ago, or thereabouts, I wonder what progress has been made?

    I didn’t notice the racism in NZ, but it would not surprise me. Those attitudes vary hugely in the UK, and I think the less cultural diversity there is somewhere, the more racist people tend to be.

    And sadly, we do defer to money and status in the UK. People bemoan modern celeb culture, but I think it is deeply rooted in our class system.

    1. No need to apologise! I’m not worried about derailing the thread on my own blog. I don’t get enough comments to worry about that.

      Bill Bryson’s book is really good. I was just having another read of it and according to him, some of the statistics for Aboriginals are getting worse. I’m not sure what the situation is now and I haven’t lived there for quite a few years.

      It’s also hard to judge how bad racism is when you’re white and living in a predominantly white community because the racism is not directed at you. So my thoughts about Australia and New Zealand could well be wrong. On sexism though, I can honestly say I’ve never noticed it personally. Not in either country. Not that I can think of anyway which must mean I’ve never noticed it. I was basing my view of Australia being sexist on Julia Gillard’s treatment.

  4. Love this post Rachel, this is so interesting, particularly reading about ‘power distance’ about which I knew nothing. I do learn so much from you you know! Plane crashes – I hate flying despite the number of times I’ve had to fly. Fascinating excerpt from the book Outliers perfectly illustrating the communication between the hierarchy of the officers flying the plane.

    1. Oh thanks, Sherri. What a nice thing to say. I’m always pleased to hear that someone has learnt something from me.

      I hate flying too and spend my flights thinking about all the plane crashes I’ve read about which probably isn’t wise.

      1. I love your blog rachel! I am terrified of turbulence the most. Probably not wise to think about plane crashes when flying…I try to drink as many G&Ts as I can which I find helps somewhat… 😉

  5. Yes, I agree that this is a most interesting post. I have read the comments above and urge all to be wary of generalisations made about the nature of a culture, and making conclusions from specific bad experiences that individuals may or may not have had when visiting Australia, or any other country for that matter.

    So much has been written about aboriginal issues and how poorly they are treated etc. However, what cannot be denied, as it is factual, is the enormous amount of money spent by the Australian Government and others on trying to find a solution. More money is spent per person than any other nation on their respective indiginous groups but the outcomes have been very poor, regardless of whether the decisions on how the dollars should be spent were made by mainstream Government departments, or special Aboriginal Commissions set up to supervise the expenditure in a culturally aware manner.

    It is now generally agreed by all wise minds, black and white, that the enormous amount of welfare spending that has been thrown at the problem has had a negative result, killing self motivation, and in the end pride and sence of self.

    I find that that the casual comments made by visitors, though well meaning, are simplistic and not informed by the complexity of the problem which can only be appreciated by working intimately with the remote aboriginal groups and experiencing the problems first hand.

    On a lighter note, here is a copy of excerpts of a report by ‘Visit Britain’ on how to handle Aussies. Cheers.

    VisitBritain’s report says Aussies are known to be “very direct and to the point” but sometimes hard to read.
    “Many Australians can have a very sarcastic manner – this can be a challenge at times to decide if they are serious or not when telling you something,” the advice, published on VisitBritain’s website, said.
    “Humour is always the key when talking to Australians. Don’t take offence to jokes about ‘Poms’ – it is more a friendly endearment than an intended insult.”
    VisitBritain also asks tourism employees to be mindful of the distance Australian visitors have travelled.
    “Remember that they may have not slept for 30 hours and could show signs of intolerance,” it said.
    “If planning an itinerary for Australians, do not make it too intensive for the first few days.”

  6. Rachel,
    May I be constructively critical of you and Bill Bryson.I enjoy Bill Bryson enormously and am currently finishing his book ” One Summer ,America 1927″.
    However,his statement ” If I were contacted by the Commonwealth of Australia to advise on aboriginal issues,all I could write would be ” Do more.Try harder.Start now ” is fatuous nonsense.He has just admitted that he doesn’t have the “faintest idea what the solution to all this was etc.”
    So ” Do more what? Try harder at what? Start now at what?”
    As Max points out and you recognise ,we have generations of failure on aboriginal disadvantage by all sides of politics in Australia.Their position is not improving to any significant degree.
    Perhaps Bill Bryson could have written ” If I were contacted by the Commonwealth of Australia ,to advise on aboriginal issues,I would refer them to aboriginals who have a lifetime of experience in the matter like Warren Mundine who has agreed to head a super advisory board on indigenous affairs reporting directly to Prime Minister Tony Abbott .”
    See “Tony Abbott’s indigenous vision takes shape” by Denis Shanahan,in”The Australian” , August 10, 2013.
    Mr Abbott is to spend a week each year in remote indigenous communities as a “hands on volunteer”.

  7. The power distance does seem to depend a great deal upon legacy. The British past of aristocracy still lingers. However, at its’ best there was once amongst some, the principle of noblesse oblige. Not a patronising concept but rather one of responsiblity and a form of social justice. Many of the newly rich formed themselves as a pseodo aristocracy without that sense of responsibilty but with a sense hoarding and devil take the hindmost.

    Jack is as good as his master is a great principle. I have always believed that it was not a persons abilities, intelligence or position that gave them worth to the world, but rather what a person decides to do with those attributes and what they fail to do. Certainly, forthright does not fail to make an effort.


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