Thursday, March 6, 2008

The professionals say it better than I can

Maybe because its been 13 months of straight winter, but I'm going through a bit of a phase of reading a lot of Australia oriented newspaper articles. Apart from the fact that they thought Ian 'Dicko' Dickson was an appropriate representative of all the British migrants in Australia, this is a good one.

I thought this article was unusually balanced for a British journalist assessing Australia. The first half is glowing; the second half sinks the boot in (a bit). Also, the psyche of Australia has changed a lot over the last 10 years, and this article sums it up well. It made me think that I am bit behind, being raised on the myth of the glorious motherland, which I think has sustained my excitement at being in London for much longer than might be considered usual. But then again, I don't want to be a strutting, boorish new-age Australian either.

Oh where oh where do I fit in!!!

Anyway, I'll stop harping on. This is the article.

From the Sunday Times 24/2/08

What a difference a G'Day makes

Adell Rees, a 39-year-old PA from Durham, recently became an Australian citizen and vowed never to return to Britain, except on holiday. The thing Adell loves most about her adopted country is its “tolerance”: “I can even wear flip-flops to work,” she says. The local attitude that lets her wear them in the office appeals: so laid-back, free, uniquely Australian, she believes.

Adell is a PA at Naked Communications, an advertising firm whose parent company is British and whose dress standards are tolerant even by Aussie standards. She has joined tens of thousands of poms who have become Australian citizens in record numbers in recent years. And thongs (Aussie for flip-flops) join the list of other Aussie icons Adell loves: the sun and sand, the perfect blue skies, the BBQ, the lack of “class” – “In England everyone’s always in their box,” she says – and the bronzed male torsos. “What else do you need in a man?” she laughs, as we down schooners in a pub in Sydney.

Adell, who answers the phone, “Naked, Adell speaking,” has gone native. She has a mane of sun-bleached hair, her skin is nut-brown, she loves the beach and, but for traces of a northern accent, she seems a true-blue Aussie “sheila” (not that the term is used any more; younger Australian women tend to be referred to as babes or chicks). The only thing missing is her bloke (or “bruce”, as Aussie men used to be called). Adell is single. One reason is her chronic restlessness: until recently, she was a “boomerang pom”, having gone home and returned to Australia many times in the past 20 years. Yet last month, after a seven-month recce in England to see if the old country held any vestigial allure, Adell declared Australia “home”.

“This time, when I got back to Sydney, I felt I was at home at last. I love Australia! I love Sydney. I’m so happy to be here. I walk down the street and say to myself, ‘How lucky am I!’ This time I feel more settled than ever. I’m home.”

Indeed, if it came to a choice, Adell says she would happily discard her British passport in favour of an Australian one (she retains dual citizenship). So would Penny Hillier, an Essex-born nurse who is about to apply for Australian citizenship. She and her husband arrived in 1978, but only just applied for an Australian passport: “We love it here. When my mum dies, I won’t be going back to the UK,” Penny says.

Similarly, Birmingham-born Ian “Dicko” Dickson (a household name in Australia as a judge of Australian Idol), who swoons about being an Aussie. “The second we moved here, I knew this was the place I wanted to watch my family chase their dreams.”

His family – wife and two daughters – became Australian citizens on Australia Day, January 26, 2007. Known for his abrasive Brummie wit and savage dispatch of aspiring local stars, Dicko got the Australian Idol job because the producers needed “a venomous British man” on the judging panel. The celebrity aimed his most controversial remark at a scantily clad contestant of voluptuous proportions: “Choose more appropriate clothes or shed some pounds!” Dicko told her with bruising honesty – to the horror of the local press and that rather surly new breed of politically correct Australians.

Yet Dicko has been well received Down Under, which has fulfilled “the passionate love affair I’ve had with this country”, he says. “It feels like my wife and I are committing marriage-style to the nation. We’re making an honest woman of Australia. We’re doing the decent thing.”

Adell and Dicko are in good company. More British people are moving to Australia than ever. For the first time, Australia is the preferred destination for British emigrants, more popular than America and the Med. In 2006-7, 23,223 British people emigrated to Australia, according to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship; of the total, 3,837 were members of families who had uprooted, and 18,115 were “skilled migrants” granted resident visas under the more relaxed residential points system. The figure is double that of a decade ago, and compares with 18,000 in 2004.

British people make up almost a quarter of foreigners applying for Australian citizenship: in 2005-6, Australian citizenship was conferred on 103,350 people from over 175 different countries. Of those, people of British origin numbered 22,143, or 21.4% of the total.

Hundreds of thousands of British people go to Australia every year – for a holiday, a long-term stay, or to test the waters prior to emigrating. In the 12 months to July 2007, nearly 200,000 native British citizens packed their bags for Australia, the highest number to leave since the heavily subsidised mass emigration Down Under in the 1960s (1 in 12 Britons now lives abroad, a total of about 5.5m, according to a study by the Institute for Public Policy Research).

And the British easily top the census lists of foreigners resident in Australia and eligible to apply for citizenship. In 2001 they numbered 346,000, or 36.9% of the total ahead of the New Zealanders with 204,900 and Italians with 44,200. In fact, a quarter of a million British people (245,311) living in Australia claimed a British pension in 2006.

Many young arrivals have made a great success of Australia. Emma-Jane Granleese, 35, of Kew, London, came here almost a decade ago as a traveller and has recently obtained citizenship. She is now the managing director of the PR firm Weber Shandwick Australia. This year she plans to marry an Australian, Matthew Griffin, who runs a web-design firm, and with whom she lives in Bondi Beach. Her future husband is adamant that Emma-Jane fits in. Believing the new immigration test too lenient, he grills her on Aussie culture: “Matt asks me about cricket, history and books. I even had to know the author of something called Snugglepot and Cuddlepie” – a well-known Australian children’s book about two “gum-nut babies” who live in a eucalyptus tree. Oddly, he didn’t ask her whether she’d heard of Patrick White, Australia’s only Nobel laureate for literature, Robert Hughes, the acclaimed art critic, Germaine Greer or Clive James.

British public servants, too, have come Down Under in their tens of thousands, drawn by better relative salaries and living conditions (see panel, left). The state of South Australia has appealed in particular for British bobbies; and all states need British nurses and health workers.

Of the 8,000 nurses and midwives who left Britain in 2006, 3,000 opted for Australia, double the number that moved here a decade ago.

Constable Ian Crossland, 42, from South Yorkshire, arrived in South Australia as part of the first intake of UK police officers in March 2005. He left the joint Crime and Disorder Reduction Team in Westminster Council, where he was detective sergeant in charge of intelligence, to be an Australian policeman, starting again as a probationary officer. In August, his wife, Joanne, and their sons, Samuel, 12, and James, 9, became Australian citizens.

Other citizens landed in Australia by accident. Ruth Weeks, 40, from London, and her husband, Josef Dabbs, 42, from Lincolnshire, decided to settle in Australia in the late 1990s. “We decided we’d travel till we found somewhere we wanted to live,” said Ruth. The couple have two children, Maya, 6, and Dominic, 2, and live in the inner Sydney suburb of Newtown (a little like Islington). They love it here, but their chief complaint is the cost of childcare: “It’s hideously expensive,” Ruth said. Their daughter already corrects Ruth’s English pronunciation.

Local trades, too, such as plumbing, electrical services, building and bricklaying, are in need of skilled labour, and often advertise in Britain. While the salaries are about the same as in the UK, their purchasing power is greater because the cost of living in Australia is lower. Others go in search of love, or the promise of it. Australia’s outback regions are severely short of women, especially “young wife fodder”, said one farmer.

Many recent newcomers are middle-class professionals with young families, drawn by an immigration policy that appeals to the highly skilled. Australian cities fiercely compete for the most talented. Among last year’s British émigrés were a Sikh family – the father an investment banker, the mother a dentist – who settled here, their third country of residence, to enjoy better prospects and a more child-friendly environment.

And consider Andrew Woodmansey of Portsmouth, a former investment banker who met his wife, Christine, at Cambridge, where they studied languages. They moved to Australia in 2000 and have recently obtained citizenship. Andrew, 49, is now the business development director at Sydney’s Harbour Trust, a federal government agency responsible for developing the harbour for public use. The couple have a teenage son who attends Sydney grammar school, one of eight “great public schools”, as some of the city’s elite private schools are called, and which cost about $21,000 (£8,000) a year.

Andrew worked at several international banks before settling down in Australia. “Each time we went back to the UK, we felt we were becoming less and less English,” he said. “One of the great things is, you’re taken at face value. You’re treated the same as everyone else – whether you’ve been here for a few weeks or for 30 years. You’re not judged by your background or your accent. You’re judged by what you can do for Australia."

They advise others to enjoy the unique attributes of their new home, and not to compare Australia with Britain: “If you’re just running away from something – costs, crowds, traffic – you’ll be disappointed. There’ll always be something to whinge about.”

But not all emigrants are happy; even some long-standing ones have not adapted to Australia’s coarseness, freewheeling society and the dislocating lack of a recognisable class system.

Take Maisie McDonald, from Bristol, who went there as a child, aged nine, in the 1960s, with her parents and two sisters. They were 10-pound poms (Brits who migrated to Australia under an assisted-passage scheme) and she loathed her new home – as she told the recent Australian-made documentary Ten Pound Poms, shown on BBC2. Her father lacked the money to return to Britain, so Maisie grew up in her new home and married an Australian. Yet she seems to hate her “home” more intensely with every passing year: “When people say, ‘How do you like Australia?’ you don’t say, ‘I can’t stand the place, it’s horrible.’ You just learn to live a big lie: ‘Oh, yeah, it’s great, you know. I love living in Australia’… I always learnt to bite my tongue.

“In England, I’m allowed to complain and run it down, but if you run down Australia, Australians get nasty because they think their country is the best place in the world… but not everything about Australia is perfect. But they won’t always admit to that…

“The thing I love about England is the country, the greenery, the soft rolling hills… When I compare it with Australia, Australia is so stark, it’s barren, it’s harsh. There is nothing soft and gentle or even genteel about Australia. In England birds twitter; in Australia they squawk.”

There are many factors driving people out of Britain, despite Maisie’s twittering birds. Emigrants cite obvious factors such as the weather, hospital queues, crime rate and cost of living – variations of which exist in Australian cities, of course. And many émigrés seem shocked by what they find when they go “home” to Britain: a brutally self-confident chav culture, where good education and quality medical care are unavailable or unaffordable. The words “heartless” and “selfish” leap to mind, they say: “Everyone was looking after No 1,” Adell Rees said of her most recent trip to Britain.

Why Australia, though? Why not America? One obvious reason is the lighter residency conditions introduced last year. Britain’s love affair with Australia is, after all, a very recent phenomenon. But there are deep historical links. Not so long ago the British and Irish were forced or bribed to go there. From the day the first white settlers landed in what became Sydney in 1788, through to the early 19th century, Australia was a huge prison, the bloody and terrible terminus for thousands of British and Irish convicts, most transported for petty crimes, such as theft and prostitution.

News of Australia’s rare riches – vast fertile lands and enormous mineral wealth – spread to parts of Europe and Asia in the 19th century, culminating in the gold rush of the 1850s, which drew tens of thousands of Irish, British, Chinese and American settlers. Yet the distance and rapid exhaustion of the superficial gold fields soon pushed Australia well down the priority list for European emigrants. In fact, 100 years later, Australia was so desperate for labour it had to pay workers to come. The nation must “populate or perish”, insisted the prime minister Robert Menzies’s Liberal government in the 1950s, after two world wars in which Australia lost more young men per capita than any other nation fighting for the mother country. But populate with whom? Asians? Definitely not. The White Australia Policy, the first law enacted after federation in 1901, and in force until 1973, determined that all new arrivals be white, and preferably British.

In the 1950s, over 90% of Australians saw themselves as proudly British or Irish, regardless of whether they traced their lineage to a Georgian pickpocket, an East End prostitute, a déclassé aristocrat, a potato-famine refugee or a family of graziers (cattle herders) and squatters.

Today’s influx has subtly different motives for emigrating: they tend to be pursuing a realisable dream, rather than escaping a nightmare. Asked why they emigrated, most cite: sun and coastal living, lots of space, affordable housing (outside city centres), a generally reliable public health system, good, cheap schools, many jobs and relative security. They are also drawn by some of the world’s last unspoilt natural wildernesses, ie, Uluru (Ayers Rock), Tasmania, Kakadu and the Great Barrier Reef. Holidays to exotic South Pacific islands – Vanuatu, Fiji, New Caledonia – are relatively cheap and a few hours away.

But the latest wave of emigrants are motivated by deeper social and economic impulses. Christopher Wade, the director of British Council Australia, said: “Australia has a great work ethic, but a very good after-work ethic too.” He especially admires the “fair go” and egalitarian spirit. This is best expressed, he said, in the culture of “volunteerism”: for example, many parents commonly coach their children’s sports teams. There is such a thing as a community here, Wade insists.

Of course, it is Wade’s job to talk up the Australian-British relationship. But the nation’s rude economic success and political stability are strong magnets. During the past 15 years, Australia’s standard of living has risen constantly and in 2006 it surpassed that of all Group of Eight countries except the US, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Since 1990, Australia’s real economy grew by an average of around 3.3% a year, coupled with low inflation averaging around 2.5% (however, it recently exceeded the Reserve Bank’s threshold, driving up variable interest rates to a mortgage-busting 8.97%, and rendering the cost of inner-city homes, as a multiple of income, less affordable than that of any other developed nation). There are jobs aplenty, however: the rate of unemployment fell from a peak of nearly 11% in 1992 to below 5% last year – its lowest level since the early 1970s.

The unprecedented Asian, chiefly Chinese, demand for Australia’s mineral resources is behind this boom. Australia has some of the world’s largest coal, iron ore and uranium reserves, and is one of the biggest gold and diamond producers. Western Australia, lavishly endowed with natural gas and minerals, is enjoying the biggest mining-led surge in its history, and Perth is one of the most expensive cities.

Buttressing that success is the world’s oldest continuous democracy. At first glance, Australian standards of public debate suggest an Anglo-Celtic version of Italy’s saloon-bar atmosphere. Yet the nation’s raucous politicians – witness the Welsh-born deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard, herself the daughter of 10-pound poms, who last year called an opponent “a snivelling little grub”, and the former prime minister Paul Keating, who regularly emerges from retirement to toss in a little more rebarbative Aussie wit (the former treasurer Paul Costello, he said last year, was “all tip and no iceberg”) – are constrained by a parliamentary system that draws on the best of the Westminster tradition and the English and Scots enlightenment. The November 2007 general election was a sublime example of Australian democracy. When the incumbent prime minister, John Howard, lost the election – and his seat – after 11 years in power, the leadership shifted seamlessly to Labor’s Kevin Rudd. Thanks to the compulsory system of preferential voting, the transition was gracious, popular, representative and bloodless.

Australians may dislike outside criticism but they’re practised at self-criticism. Many older, better-educated Aussies are quietly appalled at the new breed of thuggish Australian chauvinists, who appear unsportsmanlike, sneering and ugly. The boorish chant of “Aussie Aussie Aussie, oi oi oi” at sporting events suggests a lack of imagination, wit or self-confidence.

New Australia seems to have sidelined the supposedly traditional Aussie values of mateship, the fair go and self-sacrifice. Asked to nominate “true Australian values”, almost 40% cited “mateship” or “loyalty” in a survey last month in The Bulletin (itself snuffed out last month by private-equity investors who showed no loyalty to the magazine’s 128-year tradition). Yet the same proportion said Australia was no longer the land of the fair go; more than 80% said the gap between Australia’s rich and poor is increasing, and 70% said Australia was too close to America.

Asked to state what appealed to them most about their country, they replied, in no apparent order: “The Australian Rules football grand final. Mateship. The beach. Multiculturalism. The fair go. The Great Barrier Reef. The Boxing Day cricket test match. The spirit of adventure. Surfing. The Opera House. Indigenous heritage.” Not a single scientist, artist or national leader; not a single charity or cause, invention, social reform or business success.

Yet despite this vacuous ideal, a “cultural strut” seems to have replaced the old Australian “cultural cringe”, as the art critic Robert Hughes has observed. The cringe at least suggested modesty and self-effacement.

Humour is perhaps the best mirror of a nation’s psyche, and by this measure, New Australia is unrecognisable from the nation that gave us Barry Humphries and Paul Hogan. Today’s Australians are tickled pink by the silliest home videos, The Chaser (young men pulling stunts at other people’s expense), Summer Heights High (a clever mockumentary about a suburban state school) and, of course, Kath & Kim (a mother-and-daughter sitcom set in suburbia). With the exception of the silliest home videos, the new comedies tend to push a shared political view of Australia as coarse and class-ridden (along brutish materialistic lines). One Australian expatriate remarked on a website recently: “We laugh at Kath & Kim, but don’t really realise that we are Kath & Kim.”

One doesn’t have to look far to find them.

The bacchic orgy that is the Melbourne Cup – the nation’s premier horse race – fetches up images that routinely fail to edify the human race. The crowning image of last November’s event was a drunken, thickset blonde who appeared on the front pages pouring champagne from a great height into the mouth of an alcohol-engorged man lying dishevelled on the grass. And that was before the race began.

Christopher Wade saw a positive side to this behaviour: “One of the challenges for Australia in the 21st century is to adopt a more confident sense of itself, and not be so hidebound about its origins. That may play itself out in terms of boorish behaviour. But yobs are everywhere.”

By this argument, New Australia’s boorishness, beach-side ostentation, loud new money, aggressive republicanism, impatient energy and killer instincts are healthy expressions of youthful self-confidence embodied by the first lines of the national anthem: “Australians all let us rejoice/For we are young and free…”

It also signals the end of Old Australia, a land of irreverence and iconoclasm, charm and humility, dung heaps and dead ground, booze and boobs and hard, leathery men and women who survived the Depression and two world wars to build in their own good time the most durable of democracies.

The country is lavish in contradictions, of course: a monarchist nation that must slowly yield to a republic, yet with large numbers still clinging to the coat-tails of the Queen of Australia; a nation of young people who, unlike their parents, worship the Anzac tradition; and a “classless” Australia seeded with expensive private schools and controlled by powerful business and political elites. The racism – always denied – of white Australia seems most troubling for many new emigrants. It has had many disquieting manifestations. During the cold war, politicians stoked the hysterical fear of China – the “red-yellow peril” – in justifying the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam war.

In recent years the Muslim community has felt the sharp end of white Australian hostility. Consider the leafy commuter town of Camden, near Sydney, one of Australia’s oldest pastoral communities. In December, locals impaled bleeding pigs’ heads on stakes, draped them in the Australian flag and rammed them into the site of a proposed Islamic school.

The most damaging expression of racism is to be found in the whites’ treatment of the Aboriginals. An unofficial apartheid has always divided whites and blacks, as the former conservative politician Mal Brough observed last year when justifying his draconian intervention in Aboriginal communities of the Northern Territory, whose members were accused of rampant child sexual abuse. While some blacks, chiefly mothers living with alcoholic husbands, applauded the measures, others saw the intervention as another doomed attempt to legislate away social problems whose roots lie much deeper. Blacks were not even recognised as citizens until 1967, when they were granted the right to vote. Until then they were treated as a dying race, abused and forgotten. Unlike heads of cattle, they were not even counted on the census forms. Many blacks refer to Australia Day, which commemorates the arrival of the first white settlers, as “Invasion Day”.

The dismal history of white-black relations is alive in the minds of indigenous leaders. They relate many accounts of white drovers passing through their communities and raping their women; of the missionaries and government officials who took children, many of them mixed-race, from black families. The whites who ran the foster homes and mission schools that housed this “stolen generation” allegedly sexually abused 1 in 10 Aboriginal boys and up to 3 in 10 Aboriginal girls, according to testimonies given to the 1997 Bringing Them Home report on the stolen generation.

Can white Australia redeem the past? A starting point was perhaps Paul Keating’s famous speech in Redfern Park on December 10, 1992, when he said: “We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice… We failed to ask, ‘How would I feel if this were done to me?’”

Hope rests with the will of the people to acknowledge rather than deny their past. White Australians tried to do this on February 13, when the government apologised for the first time to the black people for past injustices. It will also depend on the young and newcomers to forge a constructive future with the original inhabitants. Gratitude is never far away, either. More Australians seem to realise how good they’ve got it, and how hard won. Every year more than 10,000 young Australians gather on the shores of Gallipoli on Anzac Day to commemorate the fallen Australian troops. The Kokoda Track and Milne Bay in Papua – the battleground on which Australian forces, many of them untrained militia, first defeated the imperial Japanese army on land – is now considered to be hallowed turf.

And as I watched younger Australians and British backpackers dance in the New Year and partying on the beaches of Sydney, it occurred to me that perhaps Britain had made a terrible mistake – surely they should have left the convicts at home and emigrated?