Day 23 – W/T 28/29 Apr 2010 – Reflections on Oz

After a long and uneventful flight we’re on descent into Sydney. I notice that the arrival card you have to fill in seems different than last time. It says you must declare all medication, including apparently any normal prescription medicine you are carrying. That can’t be right; or if it is there’ll be an awfully long queue at the arrivals hall. It has the usual threats about not declaring stuff, so I fill it in dutifully and will check the details further when I arrive.

As expected the queues are huge. I’ll be waiting at least an hour, if not two. Now I don’t mind border checks; they’re there for a reason, but having to wait so long just to tell them you have a couple of pretty innocuous prescription tablets and a few paracetamol seems a bit much. As I wait I check with several of the staff. No, they say, you have to declare it and wait in the queue. There are signs up saying ‘no photography’, otherwise I’d have made a Youtube video of the crowded scene. I get about two people away from the front of the queue when one of the staff again inquires about what I have; and says, “Oh no, that’s fine, you can go straight through”. What!!!

I complained to one of the Customs staff, who surprisingly completely agreed with me and suggested I complain to the Airport Manager. Later that day I did exactly that and got a syrupy letter back in the mail about it. Something is seriously wrong with the system. What an outrageously bad first impression this must make on overseas visitors. Even with all the volcano problems in Europe I never saw anything that caused as much delay there.

I caught the train to Holsworthy with the intention of catching a bus back to Moorebank, which is close to where I live but would also provide a nice morning walk after the long flight. I’m glad I did because the bus driver was an absolute gem. Completely friendly and, more importantly, treated the elderly people getting on the bus with enormous courtesy and respect. If that wasn’t enough, when we arrived outside a nursing home he noticed that a van was parked in the bus stop; one of several vehicles in the area doing work on the road. The driver got out and very nicely explained to the works supervisor that at any other bus stop this wouldn’t be a big deal, but this one was often used by very frail people whio could only enter the bus because he could lower the door to gutter level. If the bus stop was blocked, however, they wouldn’t be able to climb the step up from road level. The guys happily relocated the van. I was most impressed.

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On my return from the 2005 trip I waxed lyrical about how nice Australia is. That’s still true (as the above bus story illustrates) but it also has its issues (as the arrival story implies). On this trip I was greatly impressed by how central European countries, especially Germany, are run; and I think there’s a lot we can learn from them. The main points are as follows:

*  They’ve avoided becoming ‘nannified’. There is still a strong sense that people have to be responsible for themselves, rather than relying on someone else to protect them or make rules for them, so they don’t have to think. Our approach tends to produce a passive population that increasingly lacks common sense and resilience. Oddly enough, although being mostly less regulated than Australians, Germans are actually more ‘ordered’ as a result and often have better attitudes towards risk. As one example, alcohol is subject to far greater regulation in Oz. In contrast, in Germany it’s commonly available and served in some take-away food areas in the same space as Maccas or a coffee shop. In Oz, we treat access to alcohol as something ‘special’ and getting drunk and disorderly has become a rite of passage for the young. In Germany access to alcohol is “ordinary” and people drink often, but don’t seem to drink to get drunk. I saw nothing in Germany that was anything like George St Sydney on a Friday or Saturday night. Being a ‘nanny state’ does not result in responsible behaviour; if anything, it helps destroy it.

*  The reputation of Germans as being rigid and ‘rule-bound’ is a myth. It is simply us English-speakers, raised on literal English law, projecting our image onto them. Germans are great at developing good systems for doing things and using them to make their life easier. They are also attentive to detail and like to get things done right. However, they are rarely rigid at all. If something goes wrong, they feel completely free to take any action needed to correct the problem. They might obsess about getting the right results, but not about meticulously ‘following the system’. It’s us who worry about ‘following the rules’ and ‘needing to get permission to act’ when it’s clear that’s what needs to be done. Their military is famous for developing ‘Auftragstaktik’ (‘mission command and control’) in which the overall intent is emphasised by the commander, but the troops are free to take any initiative needed that is consistent with that intent. We seem to be much more inclined to want to make rules about everything and constrain any display of initiative.

*  Australians suffer from the ‘tall poppy syndrome’. In some ways it is healthy to prevent any one individual from thinking too much of themselves, but in other ways it constrains us. I’m sure I’m not the only person who feels they need to ‘dumb themselves down’ in order to mix well in Australia. I never had that issue in Germany. Even in casual conversations with people there was no feeling that you had to restrain yourself in how deep or robust the discussion got. Germans, unlike many Australians, are not frightened of complexity. They want to talk past mere slogans and get to grips with real issues and real solutions. You have no idea how refreshing that feels. In Oz there are only a handful of people with whom I can discuss issues to the same level as I could with almost anyone in Germany.

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We would do well to emulate the Germans with regard to the above. Technically Australia is just a little more prosperous than they are; but that’s mostly due to us having lots of valuable dirt to sell to China, et al. Their success is more to do with doing everything well, especially things that are hard to do and are at the edge of what is currently possible. It’s a much more sustainable approach. It’s what a real ‘clever country’ is like. Our obsession with more and more regulation needs to be replaced with more and more exercise of responsibility. Funnily enough I can’t see anything in the traditional Australian character to prevent that happening, apart from our lazy tendency to give away power to a fringe that wants excessive control of people’s lives

Here endeth the lesson. I will go back to Germany. It is an interesting and highly energising place. I felt much more at home there than I did in the UK, and in some ways I feel more at home there than in Oz. Stay tuned.

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