Australia Day column

The Fin has published my Australia Day column and as a matter of record it’s published over the fold though Troppodillians have already discussed it and proposed improvements to itin its earlier form.

I wasn’t able to fit in many of the very worthy thoughts of Troppodillians largely because I had just 600 words. But one comment in the previous post did remind me of something I wanted to put in, which was food and wine. I remember a while back when someone in the tourism industry said to me as if it were the most obvious thing in the world “of course Australia has the best food in the world”. I can’t think of any countries I prefer – though my favourite cuisine is Italian. Other countries whose food is “multicultural” like ours don’t do it as well. The Brits were shocking until about a decade or so ago but a lot of their best food has a sub-continental flavour. Nothing wrong with that, but Australia has a more eclectic palate I think and a much greater premium on freshness of food.

Also we outdo the states who are not much chop on food. Too much ‘all you can eat’ and not enough focus on quality – though the service is better – “how was your meal” and iced water at every table etc. Also, a lot of countries don’t know how to do coffee very well. It’s odd that in a country like Australia that (I guess) was always much more of a tea drinking country, the availability of really great coffee is better here than in traditionally more coffee drinking countries like France, Austria and the US. Or it is in my (limited) experience. (Bad coffee is also much more plentifully available here than in – say – Italy).

But I digress . . . Here is the Column.

Every Australia Day some politician counts our blessings for us and proposes that we bestow on other things the passion for excellence we bring to sport. Then we’re reminded of our vibrant arts community and consoled that we’ve left behind that nasty cultural cringe of earlier times.

Still, our cringe remains as we demonstrate whenever we insist that some Australian achievement or event has ‘put us on the map’ or is ‘world class’. Why shouldn’t it be? But there’s an amazing and surprising scatter-gun of things at which we’re just great.

Of course there’s no accounting for cultural biases, but when I travelled the world selling cartoons I’d drawn, I couldn’t help noticing the competition. See if you can nominate five non Australian cartoonists as good as Petty, Leunig, Moir, Leak and Tandberg. Oh and that’s not counting Pat Oliphant who emigrated from Australia to the US in 1964 and who the New York Times called the most influential cartoonist in the world! Australian expats more generally are unusually well represented amongst the best film directors and cinematographers.

Geoffrey Robertson once claimed our High Court was the best court of its kind anywhere. I’m unqualified to judge, but I’d make a similar claim for today’s Reserve Bank. It’s played a magisterial role in the last fifteen years’ strong steady growth while other central banks applied the brakes too readily either panicking their countries into unnecessary recessions (New Zealand) or arguably choking growth unnecessarily (the European Central Bank). Like the US Fed, the RBA was as pro-growth without stoking inflation but without Greenspan’s political partisanship preaching fiscal restraint under Clinton before flip-flopping to sanctioning Bush’s fiscal vandalism.

Of course our excellence is sometimes disguised by our penchant for complaint. But all the noise often actually protects our inheritance. We’re a fractious lot when it comes to property development, but then there are very few cities around the world that can boast the glorious parks we take for granted in all our capital cities.

We complain about our social security system. As well we might given its complexity and imperfections. But it’s also the most cost effective in the world comprehensive like European systems, but heavily targeted to contain costs. If you measure efficiency by comparing welfare money going to the richest and the poorest households, ours is more than twice as efficient the next best country New Zealand and around six times more efficient than most OECD countries. You know about all that ‘churn’ you hear about where we tax people only to return the money though social security? Well it’s true there’s a lot of it in Australia and much less than every other developed country!

And having pioneered the “Australian (ie secret) ballot” we’ve gone on to develop a remarkable political system. Just as our social security system is a happy hybrid between European excess and America’s more punitive welfare values, so our political system borrows the best and moderates the worst. Strong government is delivered from the lower house with single member electorates delivering governments robust parliamentary majorities. Unlike for instance the UK, we use proportional representation in a strong upper house which helps enfranchise minorities and moderate government excesses. But it does so without making governments dependent on maintaining delicate coalitions of minority parties as so many must in Europe.

I could go on. But, as you enjoy some of the best value food and wine on the planet, remember that no matter how good we make it, there will always be plenty left to improve. And have a happy and a thankful Australia Day.

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