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Don’t Be So Hard On Yourself, Australia, You’re Just Like The Rest Of Us

Unhealthy obsession with house prices? Tall poppy syndrome? Cultural cringe? Join the club.
Toss another tall poppy on the barbie.
Getty Images
Toss another tall poppy on the barbie.

A millionaire telling young people to stop eating avo toast if they want to buy a house; the political resurrection of Mark Latham, and a Eurovision streaker wearing only an Australian flag* -- it's been another week where many an office or social media debate has discussed how embarrassing and backward Australia's public debate, politics or culture can be.

But as an immigrant to Australia, I'm here to tell you that you are just like the rest of us.

Australia has given me plenty since I first set foot on her red dirt six years ago -- a beautiful girlfriend, a series of fantastic jobs, an unhealthy love of Bunnings sausage sizzles and a shiny blue passport.

While I am now a true-blue Aussie, my strong Irish accent will always mark me as an immigrant. And I've learned that people are always keen to find out what outsiders think. Many of things I'm asked have easy answers; yes the coffee really is the best in the world, the beaches are spectacular, and the wide array of killer animals are indeed terrifying.

Australia doesn't have a monopoly on embarrassing politicians, house price obsession or slagging off social climbers.

But there are other times when the debate turns to the latest political, social or cultural scandal and someone invariably mentions how this makes them "embarrassed to be Australian" or how this would "only happen in Australia". Like everywhere else, Australia's got plenty of problems. But, having lived in a few parts of the world, I always tell people don't be so hard on Australia. For good and for bad, you're just like the rest of us.

Unhealthy obsession with house prices? Tall poppy syndrome? Cultural cringe? Broken politics? Pull up a chair and join the club my friends, the rest of us have all of the above and more.

Would you like some avo with your mortgage?

Let's start with house prices. Australia (especially Sydney and Melbourne) is obsessed with house prices. You can't open a newspaper, turn on the TV or have backyard barbecue without house prices being mentioned (with or without an avocado reference). The prices are simply bananas (kind of like the price of bananas when I arrived in 2011).

The average house price in Sydney is now over $1.2 million, 14 times average yearly earnings. While this is madness, it's also not shocking to me. I grew up in Celtic Tiger Ireland, where a decade-long housing bubble pushed house prices to dizzying heights only for it to burst spectacularly in 2008.

I'm familiar with the breathless media promotion, driven to a degree by advertising revenues. The folk wisdom of the need to "get on the ladder". The absolute refusal of the government to do anything meaningful to deflate the bubble before it bursts -- I've seen it all.

And it's not just Ireland; Japan, the US, the UK and many others places have experienced sustained housing bubbles, endless public debate and little political action. Let's just hope Australia manages to avoid a burst bubble like all those countries, although history offers little reason for optimism.

Cutting down the tall-poppies

Shortly after arriving in Australia, I began to hear politicians and commentators bemoan Australia's 'tall poppy syndrome'. Initially, I thought this was some form of urban gardening obsession. Even after this was explained to me, I still didn't understand what the problem was and certainly not how it was uniquely Australian.

A term for taking the piss out of high-achievers and the wealthy? This is so commonplace in Ireland that we have countless phrases for it, like 'too big for his boots', or 'he needs to be taken down a peg or two'. And this is something that many cultures across the world, with the exception of the US, happily indulge in. Because whether you're Australian, Irish, English or French, there's nothing better than telling someone to stop talking like they've got tickets on themselves.

Call that a knife?

Having grown up on 'Home and Away', Croc Dundee and countless repeats of the Bart vs Australia Simpsons episode, I've always had a soft spot for Australian culture. Since arriving in Australia I've acquired a love of classic Australian rock, chicken salt and big things. Given this, the cultural cringe never made much sense to me. Firstly, there's little to base your cultural cringe on these days and, secondly, there's nothing uniquely Australian about cringing.

Everyone has parts of their cultural identity that make them profoundly uncomfortable. For example, I come from a country that is best known for pots o' gold under rainbows mined by leprechauns. The Americans have a reputation for a culture based on guns, god and the almighty dollar. The French, the English, the Germans -- everyone's got plenty of parts in their culture that they aren't too proud of.

Political killing seasons

I won't try and argue that Australia's politics are a pure democracy as the ancient Athenians imagined it, but again there is little here that's unprecedented. Heartless immigration policies have become commonplace across the world, as has the right-wing nativism of One Nation. The constant failure to tackle big issues like climate change, corporate tax evasion or automation -- it's the same depressing playlist everywhere you look. And at least your democracy is robustly defended through compulsory voting.

In fact, the only thing that really sets Australia's politics apart is the constant coups and subsequent Lazarus risings of the vanquished. Think Turnbull, Rudd, Howard and Beazley. Tony Abbott is attempting to trod this well-worn path and we can now welcome back Mark Latham.

But again, all countries have their own unique problems. Ireland's government was set to hand over ownership and management of its new maternity hospital to a religious order that is refusing to pay its bills to victims of their abuse, and which opposes IVF, sterilisation and the morning-after pill, until a major public outcry forced them to crabwalk away from the deal. And it's hard to know where to start on the embarrassment that is the US President, but supporting a healthcare plan that would deem rape a "pre-existing condition" seems to sum him up to me.

I could go on, but the point is that Australia doesn't have a monopoly on embarrassing politicians, house price obsession or slagging off social climbers. So don't be so hard on your self Australia, you are just like the rest of us. Maybe just cut down on the comparisons between house prices and avocado on toast though.

* Yes I know the Eurovision streaker turned out to be Ukrainian.


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