Australia’s heritage population is partly descended from convicts sent from England and Ireland. It’s no secret. We brag about it! Two of my own ancestors were convicts, a man and a woman, and they married each other. I don’t know what crimes they committed but I can only assume they were sexual in nature.
And we cheerfully assume that this convict stain which we’re so proud of has contributed to our culture, making us egalitarian, anti-authoritarian, cheeky, unserious. And yes, there are aspects of that.
But as others have noted, if so many convicts were sent there, then the UK also had to have sent many . . . troopers. And we are also descended from them. And they, too, have left their legacy upon our culture.
As in any country, our airports are a fair indication of what to expect once you pass through immigration. Buy something from the shop and the staff will be friendly, casual, familiar and fairly indifferent. Yup, that’s us. And when you line up at customs and the officers are yelling at you: yeah, that’s us, too. Both the yelling and the eye-rolling obedience in response.
It takes time overseas to notice things that you’d otherwise not notice. On many nations’ passports there is a message that says something like, ‘Fairly enable free passage and care for the wellbeing of our precious citizen blah blah blah’. On Australia’s passport cover it says, ‘Don’t loose this bloody thing or you’ll have to pay a hundred bucks to replace it, ya goose!’ My colleagues laughed at that when they saw it and I realized that no other countries put such messages on their passports.
Travelling across the border somewhere in the Malley from South Australia to Victoria, I saw another thing I would never have noticed if I’d never left. Normally at a state border there is a sign that says, ‘Welcome to Nebraska! The Beef and Marriage Equality State’, or something like that. Not here. There was just a sign that said, ‘You are now entering Victoria. Drug drive testing operates throughout the state. Offenders will be prosecuted. Fines of up to $10,000.’ How’s that for a welcome mat.
And at the pub, you’ll find a huge sign with half the state’s statute books printed on it: underage drinking, smoking indoors, public drunkenness, serving alcohol to an intoxicated person, drink driving, ID fraud, one-punch assaults, etc. etc. etc. I much preferred the sign they had in some Japanese gaijin bars: a whole lot of smiling people clinking glasses and a caption that reads, ‘No fighting at Champions Bar!’ That’s how you do it.
And Aussies will dob each other in. During water restrictions, anyone irrigating their lawn will put up a sign explaining that it’s bore or grey water, otherwise all their neighbours will ring the authorities. I know quite ordinary people who, if they see someone drinking a beer while driving, will immediately call the police. Ditto with noisy parties, damaged taillights and unlicensed businesses. God help you if you try to get away with building a carport on your own property without a permit.
Aussies today act like both convicts and troopers: rather disrespectful of authority but also fiercely intolerant of rule-benders. It’s a funny mix and we don’t reflect on it much.