We aren’t just larrikins

Published in The Australian (Sydney), 24 December 2009

THAT Australia is one of very few countries to survive the global economic crisis relatively unscathed is hardly news. Many Australians also take for granted they live in a prosperous and vibrant nation with a fantastic quality of life, and which is a good place in which to do business.

But these hallmarks are hardly recognised abroad, where stereotypes reign, something I was reminded of recently when I wrote an essay comparing Australia and Germany for Die Welt, a leading German broadsheet. Noting that governments since the 1980s had modernised Australia to make it a leader in the industrialised world, I wondered why Germany had made only half-hearted attempts at reform. Australians worked hard at improving their lot, but Germans were content with analysing their problems. I suggested German politics would benefit enormously from a healthy dose of Australia’s can-do mentality and its embrace of change.

The article was provocative so I was prepared for criticism, but responses from the readers surprised me. Of the almost 200 people who responded, most believed Australia could not and should not be compared with Germany. They suggested it was just a hot, big, dry and empty island. The differences in population density rendered any comparison ridiculous, not to mention that Australia was an “abnormal” country, given its convict past. Anyway, the disgraceful treatment of indigenous Australians and Indian students meant it could not claim moral superiority of any kind. Strange talk coming from a country whose track record includes the worst genocide in modern history. The slightly better informed German readers attributed all of Australia’s prosperity to its resources rather than any economic management.

Such prejudices are not limited to Germans. Before I moved to Australia, a colleague in Britain joked I should pack yoghurt for the journey, so I could retain a bit of culture down under. In the US, Australia’s image is scarcely better. How did television comedian Jon Stewart put it? “An island of drunken prison trash.” Although the US has the world’s highest prison population per capita.

Prejudices often say as much about the person who holds them, but Australia should be concerned about its image overseas. The level of awareness shows Australians are very good at advertising the nation. But we are promoting the wrong Australia, or at least a very one-sided version. TV commercials for Australian beers or Australian tourism shown in Europe focus on the endless deserts, sandy beaches, charcoaled meat, ice-cold beer . . . True, it’s all here. But we also have the world’s longest working hours, so it’s equally true that the average Australian would rather spend a typical day in an office, behind the counter, or in a factory than barbecuing at the beach.

Australia has excelled at selling itself as a place of leisure, and a country not be taken too seriously. Global audiences watching Australian film productions such as Australia, Rabbit-Proof Fence or the Crocodile Dundee series would not see Australia as one of the most advanced countries on the planet.

The larrikin image certainly has a place in Australian popular culture, but it should not be allowed to damage our business relations or prospects. Do international managers think of Australia when deciding about business relocations or investment decisions? Or are we just an exotic holiday destination?

Perhaps Australian industries should respond to the “Where the bloody hell are you?” campaign with a business-to-business advertising answer: “At work, and we’re doing fine, mate.”

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