Australian travel writing

Julie Martyn

After about seven years of working overseas it was time to come home for good.  I had enjoyed the lovely long holidays afforded to teachers, including about two consecutive months in the northern summer.  I had returned to visit friends and family every year and travelled to many lands.  At the turn of the century I had been particularly restless, visiting eight countries in twelve months, including two of them twice.  Somehow, after the Kuwait experience I was ready to stop, to settle into my mortgage free apartment, to begin living again in a predictable world where I understood the language in all its nuances and knew how to get around.

On my annual visits back to Australia I had been noticing emerging trends, a concern about suing, loads more orange plastic in the streets due to health and safety measures, privacy provisions bringing more red tape, a building boom, a tremendous array of goods in supermarkets as inventories and logistics became more automated, detention centres and a rampant hedonism in the food and lifestyle pages of the weekend newspapers.

Some of the impact of the changes didn’t hit me till I returned to live here, naturally.

Australia is the sixth largest country in the world, with less than 20 million inhabitants and we all seemed to cluster together along the coastline like bees in a hive.  The prices of land and properties were at an all time high.  We were told this was due to low interest rates and that it was good for the economy.  If we spent more and got into serious debt levels while the government didn’t because it was taxing us so much and selling off its assets this was a good thing.  Pardon? 

We seemed to have become so Americanised.  Or was this really us?  Was it just how we were being depicted through the media?   Certainly as far as litigation goes, we do seem to have lost the plot big time, at the cost of our sense of community.  Meantime insurance companies and lawyers are laughing all the way to the banks.

Everyone in Australia may have their own seminal example of how far this madness has gone.  One in particular comes to my mind.  I was lecturing at a Catholic university at the time and had become involved with the concerns of refugees in Australia, in particular the stasis they endured under that most Kafkaesque of immigration permits, the temporary protection visa.  I wanted to explore the possibility of work experience at the university for some of these people, who were living in a limbo of uncertainty, never knowing whether they would be told to leave the land they had risked their lives and savings to enter, most of them refugees from wars which had erupted or re-erupted due to the U.S. invasions, with Australian support, of Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the university a group of Japanese students on a study tour had just completed work experience, many being placed in positions there.  Could the library do with an extra pair of hands, someone with IT skills and a love of learning?  How about the building and maintenance staff?  Even a gardening job would be better than sitting around with nothing useful to do, I was thinking.  A muted no came from all quarters.  But the chaplain had something else in mind.  He was interested in facilitating a day of activities that students and refugee families could share.  Perhaps at a church hall, where there would be opportunities to get to know each other over warm food?  He had contacted many parishes.  The halls were available, but the cooking facilities needed to be staffed by paid caterers.  Nobody else was allowed to touch the stoves due to the risk of injury and subsequent litigation.   How absurd can you get?  This level of distrust is exactly what keeps people apart.  Divide and rule?

I spent hours and hours reading the newspapers to get a feeling for what the mood in Australia was, to get acclimatised to its brave new face, a country of apparent economic prosperity, though somehow the workforce was becoming more and more casualised and the level of personal debt had ballooned out.  The cost of housing had shot up to nearly double what it had been two years earlier.  Yet unemployment was said to be at its lowest level in years.  The official statistics counted anyone as employed if they worked for as little as an hour a week.  If you earned more than $62 a fortnight you would lose 50 cents in every dollar of your social security payment, which in itself was barely enough to make ends meet.

Families were asked to estimate their yearly income in advance and this was used to assess what if any financial assistance they would receive.  It turns out that as the year progressed they managed to earn a bit more from casual work, overtime or extra hours than they expected in about 50% of the cases, thus incurring a debt to be repaid to the government coffers.  The Department of Social Security contracted the services of an international debt collecting agency, infamous since the 1930’s Depression for its tenacity in drawing blood from a stone, and what is more this was outsourced to its corporate operations in India.  When the current federal government adopted a policy of the major opposition party and brought in a $600 one off baby bonus payment shortly before a national election it was lauded by the minister then responsible as “a social dividend of sound economic policy”.  What the heck is a social dividend?

It was clear that infrastructure had declined in suburban and in rural areas alike.  My phone went out after rain two weekends in a row.  The second time someone came to fix it I quizzed him.  Two of my neighbours had also been having trouble.  I had been told by the service centre that an expert would be sent out.  Did he see himself as that?  No, he told me with a laugh.  I asked him how this could have happened.  He said that the cable had been overstretched, that it was decaying and that the line in the whole street needed to be replaced. I asked him when this would happen.  He replied in a fairly resigned way that he would put it in a report and that it could take months before there was any action at all.

One night I was shocked to be awakened by a red flash in the sky, a loud crack and an instant blackout.  This was not a lightning strike.  A transformer had blown up two blocks away.  When I checked it the next day I could see that even the wooden posts holding it up were decayed, and the equipment itself was ancient and patched up.  Yet I was not living in a third world country.  Was I?  Hadn’t our prime minister been telling us that we had a marvellous budget surplus?  No wonder, considering what wasn’t getting paid for.

Essential public utilities such as electricity and gas supply had been privatised for many years in order to save the government and the taxpayer millions of dollars.  How amazing then that the CEO of Energex, a Queensland electricity corporation, had suicided and that his handpicked replacement resigned after two weeks due to an impending court case for something that had happened about twenty years ago.  Many scandals could not be openly exposed due to rejections of applications for freedom of information.  A new and complicated bill in relation to defamation law was being introduced and I learned that in some states, including Queensland, a defamation action could be successfully proven regardless of whether the scandalous story was true or false.  In other words, even if somebody had done something wrong you weren’t supposed to talk about it.  Hello?

Before the national election, the message had been hammered home on a daily basis that the federal government had no debt, in fact it was in surplus.  What emerged after the election was that we had the highest current account deficit ever.  Our exports represented a very low fraction in dollar value as compared with our imports.  Notwithstanding the games that can be played with statistics, especially economic statistics, this was hardly surprising considering what was happening in China, which is fast becoming the manufacturing powerhouse of the world, and in India, IT mecca.

As I walked past every clothes shop, department store, home wares or hardware store, I recognised that it was full of stuff made in China.  Even the socalled Italian products were really only designed by Italians.  At 20 to 30 times the price it would fetch in somewhere like Vietnam.  Surely, freight costs and customs duties could not be that exorbitant?  While shop rent and labour was undoubtedly far higher in Australia I couldn’t help but wonder at the massive markup.

A highly illuminating section of the newspapers was the job ads.  No longer was a clerk a clerk or a manager a manager.  A filing clerk might be a document controller, an operations manager became a strategic production director.  There were some weird and wonderful position titles.  There were CEO positions in organisations where there hadn’t been any before: town councils, companies employing ten staff or less, charities.  When I offered to volunteer with database management for a foundation for asthma I was asked for my CV.  I was told they asked all their volunteers to send in a CV.  No wonder they were still looking for help!  Did they really think I was trying to steal and sell their donor lists?   The charity as corporation had sunk to a new low.

What had also emerged were whole new (at least to me) areas of professional specialisation:  risk assessment, compliance, health and safety audit, precedents expertise.  The IT industry had of course moved on as well: multimedia design, middleware, web mastery, data integrity management.  Our advances in electronic communications had met with the resistance that such a dramatic increase in traffic would inevitably face.  We now had a series of specialisations who were essentially traffic jam managers. The industry of personal improvement had its own specialists: personal trainers, clothes stylists, manicure technicians, publicists.  Cosmetic surgery had taken off in a big way with botox injections, laser peels, implants, reductions and makeovers…an abundance of “corrective” procedures in addition to the good old fashioned cellulite extraction.

Image was immense apparently in the personal area as close to home as you can get, your own body, as well as in the media and the world of spin doctors. So you too could hire your own doctor and spin your body.  Great.  The thought crossed my mind that you also get euphoric by doing some old fashioned spinning like the dervish thing for 12 hours.  It’s cheaper but of course the effects may not last and it works from the inside out instead of the other way around.

As I was an educator I took a long hard look at universities and how the effects of less government spending had forced them to change.  They had become far more commercial.  Researchers got positions if they could secure grants.  This had always been the case to some extent but it was even more crucial now.

Grants were available in more specific fields: microbiology and genetic engineering, which were seen as promoting smart industries seemed to be far more favoured than lowly social research.  Everything had to at least look to be dollar driven.

The grab for the international student dollar together with the increase in domestic fees that engendered a model where the degree is the product and the student is the customer had eroded the quality of education.  It was proudly claimed that education was our second largest export industry.  Education a commodity?

This challenged my perceptions of my profession to the extent that after having taught English language and academic preparation at three Brisbane universities where practically all the staff were employed on a casual basis I was ready to move into another field altogether.  Before I had left Australia my profession had been casualised.  Overseas I had secured some lucrative contracts yet on my return, as I would never dream of teaching in an Australian high school, I could take my Master of Education degree and sit on it.

Due to my love of language, and as part of the commiseration process the day after the federal government was re-elected with a resounding majority in both houses of parliament I started a game with a couple of my friends.  Over lunch we listed a collection of terms which were euphemisms or possibly oxymorons, depending on your perspective.  After I had written 70 down on a paper serviette we stopped.  Here are some of them: a passionate professional, downsizing, a corporate identity, an industry assistance package, an off balance sheet account, industry self-regulation, human resources, a free trade agreement, a Centrelink customer, creative industries, core and non-core promises.

I love my country.  It is remarkable that we have achieved so much with so little in this land, with its vast arid tracts, it raging fires and floods, its miniscule population and massive distances, its remoteness from most of the world here down under.  But where would I find my place in it now that I was convinced there was no future for me in my chosen profession?   This really needed time to work out.  At the point of writing, two years after coming back, I am still working on it and loving every minute.  I believe that it is possible to observe strange and bewildering phenomena without becoming confused by the emotions this arouses if one can observe also the emotions one is experiencing.  But this takes practice. And a sense of humour.  And likeminded souls to share with.  Change is as  inevitable as life itself.

Julie Martyn

I had returned home from the Middle East.  Home.  Australia.  Land where things grew even without drip irrigation.  There was soil on the ground, not sand.  It actually rained.  Sometimes it even flooded.  Bushlands were everywhere, with vistas where you could not even count the number of trees, old and young.  I adored it.  I was high for a couple of months on the adrenalin of joy.  Beauty was all around me.  Flowers were blossoming on the trees of Brisbane.  Jacaranda season came, streets and lawns became festooned with the delicate lavender shades of dropped blooms.   Mixed  floral scents wafted on the summer breezes, wattle and gum blossoms, mock orange, jasmine, the delicate and rare nocturnal scent of the happy plant’s flowers.  It was a sensual delight.  The sights, the smells, the quiet and natural sounds of birds and bats playing in the trees across from my apartment in the park.  Sounds like those I had grown up with.  Home.  My comfort zone.

And I was amazed at the architecture.  Clean lines everywhere, which is a nice way of saying boxes.  We were in the middle of a building boom and minimalism seemed to bring the best return.  Whole blocks of bungalows had been razed and replaced by units.  For a bit of variety these boxes would be adorned in what passed for a façade of blocked colour patches: maroon, dark vine, baby puke and cobalt blue were the most popular mix.  I wondered where style met the bottom line and was overwhelmed with the contrast between the newly converted inner urban areas of dear old Brisbane and the abundance of natural parks, trees and vibrant living landscape.

An English friend in Kuwait had told me that the voluptuous styles of brocaded curtains and swags, brightly coloured clothes and gilt and crystal excesses in the shop windows there were in part a response to the empty dusty wasteland, the lacklustre surrounds.  Well before Kuwaitis became rich they had always loved the draperies of the tent and the vividly worked handcrafts from places far and near.  For outside there was only desert.  Smoke from frankincense sizzling on burning charcoal could drift through their clothes and hair, perfumed barks from the forests of Cambodia would also smoulder but there were precious few blossoms on trees and more flowers were flown in via daily air cargo than grew in the gardens of even the wealthiest.

In Kuwait, with its very high standards of living, for first class Kuwaitis at least, size counted.  You saw massive houses, where extended families would share three floors.  Little grew without a struggle other than date palms.  But in the shopping malls, of which there was an abundance, granite and marble abounded.  Fountains soothed customers.  Shop windows were richly decorated.  The most intriguing were the chocolate shops and the bakeries.  And packaging was all important.  Everything was wrapped up in a beautiful box.  Before you ordered anything you would be asked how many you were going to take so that a box of the right size was used.  Or for those who really wanted to impress with a memorable gift, your cakes or choccies could be placed in a crystal bowl, on a delicate ironwork stand.  At the supermarket your groceries were put in thick non-biodegradable plastic bags with gilded logos on the side.  A Kuwaiti friend who had his own radio show had once told me that he had an $80,000 car because he was expected to be seen in such style.  Image is king.  And the landscape is a flat, barren and dusty emptiness.  Such is how we humans need to construct our reality.

Could it be that the reverse also operates?  That in the land of plenty less had become more?

Back home the right angle was glorified and even the furniture had sharp edges.  I would stroll past the fashionable home decoration stores of Fortitude Valley with my mouth agape.  You mean you can actually sit on that chair/ sofa/ stool without doing your back in?  And all the tables had positively murderous corners.  At the nearby coffee shops and bars people positively perched at their places.  Everywhere there was a tightly coiled spring effect, metal chairs which numbed your bum with their tensile strength.  Twigs in vases.  Bowls of polished stones.  These dead or inanimate symbols of natural beauty were to be bought left and right.  A kind of cactus had done a big revival, usually set in large pots and mulched with stones.  And there were plastic cacti and even plastic waterlilies too.  Now that is taking easy maintenance to a new level!

Australians had adopted a style of rigidity in their manicured garden beds filled with sterile pebbles (the no weeds functionality for the busy person), combined with a revival of hedges and topiary (so the previously parenthesised theory has just gone out the window).  Was it about control?  Was it about a quasi Zen trend?  Was it about the development of an aesthetic style which resonated with the new culture of the corporate which I had noticed emerging?  There were job advertisements for CEO’s of town councils.  Public utilities like electricity and gas had been privatised.  Even charities seemed to be adopting the marketing techniques associated with brand awareness.  The influence of marketing on TV content was never clearer.

For instance, there were about seven different home renovation shows on the box.  How is this possible I wondered?  Well, each was a variation on the theme.  Either each week two new couples would do up a room in each other’s homes.  Or there was a competition in Bondi, Sydney where several apartments in one building were being renovated in heats of one room at a time.  Or a well deserving person who had no time or money to spend was spirited away for the weekend while a team of experts and an associated army of workmen came in to secretly transform the place.  Yes, they called it the army.  There were also shows focussing only on gardens and outdoor areas.  There were two about getting places ready for auctions.  Yes, two.  Another featured the home of a different celebrity each week.  Did Australia have so many celebrities?

In these days of super spin we seemed to have developed them, along with a host of  professions such as personal trainers and stylists and cosmetic surgeons.  Public relations had become an art form.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

I had to wonder at this frenzy of renovation mania and especially why it seemed to be so prolifically programmed on TV. Just for fun I would sample these shows and see what they had in common.  Standard stock phrases were repeatedly used:  add value, improve, well worth the investment, an upgrade, a facelift, a makeover.  Some shows would feature shot after shot of the smashing and destruction of existing doors, walls and furniture.

My personal prize for useless expense goes to those where a door was moved less than a metre along the same wall in order to create a feeling of flow as you walk from an adjacent room and through it to the outside.  Can you believe it?  I didn’t watch much of this stuff and I saw this beauty twice!

As I explored further in the streets of Brisbane I could see that in some places it looked like value had been added to every square metre of land.  Or to put it another way, money had been spent.  Gone were the lawned areas and concrete driveways of the traditional Aussie house in the suburbs.  In their place were pavements mosaiced with pebbles or tiles, table settings and pot plants set amidst enclosures of white stones.  Tiled driveways, with two toned features of diagonal designs.  Concrete blocks posing as sandstone.  Concrete blocks masquerading as bricks.  Bricks in a range of finishes so that they looked woodfired and rustic with individual blemishes of ashened colour or randomly indented.  At least not everything was sterile!

Another surprise was the arrival of the lap pool.  In our space conscious apartments or even in our larger homes where we wanted one of everything (gazebo, spa, bbq area, etc etc) the lap pool was the perfect solution for the dink family (double income no kids).  Replacing the splashy games of waterpolo and tag that children love, the purpose built lap pool served as a refined and disciplined reminder of the importance of exercise.  It was also an excellent way of spending a lot of money on a small slice of surface, with ongoing maintenance costs.  And again, it had right angles.

I took great delight strolling around the suburbs.  We had so much space.  Northgate, where I had bought my humble apartment and paid it off in 19 months by working in the Middle East, was iconic with its Queenslander style wooden houses, its spacious streets, its older corner shops and trees.  It looked like an area where people were taking pride in their homes.  The first time I visited the place I was struck by the number of houses with piles of sand outside, power tools going, a builder’s sign out the front and these very odd looking strips of orange plastic fabric draped around stakes with signs such as “Danger: Construction Zone” or “This is a Hard Hat Area”. (We are talking here about an extension to a suburban house.)   Maybe I was imagining it but one day I thought I saw a “Beware: Swimming Pool in Progress”.

Along with this surge of materialism had come the expansion of public liability insurance.  Grab what you can while you can.  It seems this applies as much to lawyers as it does to plaintiffs.  They even advertise on billboards now.