Sunday, June 27, 2010

Big Country, Small Minds


Illustration by Sir John Tenniel, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


The table was a large one but the three were all crowded together in one corner of it. "No room! No room!" they cried out when they saw Alice coming. "There's plenty of room!" said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.

This exchange from Chapter 7 of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland entitled A Mad Tea-Party, is a useful lens through which to view Australia's relationship to the outside world. Despite the fact that there are almost as many people living in Beijing as there are in the whole of Australia, many residents think the country is 'full' and that adding even a boatload or two of desperate asylum seekers is 'unsustainable'. No one's bothered to consider that refugees don't tend to have big appetites.

An announcement has come today from our new Prime Minister Julia Gillard, (for whom I have not yet thought of a clever moniker - suggestions on an e-card if you think you're hard enough). Ms Gillard says,

''I do not support the idea of a 'big Australia' with arbitrary targets of, say, 'a 40 million-strong Australia' or 'a 36 million-strong Australia'."

There is something about Australia that makes it resolutely averse to living in the present. We are either obsessing about past events that we can't change or stressing about things that may never happen. It's either 'I bought some shoes I don't like and couldn't afford but can't take them back because I've worn them already', or it's 'we must prevent young people from encountering alcohol or strangers or the internet or Europe.

Only in Australia, the land where everyone knows the exact number of annual motoring fatalities and the alcohol content of every single eligible beverage including mouthwash, could there exist a notion that an isolated island, that is almost impossible to get into if you weren't born here, needs to concern itself with population targets.

Britain is an island nation. Actually, it's made up of quite a few of them but most Britons live on the big one. People keep telling me it can fit into the state of Victoria five times, (although I seriously don't believe that - and draw your own conclusions about the battiness of the assertion in this particular context). It has three times our population. You can safely swim to Britain from Continental Europe, although I personally prefer the Eurostar. That's the Europe, by the way, from which every single EU citizen has the right to emigrate to Britain permanently without notice if they so desire. Even in the present circumstances, Britain is not twisting up its knickers over population the way we are.

"Australia should not hurtle down towards a big population. We need to stop, take a breath and develop policies for a sustainable Australia," says Ms Gillard.

Okay. Everyone, stop fucking right now! No more babies until the government has set up a task force to work out how we're going to feed the poor mites. Ah, 'sustainability'. What an insurmountable challenge for a country with no arable land, no mineral resources, no habitable coastline, no wind, no sun... I can't go on, it's just too depressing.

''If you spoke to the people of western Sydney, for example, about a 'big Australia', they would laugh at you and ask you a very simple question: 'Where will these 40 million people go?' '' Ms Gillard concluded.

My maths is a little rusty but I'm thinking that if we already have 22 million settled then we only need to find shelter for 18 million more on these figures and they probably don't all want to live in western Sydney. I know I wouldn't. In any case, these projections are for 2050 aren't they? A handful of Amish could build that many homes in forty years. But what about infrastructure? you cry hysterically.

Ah yes, the infamous 'infrastructure'. That mysterious phenomenon that we've forgotten how to manage for the last sixty years. It's really very simple. Most 'infrastructure' comprises buildings that are a variation on 'a house'. (See Amish, above). It's basically a box with a roof and it's a different size or a different shape or has different things in it depending on its purpose. Most of the rest is 'cables' which are long bits of wire or 'pipes' which are long, round tubes of plastic and 'roads' which are flattened bits of land over which is poured little chips of stone mixed up in a hot liquid called 'tar'. If you need a recipe, ask the nearest Ancient Greek.

And then there's public transport, something regarded as both essential for achieving this mythical 'sustainability' and more difficult than intergalactic space travel. Again, not completely pie in the sky. Quite a lot of short-range public transport can be achieved via something called 'a bus'. It's a bit like a car, only bigger. And then there is the holy grail of public transport puzzles - the railway. Horribly tough this as it requires slabs of wood to be placed on the ground and strips of iron to be laid across them. You can see why governments run screaming in horror.

"Come, we shall have some fun now!" thought Alice. "I'm glad we've begun asking riddles."

All quotes by Julia Gillard from The Age (27/6/10)