Australia is a country with close political and cultural ties to the UK, and so its people are naturally keeping a close eye on the unfolding political break of the United Kingdom from the European Union. Most news coverage in Australia seems to communicate one main emotion shared amongst the Australian population; confusion. This event seems to have caught the world off guard. The majority of Australians don’t seem to know what to think about the new unexpected direction that the UK has taken. Not unlike most Britons back home, I imagine.
Bill Shorten, leader of Australia’s central opposition to Malcolm Turnbull’s government made a statement outlining David Cameron’s “weak leadership” – a point I doubt many would disagree with – and promised a “strong and focused future” for Australia under his lead.
One news channel captured a reporter interviewing a number of Australian holidaymakers who said that they were “delighted” by the drop in the pound, as their winter holiday destination had now become significantly cheaper. The reporter predicted that more Australians would now be incentivised to travel to London but also made the claim that fewer Britons were likely to visit Australia as a result of Brexit. Soon after, a vibrant tone of sovereignty flooded into the broadcast as the news coverage changed topics to Tasmania, a dependant state of Australia who’s right to govern itself as an independent country has not yet become a mainstream political argument.
I often heard it said before I began to live here that Australia is a fundamentally racist country. It isn’t, but when talking to almost any Australian over the age of forty it’s easy to see why this is a fairly common misconception for visitors.
“The Muzzies wanted their own parallel society didn’t they, the cheeky buggers” I was informed by a fifty year old taxi driver on the way to Sydney airport. “They gotta understand that we’re a Christian country here… You don’t get to just move in and start making demands.” The driver was from Melbourne, and was speaking in defence of an anti-Islam protest he had attended a week or two before I left. “They gotta learn that if they come to this country, they needta adapt to our way of livin’, not the other way around!”
In Australia, English people and occasionally Scottish, Welsh & Irish too – as Aussies tend not to make as much of a distinction between us all – are referred to as “poms” or “pommies”. One older gentlemen from Perth I started a conversation with kept apologising for accidentally calling the UK the “United Pomdon”. Old habits die hard, he said. Although you’ll occasionally hear the word ‘pommie’ used maliciously, it really doesn’t have any racial connotations. Most people would use it in the same way we might say ‘Scots’ or ‘Kiwis’. It is neither quite the same as the word ‘Gringo’, which implies wealth as well as racial characteristics, but the word is also not entirely free from stigma.
“People do not have the right not to be offended” claims a spokesperson from the liberal-democrat party in Australia on live television. “Don’t be afraid to say what you believe just because someone else might get offended – vote liberal-democrat and say no to political correctness.”
While in the UK we might see a problem with using a word like ‘Muzzie’, as opposed to the word ‘Aussie’, Australians seem not to beat around the bush quite as much as we do. They tend not to see labels such as ‘Muzzie’ or ‘Pommie’ as particularly problematic, they place heavy value on their right to say what they think without being castigated.
The first thing I noticed about Australian politics is that nobody seemed to care about it very much. Most people I talked to would much rather watch an AFL game than a new speech from the Prime Minister. I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing either. Countries that tend not to be concerned with their own politics usually have fewer domestic problems than countries which are. Their lack of interest in politics doesn’t come from a poverty of passion for their country, but rather from the fact that most people don’t see any pragmatic need to become involved. They don’t see many general problems in their lives that could be solved with a vote.
But with political parties becoming more and more indistinguishable over the years, many older Australians confessed to me a feeling of isolation among recent times. They find themselves being punished for using words or phrases that were often said by news anchors or on the radio back in their youth. They can sometimes feel that everything they say is being cautiously reviewed and monitored, as though they were treading on eggshells with every word they utter. A feeling I’m sure is not unfamiliar to many older Britons who voted to leave the European Union. There is a higher visible pushback against political correctness in Australia. The pushback in the UK seems to have been largely silent until the results of Friday’s referendum came to light.
When asking a barman more or less my own age what people generally thought about Brexit in Australia, he responded with: “I don’t think many people here know anything about the issue really.” He later laughed when I told him I thought exactly the same about the UK. All eyes are on Great Britain post-Brexit, and I feel that most of the world is having largely the same reaction as Australia; they don’t know what to think. It is quite clear looking in from the outside that the whole world is watching the United Kingdom to see what it will do next. Come what may, at least we might enjoy being the centre of attention for a few brief moments, even if it is only to make fools of ourselves.
Photograph by Yanni Koutsomitis.