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Learning to live by Aussie rules

Learning to live by Aussie rules

The country’s gung-ho approach to legislation belies its laidback image

The country’s gung-ho approach to legislation belies its laidback image

Eleanor Whitehead | April 27th 2017

Any tourists who still believe Australia is so relaxed it’s horizontal are in for a shock when they get there. Before you touch down, you will be asked if your luggage contains any tea or products made of wood. My partner plotted for days before returning home with a wicker basket from west Africa, and I once received an earful from a customs official who unearthed an orange in my handbag. I would have been fined heftily if someone had spotted the pair of muddy trainers that I once smuggled unwittingly into the country. I would also advise that readers do not return from a subcontinental tour with bag full of pungent spices.

The Australian state sees itself as a protector of agricultural interests, which might explain the paranoia about bio-security at the border. Yet its fondness for regulations goes well beyond the airport. In 2015, David Leyonhjelm, a libertarian senator, set up an inquiry into Australia’s “nanny state”. He diagnosed two countervailing forces in Australian culture: an “adventurous spirit”, which shows itself in Australians’ outdoor lifestyles and the national obsession with sport; and a longstanding “culture of disapproval” from those at the top of Australian society, which is killing it. So while Australians are encouraged on to their bikes, this is one of the few countries in the world where it is illegal to ride without a helmet. Camping holidays are popular, but you risk being punished if don’t put up your tent in a designated site. And while many family homes have swimming pools in the back garden, they must be surrounded by a fence.

The disapproval shows itself in the pettiness of some domestic regulations. In many parts of the country, locals are forbidden from mowing the lawn after 8pm, or from playing a musical instrument too late. Their hoovers must be laid down by 10pm and cat owners can be fined if their pets breach evening curfews. Drivers in New South Wales are prohibited from splashing bus passengers with mud (any other pedestrian appears to be fair game). 

A few of my Australian friends wonder whether the more outlandish laws are a tool to raise revenue (according to reports, over 10,000 people were fined for jaywalking in Sydney during a crackdown between 2013 and 2015), or surmise that after 25 years of economic growth, the country has nothing better to worry about. Many of the regulations make sense. In 2014, the country’s macho culture led to a disturbing trend for “one-punch” attacks. Young men would pile out of bars and clubs, walk up to someone and try to fell them with a single blow. Two victims died in Sydney, so the government introduced lockout laws which required clubs in some parts of town to block new patrons after 1.30am and close their bars by 3am. Many Sydney-siders were furious: revellers point out that jobs have been lost, live music silenced, and several famous old haunts have folded. But booze-related violence has fallen in King’s Cross, the worst-affected district. Even sillier-sounding laws sometimes have rational reasons behind them. The cat curfew, for instance, was introduced to protect endangered species from being mauled by our furry friends. Swimming-pool fences may be unsightly, but in a nation where 12% of households have a pool, the risk of young children drowning or suffering life-changing injuries is higher than in, say, Britain.

Much of Australia’s more sensible legislation is similar to what you might find in parts of Europe and America, although Australia does tend to lead the way. Its pioneering approach to tobacco controls – it was the first country to introduce plain packaging – has led to a dramatic decline in smoking. In 2004-5, 23% of Australians were lighting up, which was costing that government $31.5bn in healthcare. A decade later, only 14.5% were smokers. Since the government passed strict gun controls in 1996, Australia has had no mass shootings.

But there have been times when Australia’s legislators have been arguably too gung-ho: even laws introduced for valid reasons can have unforeseen negative effects. Policymakers fret that e-cigarettes get kids hooked on nicotine, but by banning them, they have deprived smokers of a useful tool to quit. Likewise, making cyclists wear helmets may well reduce the risk of head injury, but it can deter people from riding bikes at all. Melbourne and Brisbane’s bike-sharing programmes have struggled to attract riders, while Sydney’s mayor has said it’s not viable to introduce a similar scheme with the helmet law still in place. 

Whatever their rights and wrongs, learning to abide by Australia’s rules can be confusing. I was browbeaten when, during one early visit, I parked the car against the flow of traffic, and I have been told off – though luckily not fined – for jaywalking. Our plans to watch the city’s famous new year fireworks were scuppered when I realised that drinking on public land is prohibited. Regrettably this correspondent’s budget did not stretch to a private boat. Yet the rules can also be a spur to the cheerful anti-authoritarianism which Australians pride themselves on. It’s no surprise that the country has one of the highest number of unofficial “micro-nations” in the world: the break-away Principality of Wy, for instance, was created in 2004 by a man who got into an argument with the local council about building a driveway. Any Aussies with monarchical aspirations may be disappointed to learn that national law still applies to these secessionist movements. Now, I’m off to splash some bus passengers with my car.