Waleed Aly does have a point below. <a href="http://jonjayray.com/nedkelly.html">I found</a> something related in my survey research some years ago. I found that Australians disapprove greatly of lawbreaking but were also much less respectful of authority of than are the English. Evidently, being anti-authority does NOT extend to tolerating crime. So that surely leads to cautions about what we infer from the available data
I think Aly somewhat misreads Australians' motivations. What he attributes to submissiveness to government I would attribute to the famously relaxed attitudes of Australians. They just do not get worked up about much, including demands on them from the government. Rather than protest government intrusions they just go to the beach
And the demands that Australian governments make can usually be seen as commonsense so the beach is doubly attractive because of that. Not much is lost by letting the government have its way.
Regardless of its explanation, however, the result is the same. Australians do live in a remarkably peaceful and orderly society with good modern amenities and a high standard of living. That's pretty good. It's particularly good when we read of the great and ongoing fractures in American society
Thinking about Australia’s stunning success in handling COVID-19
If there are cultural dimensions to America’s poor performance and current paralysis, a similar explanation probably exists for our triumph.
I don’t say this in a spirit of triumphalism, or with a sense of cultural superiority. I’m suggesting instead that the characteristics of different societies make them well suited to different kinds of crises. We’re poorly suited to climate change, for instance. But COVID-19 is a crisis that very much suits us. Our national psychology is tailor-made for it. Crudely, I’d put it like this: we love a closed border, we’re a surprisingly anxious people in the face of immediate threats, we’re very obedient to authority and we have a deep belief in the role of government to solve our problems.
Some of that is at odds with our self-image, which tends to emphasise the mythology of the carefree larrikin, thoroughly informal in manners and sceptical of power. This is the Australia of Ned Kelly and Waltzing Matilda, which captures much of how we talk about ourselves, but very little of how we actually behave.
Perhaps the best demonstration of this point came from the late Australian historian John Hirst. His argument is worth reading in full if you find the time, but to put it briefly, our whole history is one of reliance on the state, heightened regulation and mass compliance.
So, we were the first nation to make seatbelts compulsory in cars. We’re one of extremely few to make bicycle helmets compulsory. We were early adopters of mandatory breath tests for motorists. We have extensive prohibitions on smoking in public places, including vast outdoor ones.
As Hirst put it: “At games of Australian rules football the spectators yell foul abuse at the umpire and then at half time they file quietly outside to have a smoke”. We’re the only English-speaking country to make voting compulsory. Before that we had compulsory enrolment. We even had laws that made it mandatory to tell the Electoral Office if you moved house. The police were involved in administering all of these policies, aided by spies from the Electoral Office. Yes. Our Electoral Office had spies, most often postmen. That describes a libertarian’s hell. Hell, it’s vastly more interventionist than even social democratic Europe.
And while we have our share of people who decry the idea of a creeping "nanny state", I'd venture that every one of these measures, from compulsory voting to bicycle helmets, is wildly popular here. In general, we'd argue they're common sense and regard critics of them as unreasonably ideological. In any event, we comply silently with all of them.
We might despise politicians, but we ultimately like government for the very simple reason that the modern nation-state of Australia could never have existed without it. In fact, it never did.
The British arrived with Governors, ready to assume the role of governing. White government arrived with white settlers everywhere except Melbourne, which was the only place settlers formed their own government. Then, these governments set about building infrastructure in a way they never did in Britain. They were not managing a society that existed. They simply crushed the Indigenous ones that did, then proceeded as though no society was here in the first place. That set in motion a peculiarly Australian logic that government created society, not the other way around.
Beyond that, our love of border control scarcely needs explanation. One of the first laws we passed after federation was the Immigration Restriction Act, and it has been the most enduring theme of this COVID year. The federal government defied World Health Organisation advice by shutting down our international border. Then, most of our state governments defied the federal government and shut their borders, too. Spats repeatedly broke out between the federal, Queensland and New South Wales governments.
But for all the political fireworks, there isn’t a single leader in this country who didn’t benefit from a hard border policy during this pandemic. Indeed, there probably hasn’t been one in our history. You could never have done this in Europe, where permeable borders are so central to people’s understanding of life. You’d be hard pressed to close state borders in America. But we embraced it with astonishing ease.
All these traits are invaluable weapons against COVID. They’re also what makes it possible for us to legislate gun control after an isolated massacre, pass expansive counter-terrorism legislation without anything like the scrutiny of a serious public debate, and maintain a brutal policy on asylum seekers. Chances are you support some of these things and oppose others.
But that’s the nature of a national psyche. It leads us to do both daft and inspirational things without breaking stride. Perhaps America cannot control its guns for the same reason it can have a spectacular civil rights movement. And if that’s true, perhaps we stopped COVID for the same reason we stopped the boats.