Do Those Aussies Have All the Answers?

Last week I mentioned a few of the lessons I had learned during a recent several-week spell in Australia. Those lessons didn't include how phenomenal Tasmania is, a topic to be addressed in the magazine in a while. Nor how a wallaby looks when you've just caught him sneaking up behind you trying to steal a bite of your lunch, which is something my American-by-birth, Chinese-by-spirit, Australian-by-sporting-tastes wife had occasion to learn.

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Instead let's talk policy. An American reader based in Australia writes:

I hope you also noticed:
    •    that prostitution is legal, unproblematic, regulated, organized, and therefore much less obtrusive than it is in the US.  
    •    that gambling is also legal, with slot machines in every "hotel", but that unlike prostitution this remains very problematic and controversial.
    •    that the institution of the "hotel" (for what we would call a tavern) arises from an ancient requirement that establishments serving alcohol must also provide lodging, to avoid disgorging drunks onto the street.  While the legal requirement has fallen away, classic "hotels" still have this feature.
    •    that in New South Wales, the legalization of small, quiet wine bars serving alcohol without food -- as distinct from the noisy "hotels" -- occurred only in 2010.  During that debate, as I recall, the head of the NSW Hotels Association was quoted as saying:  "Really, who in the world would want to sit with a glass of chardonnay and a book!"
    •    that nobody likes to talk about the fact that the entire economy rests on digging up rocks and selling them to China.
    •    that mining companies expect to be praised for their cleverness simply because Australia has lots of rocks.  
    •    that the plastic currency doesn't deterioriate or tear the way paper currency does.
    •    that despite the levelling pretenses of Australian culture, there is considerable bandwidth for both erudite and artistic broadcasting on both TV and radio, especially through SBS and the ABC, and that it's accepted that national radio should have an educational function.  Aussies generally believe that it doesn't hurt to learn more stuff in the course of life, and that when the radio offers to teach you something objective and useful, that doesn't mean they have a "left-wing bias."  

As someone who's lived in Australia and remains deeply ambivalent about the tradeoffs of living there as opposed to here, I thought you'd value those notes.

All this rings true to me, notably the fact that both the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) and SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) have unembarrassed "educational,"  "cultural," and "public service" aspirations like those of the "educational TV" channels, precursors of PBS, that I remember from boyhood.

Another:

Your simple ideas post immediately brought to mind what was a totally mind blowing thing from my trip several years ago to NZ: 

Dual flush mode toilets.  They all have two buttons, one for a little flush and one for a big flush.  BRILLIANT I thought! No more triple flushing of horrible American low flow toilets. [JF: Yes, I've never seen an Australian toilet, or for that matter one in Japan or a lot of other places, that didn't have "little" and "big" buttons. I suppose it would be tasteless to label them #1 and #2, Sample, from America's own Kohler, below.]

Thumbnail image for Kohler-DualFlush-BR08-lg.jpgWhen I came back I was trying to convert all kinds of people to how great the idea is and how we should start doing it on our toilets.  

Of course, eventually I tried to convert someone (it was not the first person I hit with this line, probably the 15th or so) that knew "the secret," being of course that US toilets already do have dual flush mode. So, if you know the secret already, you can laugh at my foolishness and if you don't, you can just hold the handle down a little longer to get the big flush*. The fact that it is a "hidden" feature is a downer but at least it is there. I think of this as related to the Alexis Madrigal bit about people not knowing about "ctrl-f"
_
*the US big flush is not near as big or useful as a NZ big flush but is generally adequate.

And, from an American who went to Australia on business a few decades ago and decided never to come back, responding to my mention of Australia's crazy-sounding-to-Americans "mandatory voting" law:

Voting:  We actually only fine people for not turning up and getting their names ticked off the voting register (if you don't, there is a nominal fine of $55). You can then decide to submit blank ballots if you want, or throw it in the bin, if you really don't want to be forced to vote for anyone. Thing is, almost everyone DOES.

I've consulted two of my friends (aussies) who have lived/worked in the USA - one in SFO, the other in Denver, CO (not Yanks like myself who have become naturalised Aussies)
 
Here are their suggestions for US improvements, from an Australian perspective:

1)  Hold the Presidential election on the weekend, when not as many people are working a full day. Also make the queues manageable. We have never had to stand in line for hours in Australia. Who can afford to take a day off work to vote?!!? And while you're at it standardize voting technology and take it out of the hands of private companies, where the outsourcing  relationship compromises the perception of integrity - or WORSE.

2) Preferential voting.  So someone can vote safely for a Ralph Nader, but then can make his vote count for Gore in the end. Of course, probably means Bush the elder would have beaten Clinton with Perot's votes but you can't have everything. Would encourage third party development, challenge the duopoly etc etc (the US political parties are the oldest on Earth - maybe in history?)

3) Public financing of election campaigns (as here).  We've put this last, as it may be a 'bridge too far'.

And, finally, on the evils of the culture of tipping.

As an American who has lived overseas since 1979, I was stunned when I first saw a friend with whom I was travelling drop a ten dollar note on the dresser in a Knoxville hotel room for the cleaner.  Why isn't the cleaner being paid a living wage?  (Oh, I forgot, they are probably an illegal.  Silly me!)

Later when I booked a whitewater rafting trip, the person taking the booking tells me in a slightly threatening manner that I must tip the guide.  It was immediately obvious that if it were the custom, the booker wouldn't feel the need to tell me I had to.

Obviously, it is part of the grand American tradition of obscuring true costs while making advertised costs more attractive (and here I am thinking about climate change and the true price of gasoline as opposed to what the consumer pays at the pump).  This spread of tipping (baksheesh?) is another "brick in the wall" separating average Americans from the living standard their parents enjoyed.

More soon on other fix-up-America ideas.



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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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