I am writing on the afternoon of Wednesday January 16, which is actually Tuesday, January 15 in Washington. We are supposed to be on a train passing through the beautiful Blue Mountains en route to Perth, about 2,000 miles to the west. Instead we are sitting in the Sydney Airport, waiting for a flight to Adelaide, delayed by two and a half hours and counting. Brush fires and excessive heat (110 degrees F) in the Outback forced a cancellation of the train leg between Sydney and Adelaide so we are flying there in hopes of catching the train for the second leg of the trip to Perth. This provides the opportunity for a few more impressions regarding our introduction to Australia.
Australia and the U.S. are about the same size, yet with 330 million people compared to Australia’s 25 million, we are more than 10 times larger. Imagine the U.S. with only New York, Boston, Miami and Los Angeles and a host of smaller cities under a half million each, all scattered about, mainly along the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. No Chicago, Saint Louis, Kansas City, Indianapolis, Dallas or Houston. Also imagine a country that was colonized by the Brits about 200 years after we were and where the Brits encountered a local, hunter-gatherer population which had been living more or less peacefully for at least 40,000 years and maybe as long as 60,000 years. Imagine a country so remote from European civilization that almost 300 years after Columbus discovered America, it was still unknown by Europeans.
The prevailing winds are from the east, bringing rain to the East Coast, then rising as they hit the mountains where they dump their remaining moisture, leaving the vast interior parched and dry. In so many ways the country seems so similar to the U.S. but in other ways so different due to climate, location and history. The Australians escaped our horrible legacy of slavery and pride themselves, correctly or incorrectly, of being free from racism. Until recently—post World War II—except for the indigenous population, whom they exploited and pushed aside—the country was pretty much lily-white. For the past 25 years, however, the changes have been dramatic. In the 1980s, Sweden and Australia had populations of about eight million each. Today the population of Sweden is about nine million, Australia about 25 million, due primarily to immigration from all over the globe, producing what is now a multicultural, multi ethnic and multi racial population though Asian immigration far exceeds that from Africa, which has been minimal. In some ways it seems to me that the country represents a kind of new frontier, without all the baggage that we Americans carry.
What they do with this freedom from the baggage we Americans carry is a work in progress, though I think, hopeful. Crime is very low. Everyone over 18 votes or pays a $50 fine, and Big Money does not play much of a role in politics as it does in the U.S. People seem generally happy and positive, though admittedly this is hard to really know. They are certainly friendly and welcoming to tourists. A lot of people–especially 20 and 30 somethings– have great tans, great bodies, and walk around with backpacks or surf boards, smiling. Sort of reminds you of Southern California.
The most pressing issue here concerns housing prices, especially in Melbourne and Sydney, which have skyrocketed since 2010 and have priced a lot of people out of buying a home. It is not clear what is behind this since the income profile of the country is not that much different from ours though median household incomes appear to be a tad higher and there is less disparity, all good things. However, where median home values in the U.S. vary from market to market, affordability for “typical,” middle income families has not been a major issue since the 2008 Meltdown. Almost every guide we had in both New Zealand and Australia talked about the “typical” million dollar home (which would translate to about $750,000 U.S dollars). Million dollar homes are not typical in the U.S. in most market areas. Mortgage debt is still readily available in Australia and comprises a huge share of the economy. Young families now stretch to buy or rent homes and have diminishing funds available for other items after paying their monthly mortgage bill. Sounds a lot like a housing bubble to me. I suspect that a major factor is a lack of adequate, new housing production given the population increases due to immigration. Whatever the cause, this appears to be one of the top areas of concern with few government policies or programs in place to address the situation.
And finally a word about the opera. We saw Turandot (Puccini) last night, and it was fabulous. It was worth the price of admission just to get into the modern, somewhat stark and understated– but in my view stunning–opera hall. The staging, music and singing were, as expected, “world class.” Also worth the price of admission was viewing the attire of the audience. Anything now goes in Australia. Genes, tee-shirts, shorts, flip flops, spiked high heel shoes, smart casual, dumb casual, suits and ties, and a handful of tuxes and evening gowns. I swear there were some dressed in what appeared to be swim suits. New frontier, baby.