Archive for the ‘Uniquely Australian’ Category

Australian Do Not Call register: success or failure?

Wednesday, May 21st, 2008

It’s just over a year since the Australian government launched the Do Not Call Register. By adding your name and phone number to this register, you (theoretically) stop telemarketers from cold-calling you. I hate telemarketing calls – they’re a complete waste of my time and energy – so I signed up straight away.

So, how has it worked out over the last year? Well, the number of telemarketing calls we get has dropped from over 1 a week to maybe 2 a month, so that’s a definite improvement. I had one very persistent debt collection agency calling me repeatedly every 2 days after I was on the register, but after making a complaint on the Do Not Call Register website, they stopped. (Turned out they thought I was somebody else. Nice bit of research there.) We also had a call from a mortgage company last month, but again, a quick complaint seems to have sorted that one out. (Apparently many people had complained about the same company. I hope they get hit with a nice big fine.)

It’s for a good cause – honest

The biggest problem, though, has been with charities. For some inexplicable reason, charities were made exempt when the Do Not Call Register Act was introduced. Charities are all to eager to exploit this loophole, too – we get more charities calling us now than ever before.

I don’t understand the logic here. I’m no Scrooge when it comes to charitable giving, but what gives a charity the right to call me, when I have explicitly stated that I do not want to receive telemarketing calls? When a telemarketer calls me at 6PM and wakes my sick baby who’s just got off to sleep, I don’t care whether they’re selling me mortgages or donations to one-armed homeless Martians, they will get an earful from me. (Apparently though they’re providing a service to the community by waking my sick baby.) Telling them not to call me again rarely works either. (more…)

Australian politics: A laugh a minute

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

Liberal MP Tony Abbott stands alongside a cardboard cutout of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd

Politics in Australia is best described as a spectator sport, and there’s never a dull moment. From massive U-turns through to practical jokes, jibes, personal insults, bribery, corruption and scandal, Australian politicians make their UK counterparts look like model, if dull, citizens.

Gong-gate

Take the recent corruption scandal in Wollongong, for example. Wollongong is New South Wales’ third biggest city, about an hour south of Sydney. As a city, it’s a lot less built-up than Sydney – but thanks to alleged bribes, sexual relations between developers and the town planner, and blackmail, lots of rather large buildings are now in Wollongong that perhaps shouldn’t have been built.

The corruption is said to run deep, even up to the level of the State Labor government. In fact, Wollongong council was so incompetent that it has now been sacked and put into administration – a story I’m personally familiar with, as our local council, Warringah, has also been in administration for the last 5 years for similar reasons. This seems to be a bit of a trend.

A Ruddy good laugh

Then there’s the Kevin Rudd cardboard cut-out affair. Pictured above, we see a real Tony Abbott (the MP for Warringah, as it happens) standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a fake Kevin Rudd. Why? It was a protest by Liberal and National MPs about Kev and his mates not turning up to a sitting of backbenchers in the House of Representatives. Obviously in an age of climate change worries, spiralling inflation and interest rate hikes, the most important thing on the political agenda is whether the PM turns up to a sitting or not.

The event certainly had comedy value if nothing else. In fact I’m surprised there’s no “best of” DVD of classic Australian parliamentary debates. (Now there’s an idea.)

Keating, Master of Insults

Bill Bryson offers an excellent summary of Aussie politics in his book, Down Under. “You’ll never understand Australian politics,” he says, and I’m inclined to agree with him. He also recalls a parliamentary debate between a Wilson Tuckey and ex-Prime Minister, Paul Keating:

Tuckey: “You are an idiot. You are just a hopeless nong…”

Keating: “Shut up! Sit down and shut up, you pig… Why do you not shut up, you clown?”

Paul KeatingPaul Keating

In fact, Paul Keating’s outbursts are so legendary that there’s even an entire mini-site devoted to his insults. Some of my personal favourites include:

“(Peter Costello) has now been treasurer for 11 years. The old coconut is still there araldited to the seat.”

“For Mr (John) Howard to get to the high moral ground, he would first need to climb out of the volcanic hole he had dug for himself over the last decade. It is like one of those diamond mine holes in South Africa. They are about a mile underground. He would have to come a mile up to get to even equilibrium let alone have any contest in morality with Kevin Rudd.”

Priceless. Who needs comedians when you have Australian politics? :)

The Aussie petrol price lottery

Saturday, March 15th, 2008

Petrol droplet with dollar signNow that we have a car, we’re obviously buying a lot of petrol. I have to say, the way they price petrol in Australia is insane. It’s cheap enough – compared to the UK, that is – but you never know what the price is going to be one day to the next. They change the prices every day! At least in the UK if fuel was £1 a litre one day, there was a reasonable chance it’d be £1 a litre the next day. Here in Sydney, it might be $1.29 a litre on Wednesday, $1.40 a litre on Thursday, then back down to $1.35 a litre on Friday!

So what gives? According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), petrol prices are subject to all sorts of factors, including international wholesale prices and movements in the exchange rate. But do petrol stations really have to change their prices every single day? Just think of the wasted time and effort changing all those signs each morning! (Well it keeps the petrol station owners fit, I guess.) In fact, sometimes they change prices several times a day! Talk about a lottery.

Anyway, for the record it appears the best time to buy fuel in Sydney is on a Tuesday, and the worst day of the week is Thursday. So now you know.

Voting in Australia: easier said than done

Friday, January 11th, 2008

Voting X on ballot paperHappy New Year, dear reader!

If you’re an Australian citizen, as we now are, then you have to vote in elections here. Well, you don’t have to, but if you don’t you get a slap on the wrist in the form of a $25 fine, though it can go up to as much as $70 if they get really cross with you. In many ways I’m not surprised they have to force people to vote, because voting is so damn confusing here. For starters, there are three types of election in Australia:

  • Local government elections. These are where you elect the councillors that form your local council. Council areas are often divided into wards if they’re big.
  • State elections. In these elections, you decide who will run the state – in our case, New South Wales.
  • Federal elections. These elect the federal government (the one that runs the whole country).

To add to the confusion, there are two chambers in the Australian parliament that you have to vote your favourite pollies into. There’s the Senate, which is the upper chamber, and the House of Representatives, which is the lower chamber. From what I can tell, they both do the same sort of thing: argue about stuff for days on end, then eventually pass the odd law or two. The main difference is that the House of Representatives is, well, representative – the number of elected members for each party proportionally represents the number of people who voted for them – while the Senate always has twelve senators for each state. Yes, that means twelve senators for Tasmania (pop. 450,000) and twelve senators for New South Wales (pop. 6 million). Go figure.

I hope they recycle the ballot papers

So why do you need to know all this? Because when you vote, you get not one ballot paper, but two. The House of Representatives one is relatively straightforward; you have, say, six people you can vote for, one from each party. The slight catch – compared to, say, the UK – is that you have to vote for all of them! You don’t just put a X in your chosen box; you have to write a 1 for the pollie you hate the least, then a 2 for the slightly more onerous one, all the way up to a 6 for the bugger you want to get rid of. (This is known as preference voting.)

Once you’ve digested the entrée that is the House of Representatives paper, it’s time to move onto the main course: the Senate ballot paper. This is of truly epic proportions. The one in the recent federal election was so wide that I couldn’t fit it all in the booth without curling it up. Here you get a choice of how to vote (whoopee!): you can simply write the number 1 next to your chosen party in the list above the line, or, if you’re really bored, you can write 1, 2, 3, etc for each and every candidate in the list below the line. Bearing in mind the below-the-line list can contain as many as 60 candidates – and if you make a single slip-up your vote is void – it’s not surprising that 95% of people vote “above the line”.

Once you’ve done all that, you fold up your papers, stick them in the box, go home, and have a well-deserved lie down.

If you’re still confused about how to vote in Aussie elections, good old Wikipedia has the full gory details. The AEC also has useful practical info on the subject, which is just as well.

Australia: The Car Country

Monday, December 24th, 2007

Map of Australia with car iconThere’s no doubt about it – Australia is a nation of car drivers. It’s understandable in a way, when you consider the size of the place. (You can’t really expect decent public transport in the middle of the Outback.) However, even in major cities like Sydney with good public transport networks (in my opinion!), cars rule the roost:

  • People tend to look at you strangely if you don’t drive a car
  • Many roads in the suburbs don’t even have pavements (sidewalks if you’re American) – presumably you’re supposed to drive everywhere, or take your chances walking in the road
  • Fuel is cheap (compared to the UK, anyway)
  • Many couples have two cars (one car each)
  • Sydneysiders love their nice big gas-guzzling 4×4s (complete with roo bars to protect them from all those feral urban kangaroos bouncing down the high street)
  • “Camping” for Aussies means taking a tent the size of a small house, 4 fold-up tables, 8 chairs, 2 BBQs, and a portable shower – which of course, means at least one car if not two
  • Trains are so slow when you get out of Sydney that you’d be crazy not to go by car. For example, it takes 1.5 hours to drive to Kiama on the south coast (120km south of Sydney), but 2.5-3 hours to go by train. (more…)

Weird Aussie pronunciation

Thursday, November 1st, 2007

While Australian English is generally close enough to the “mother tongue” to be intelligible to even the most dyed-in-the-wool Pom, we do occasionally get confused by the Australians’ rather odd pronunciation.

When we first arrived in Sydney, I got some strange looks asking for direction to the nearest Dymocks bookshop. I soon found out why – it isn’t pronounced Dye-mocks, it’s pronounced Dimmerks. I believe there’s one fairly near Wynyard station, which – by the way – is pronounced Win-yerd, not Wine-yard.

On a trip down south from Sydney, we quickly learned that Kogarah isn’t pronounced Koe-GAH-rah – it’s pronounced COG-a-rah - while Wollongong isn’t pronounced Wo-lon-gong – it’s pronounced Wool-long-gong, even though there’s no double-o. Those crazy Aussies! Travelling further down the coast, we were amazed to discover that Kiama isn’t pronounced Kee-arma – it’s pronounced Kye-amma – and that Jervis Bay isn’t pronounced Jarvis Bay – it’s actually pronounced Jervis Bay, just like it’s written.

Various other place names have tripped us up over the years. Balgowlah, a Sydney suburb, is pronounced Balg-OW-lah, not BAL-go-lah, while the town of Forster, strangely, is pronounced Foster. One doesn’t pronounce Maleny as MALeny, but as MalAYnee, and you say Merimbula as MerIMbula, not MerimBUla.

If you work with computers and want to ask someone where the router is, don’t be tempted to say rooter, because “root” is Aussie slang for “to have sex”. Instead, make sure you say r-ow-ter. Meanwhile, commenting on an attractive PERgola in the park won’t get you far; try calling it a PerGOla instead for best results.

When ordering a schooner of James Boag in a pub, don’t pronounce it James Bo-ag like I did because the bar staff will think you’re crazy. It’s pronounced James Boge.

Other Aussie oddities include:

  • Data – pronounced darta, not dayta
  • Cache – pronounced cayshe, not cash
  • Eco – pronounced echo, not eeko
  • Project – pronounced pr-oh-ject, not prodject

Finally, even people’s names are pronounced differently. Megan isn’t pronounced, well, Megan as it is in the UK, but Mee-gan. And we were surprised to find that, after naming our baby boy Isaac, all our Aussie friends call him not Eye-zerk, but Eye-zack. (Which we actually quite like, luckily!)

When your suburb becomes a slum

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

This is the scene in our street for four weeks every year:

Junk in street

Do I live in a slum? No! This is how you get rid of your junk here in Australia!

In the UK, the councils have a sensible system whereby you ring them up and arrange a day for them to collect all your junk. You put the junk outside your house the night before, and the next morning, it’s gone. Easy, simple, and low-impact.

In Australia, they have a rather different approach: The junk of everyone in the street gets collected on the same day. Twice a year.

This causes two problems:

  1. Your street looks like a council rubbish tip for two weeks before each collection.
  2. Some morons always take the piss and start putting their junk out two months early. Or, even, whenever they feel like it throughout the year. Of course, they can get away with it by saying, “mate I thought it was the council clean-up next week!” (Unsurprisingly, this ruse doesn’t work in the UK.)

It’s insane. Sort it out, Aussie councils!

(Actually, there is one good side-effect of the Aussie way of junk collection: it gives other folks a chance to grab other people’s junk before it gets taken away. It’s an efficient way to recycle your stuff, I guess…)

Wind and dust

Sunday, July 8th, 2007

Wind and dustOne thing I will say about Sydney – it’s windy, and it’s dusty. OK, that’s two things.

There’s this wind that kicks in around mid-afternoon every other day, which is quite nice when it’s 40 degrees C, but not so pleasant in the middle of winter. We also get a lot of gale-force storms here (partly because we live on the coast, I think). Trees blow over a lot; the power goes off quite a bit.

Then there’s the dust. We noticed this when we first moved to Australia and lived in Pyrmont. Everything gets a coating of greyish dust within a couple of weeks. It’s not the legendary red dust of the Outback referred to in The Thorn Birds; just this kind of dull, grey dust. We get it here on the Northern Beaches too. Maybe it’s down to the prodigious amount of construction work going on all around us – who knows.

Mmm… just had a proper Sunday lunch and a nice glass (or two) of red. I’m off for a snooze.

Australia: A tough country for vegetarians

Thursday, May 17th, 2007

Chicken saltI’m not vegetarian, but my wife Cat is. She finds it hard going in this country.

She’s not vegetarian for any moral “think of the furry-wurry animals” reason – she just hates the taste (and texture) of meat. The thought of eating meat or its various products makes her sick. So it’s not like she can have chicken “just this once”. It’s no meat, or no food at all.

Trouble is, the Aussie definition of “vegetarian” seems to be “pretends not to like meat, but likes it really”. Cat’s had this conversation in more than one restaurant:

“Here’s our menu, madam.”

“I’m vegetarian. What dishes can you offer for me?”

“You’re vegetarian? Do you eat chicken and fish?”

“Er, no. I’m vegetarian.”

You wouldn’t have thought it a hard concept to grasp.

Quite often we’ll go out for a meal on holiday, to find that only one restaurant in town has anything veggie on the menu. And that will be “stir-fried vegetables” (which Cat is understandably sick of by now). Often restaurants will have a veggie entrée, then the mains will all be meat. (As if vegetarians somehow have smaller stomachs or something.)

(more…)

Culture shock for Brits

Wednesday, May 9th, 2007

Culturally speaking, Australia is pretty similar to the UK, so if you’re a Brit moving over here then things will mostly be plain sailing. However there are a few oddities that’ll catch you out when you first arrive:

  • Saying “Alright” to someone doesn’t mean “hello”, it means “are you OK?”. So you’ll get some strange looks if you go up to someone and say “Alright mate!”
  • A “hotel” is sometimes an actual hotel, but more often than not, it’s a pub. (Aussies also use the word “pub” for the same thing, just to add to the confusion.)
  • Manchester isn’t a city over here – it means bedding and linen. So don’t be surprised when you see shops selling Manchester.
  • Woolworths isn’t a cut-price department store flogging music and pick & mix – it’s a supermarket like Tesco.
  • Speaking of supermarkets, you can’t buy alcohol in supermarkets here. You have to go into the bottle shop, or “bottle-o” – otherwise known as an off-licence – next door and make a separate purchase. (Crazy, but them’s the rules.)
  • Most banks charge you for the privilege of banking your money with them. The concept of “free banking” is relatively novel here, despite existing in the UK for over 20 years now. HSBC’s online accounts were some of the first to abolish charges, and other Aussie banks are slowly starting to follow suit.
  • And speaking of banks, Aussies call a current account a “savings” account, just to confuse the foreigners. Sometimes they call them “check” accounts too, just for fun. When you pay via a bank card in a shop, you have to press either the “cheque” or the “savings” button, depending on your account type.
  • 9/532 Sydney Street is the Aussie way of writing “Flat 9, 532 Sydney Street”. Except they don’t call them flats either – they call them units. (Not quite so romantic sounding, is it?)
  • Contrary to appearances, “Sydney” isn’t, strictly speaking, the whole city, but just a small suburb in the middle. (Much like Kensington isn’t London.) So if you’re addressing a letter to someone in the central-ish Sydney suburb of Newtown, you must write “Newtown, NSW” on the envelope, not “Sydney, NSW”. Assuming you want your letter to get delivered of course.
  • You’ll find that locals will call you a Pom quite a lot. This is quite normal and they’re not trying to be offensive.
  • Automatic transmissions are much more common here. In fact, most cars are automatics. If you hire a car, you’ll probably be given an automatic by default. (Suits me – one less pedal to worry about.)
  • In the UK, a B&B (bed & breakfast) is often cheaper than a hotel, and often consists of a mouldy old room in a ramshackle terrace house with a deaf host. In Australia, a B&B tends to be more of a luxury option when compared to a standard hotel or motel. (Although we have stayed in a couple of fairly grotty B&Bs here too.)

These are just off the top of my head. If you’re British then no doubt you will encounter (or have encountered) many more!