Interviewed on the radio as the waters of the Fitzroy River rose to threaten thousands of homes in the Queensland town of Rockhampton, the mayor, Brad Carter, was matter-of-fact. Plans for evacuating residents were being put into action and residents were warned that, as the river approached a level of 9.5m, the effect was likely to cause more damage than the floods of 1974, which were said at the time to be a once-in-a-century event.
The soundbite of the moment was that the floods were “of biblical proportions” but last week, to a visiting Englishman at least, there seemed few signs of biblical wailing or gnashing of teeth. The weather forecast for Rockhampton predicted occasional thunder showers. A couple, stranded in their house and interviewed by a journalist in a passing boat, told him they were high enough to be safe. “We’ve never had dinner or breakfast over the water before, so we’re having it now,” said the husband.
So much for the lucky country. If the floods have an Old Testament feel to them, then so does the plague of deadly brown snakes it has brought with it. So does the withering 10-year drought, “the Big Dry”, of the past decade. So did terrible bush fires in Victoria almost two years ago which claimed 173 lives in one night, known later as Black Saturday. Then there are cyclones, tornadoes, an impressive array of deadly animals. Plagues of locusts have been something of a problem this year, too.
If the character of a nation reveals itself most clearly in the uncontrollable drama of natural catastrophes, then over the past few days Australia has, not for the first time, shown that it has much to teach the world. As after Black Saturday, the current crisis has pointed up the quiet, unshowy, good-humoured resilience of Australians – “the true Aussie spirit”, as Mayor Carter described it.
It is tempting to believe that, in the face of disaster, courage and character have little to do with nationality, but can we really believe that? When Britain is affected by floods – a puddle in comparison to what is happening in Queensland – the air is soon thick with recrimination. Local government blames central government; voters blame them both. When the Katrina disaster broke in New Orleans, neither those on the ground nor in government acquitted themselves well.
The Queensland floods, sweeping down river beds which have been dry for years, have not only claimed lives and made 200,000 homeless; it has also been a devastating economic blow, wiping out crops in the south of the state, one of the food bowls of Australia, and flooding open-cast mining. The task of cleaning up Brisbane and other towns will be slow and expensive.
The Aussie spirit reflects above all a natural, unquestioned optimism and faith in who they are.
The “lucky country” tag is no joke; Australians, perhaps because the nation was born in misery and hardship, are acutely aware of their own good fortune, living in a country which has space, sun, beauty and wealth.
Indeed, the wild, untamed nature of the place and its weather is an important part of its appeal. “I love a surnburnt country,” goes a famous poem by Dorothea Mackellar, “A land of sweeping plains/Of ragged mountain ranges/Of droughts and flooding rains./I love her far horizons,/I love her jewel sea,/ Her beauty and her terror – /The wide brown land for me!”
National pride is seen at its worst during debates on immigration, but at its best at times like these. When nature turns nasty, Australians react instinctively like a people used to rebuilding. For them there is always the future.
News reports reflect this sense of community. Neighbours have helped each other out. A radio call for residents to help protect a village with sandbags gets an immediate response. The owner of a fruit shop near the floods sets up a free barbecue and gives away his produce to those who need it. There are one or two reports of looting in Brisbane but, given the opportunities available, there seems to be remarkably little crime. Those interviewed on the news are stoical, even as they view the wreckage of their homes. “At least it keeps the rabbits down,” one farmer told a reporter.
Some of this hardiness reflects the frontier spirit of a people whose ancestors had to be tough to survive, but not all. It is easy to fall for the Crocodile Dundee myth, and exaggerate the ruggedness of Australians. Most of them, in fact, are town-dwellers, wary of – and well-protected from – the bush. Far from being renegade in spirit, they are instinctively community-minded and law-abiding, sometimes to an excessive degree. They are, in other words, the very opposite of their international caricature.
Whereas in Britain, laws, guidelines and public service announcements advising citizens how to behave tend to be regarded as the unacceptable face of nannyism, the same things in Australia are part of daily life. A sense of society, of doing the right thing, is thought to be not such a terrible thing. It is even boldly accepted that politicians do not necessarily belong to an alien race whose only goal is to advance their own careers. Behind even the fiercest public rows, it is accepted on the left and the right that civic responsibility is important.
To those of us in a country where cynicism is bred in the bone, where dissatisfaction and a tendency to blame others are in the national bloodstream, this sense of common interest is enviable. It takes a natural disaster to show that feeling part of a community matters. It contributes to a general feeling that, when fate or the weather slap you down, then your first instinct is to start rebuilding.
When others are in difficulty, you respond personally, rather than looking for a government agency to help – or to blame for not helping. When politicians take action, you accept that, for all their failings, they are more or less trying to move in the same direction as those who voted for them.
Perhaps I have a rose-tinted view of Australian public life, but it has seemed to me that, in their public pronouncements about the floods, the country’s national and local politicians – from Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd to the Queensland premier, Anna Bligh, and town mayors like Brad Carter – have seemed rather more measured and convincing, more like real leaders, than we have become used to in these islands.
Of course, there is division and ferocity in public life. As a nation, Australia leads the world in chippiness and bloody-mindedness. All the same, the no-nonsense courage of Australians, their willingness to help each other, and, above all, their sustaining optimism and faith in their own country is an example to older, bigger nations less battered by “droughts and flooding rains”.
In the personality of its people, Australia is also lucky.
Independent, Friday, 14 January 2011