Top marks for the green Australians

Because the world’s New Year dawns in Australia before most of the rest of the world, the celebrations are taken seriously here. Sydney is “the New Year’s Eve capital of the world”, according to Make Your Mark, an environmental campaign which has been launched for the occasion.

It is not difficult to poke fun at Sydney’s worthy intentions. Making your mark, it turns out, involves not making your mark on the planet over the coming decade. Taken, predictably enough, from aboriginal culture, the idea behind the campaign is that, whereas the indigenous peoples of the past made a mark on a rock, today’s Australians can do the same in their daily lives. “We can make a difference by being more efficient in our energy and water consumption, reducing waste, recycling, always choosing the most sustainable transport option,” writes Sydney’s Lord Mayor in her introduction.

The launch of this sensible campaign is a spectacularly unsustainable firework display – the biggest since the turn of the century – in Sydney Harbour. 700 kilograms of explosives are to be used, including 11,000 shells, 20,000 rockets and 100,000 “individual pyrotechnic events”.

Yet the Make Your Mark campaign confirms that in many ways Australian attitudes to the environment are streets ahead of our own. Buried deep in the explanatory leaflet, for example, is this quietly revolutionary commitment: the city will on New Year’s Eve be distributing personal ashtrays “to help reduce cigarette butt litter”.

How sensible, how effortlessly grown-up that is. Instead of the usual prim scolding about the effects of tobacco, about passive smoking, about the evils of dropping litter, the city leaders have provided a simple, no-fuss solution. People will smoke. They will need to have somewhere to put their fag-ends. Personal ashtrays are the answer.

Perhaps this practical good sense should not be a surprise. When it comes to civic virtue, Australia is in a different league to the UK. For decades, its people have been asked to “do the right thing” by putting litter in bins. As the ferries of Sydney Harbour approach their destinations, passengers are invited over the intercom to take their rubbish with them and dispose of it responsibly – a marked contrast to the railway stations of Great Britain, where members of the public are expected to dump refuse wherever they happen to be sitting or standing.

That communal spirit feeds back into the political process. Green policies, even when they fail, are on the right track because they are addressed to the lives of ordinary people. The trick, Australia has discovered, is not to preach and scold, but first of all to show how, with a bit of thought and planning, consumers – even smokers – can make their mark.

A winning attitudeto cricketing defeat

As his team limped sadly towards defeat, the Australian Test cricketer Shane Watson was asked what the mood was in the team camp. “Morbid” was the answer.

It was an odd word and, since the game was not yet over, uncharacteristically defeatist, but then most of the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne felt distinctly odd: Australia were too bad, England too good, the game too absurdly one-sided. The situation seemed so generally against nature that it was more embarrassing than enjoyable.

The public reaction to receiving a thumping in what had been billed in one newspaper as the most important cricket match in Australian history, has been interesting. After the initial rage – “I mean, the Pommies – they’re virtually not human,” said one radio phone-in listener – the general mood has been regretful but, well, sporting.

The better team won, the consensus seems to be. The time has come to rebuild for the future. It is a good attitude, providing a useful reminder that the best way to win at sport is to know how to build on defeat.

The embarrassment that a teenager can cause

Never mind WikiLeaks, it was a scandal called Dickieleaks which enlivened Australia’s domestic news over the Christmas period. For a few short days, an out-of-control 17-year-old girl on a revenge mission used the internet to enrage and humiliate famous players in the Australian Rules football team St Kilda’s, running rings around the mainstream media in the process.

Her weapons were a series of nude photographs of four players taken in a hotel room. One was said to be framing his genitals comically with his hands; another more graphic shot showed a player, to quote a local journalist, “in a state of rapt self-communion” on a bed. To keep the story going, the “Nude Avenger”, as she was described in the press, posted gigglingly defiant video messages online at regular intervals.

Eventually, the law caught up with her but, as in all the best scandals, some bigger questions have lingered on. The first is whether the political, sporting and media establishments will ever again be able to keep the lid on a story now that a not particularly bright teenager has shown how easy it is to outwit them by using the speed and freedom of the internet.

Then there is the delicate question of the photographs themselves, which were not taken by the Nude Avenger but by the players as they romped about taking naked photographs of one another. There have been stories in the press of how group sex has become a sort of extra-curricular bonding exercise for teams, although the captain of St Kilda’s is reported to have denied this.

It has certainly been a month when the image of Australian sportsmen – tough, wholesome, successful – has taken something of a bashing.

Independent, Friday, 31 December 2010