Australians all let us rejoice, for we are young and free. Really?

Earlier this year, I was in Brisbane. It was summer. It was hot. I was in the central business district (or downtown) and it was lunchtime. One thing struck me – the number of male office workers wearing neck ties. It was over 30 degrees Celsius (over 86 Fahrenheit). Not only were some wearing neckties in the capital of the ‘sunshine state’ but some were also wearing suit coats. What non-sense I thought to myself.

I often had the same thought in Singapore. I use to travel there frequently for work. Here I was, on the equator, visiting my regional headquarters in a suit and tie. The temperature was usually around 40C (104F) and humidity was normally a touch below 100 percent. Both elements of the weather left me sweaty and with a cold as I went from sauna-like outdoor conditions to the freezer-like indoors of offices and hotels.

In Brisbane, I asked myself, why do we wear suits and ties? It is insane. It is hot, uncomfortable and costly. Why not wear a nice dress shirt and trousers? Well, if you ask most people, they will tell you because that’s what business people do and it is the way it has always been done it. Proper people wear suits and ties. One Queensland community ‘leader’ insisted that if people didn’t wear ties then Queensland wouldn’t be taken seriously. That’s not the problem, I thought to myself. As stupid as it is, business people wear ties and suits and that’s that, is the standard position in most western cultures.

We get many of our great traditions in Australia (and Singapore) for that matter from the English. The suit and tie isn’t one of them. Both suits and ties are perfect for cold and wet London. They’re of no use in hot and steamy Brisbane, Sydney or Singapore. There’s no consideration for the fact that 200 plus years on that we may have our own style and traditions to suit our climate, outlook, culture and sense of fashion. But at work, we have to look like Regent Street in London. It is non-sense. I previously lived and worked in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley. This peninsula has the highest per capita income in the world. The majority of people there wear runners and hoodies and carry backpacks. Some employers even often “dog friendly” offices. That’s an example of a highly successful place adapting to the climate, culture and outlook of a place.

In Queensland, I am amazed that there were two worlds. One is the state of Queensland and then there is the rest of the country, world and universe. It was like there was this huge iron-curtain that draped from the sky at Tweed Heads. If you were in Tweed Heads, you may as well have been on another planet. You didn’t exist as far as Queenslanders were concerned. Why? Because of a line on a map. There’s no ocean between the two states; there’s no mountain range dividing the lands and, there’s no demilitarised zone where soldiers keep a watchful eye on each other. There is though, a line on a map. A line on a bloody map that divides people. It is insane.

In 1859, the State of New South Wales had a chunk carved out of it and it became “Queensland”. Queensland became its own autonomous state, like other Australian states and territories. Back then, this probably served a purpose. The country was so large, the settlements so spread and the communications so difficult that it made sense to have state governments. The states of Australia came before the advent of the telegraph, telephone, railways, aircraft, cars, trucks, radio, television, satellites and the internet. All of these render a line on the map redundant. 

The world has changed greatly since Queen Victoria signed the papers creating the states of Australia. Like ties and suits, what use do the different states of Australia serve in the 21st century? Oh, it is traditional and we have always done it this way. Again, does this suit the time, the culture, the outlook or the way we do business in a globalised world? Tradition can be great. Tradition can bring stability. Tradition can bring comfort. But it doesn’t have to always be the way. I hate the answer to a question to be “well, we’ve always done it that way” or “that’s just the way we do it”.

We seem to have or do a whole raft of things that we accept without giving much thought to:

  • Why do we have states and territories? Couldn’t their functions be absorbed into the federal government and amalgamated local government?
  • Why do we have so much local government? For example, to have three councils on Sydney’s northern beaches (Manly, Warringah and Pittwater) is a ridiculous waste of money. Why not just have one?
  • Why do we have a Union Jack in the top left hand corner of the Australian flag? How relevant is that today in Australia’s highly multicultural society? When asked about what he thought about the Australian flag once, comedian Jerry Seinfeld remarked, it looks like Britain after dark. Exactly.
  • Why do we have the Queen of England as our Head of State? The Westminster System is the platform for a great democracy. That doesn’t mean however that we have to keep all of it.
  • Why are we the “Commonwealth of Australia”? Why can’t we just be “Australia”?
  • Why do we have the Royal Australian Regiment, Royal Australian Airforce, Royal Australian Navy, Royal Flying Doctor Service? Can’t we just be the Australian Army, Australian Air Force, Australian Navy and Australian Flying Doctor Service?
  • Why do our judges and senior members of the legal profession get around in wigs and gowns? Is this Australian? No.
  • Why do we have such a mess of time zones at various times of the year when daylight saving kicks in and out. And why, oh why, is South Australia and the Northern Territory half an hour behind the eastern states? Oh, that’s right it is traditional. The USA gets it right with four time zones on the ‘mainland’. 

Everything I have mentioned probably seemed a good idea at the time. Indeed many were a good idea and served a purpose. Are they relevant today? Keep them if they are. Change them if they’re not.

Australia’s national anthem includes a line “for we are young and free”. Are we really ‘free’? I say we are not. We need to define our own version of ‘free’. Do we have structures and systems that will serve us well in the 21st century? I think not. We need a national discussion on being an Australia that reflects our culture, place, heritage and outlook in a smaller, much smaller, world. Some change will bring economic benefits. Some change will bring social benefits. Some change will bring cultural benefits. Not to have this discussion and change will render us a relic of the past.


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