For the many decades I have been criss-crossing the world, there was something I realise that I never left home without. Something which was as much a part of my years living, working and travelling overseas as my Australian passport, the requisite visas, work permits, and of course, my accent. The curious thing is, I hadn’t even acknowledged “packing” it until recently.
I refer to that invisible but popular travel accessory favoured by so many Australians – a certain smugness.
You know what I’m talking about. A quiet smugness about being Australian. A smugness about coming from a country that was so universally lauded for being fair and just and charitable and humane – just a damn fine place to be in and an even better place to be from – that you could spend half your life away from home feeling sorry for or snooty about the rest of the world. Feeling smug. From New York to Rio and old London town.
As an Australian, I have felt entitled to take the moral high ground on many occasions while overseas – or even just at home watching the nightly news. We Aussies were excellent people. Everybody said so. Open, welcoming, broadminded. Fair, honest, caring and sharing. It was part of our national DNA to do the decent thing. No worries mate, and so on.
In fact, the length and breadth of the USA I have sat at countless dinner parties where I could have almost drowned in my smugness. God, how I loved it. All that talk about guns. Crime. The Second Amendment and the Right to Bear Arms. Listening to otherwise sane, educated people, talking about fighting fire with fire, about teaching their kids to shoot first, ask questions later.
And racism. Another opportunity to feel smug. In hindsight I loved it. “Wish our kids could access some of that affirmative action that’s putting so many blacks into colleges on my dime.” Heard it a thousand times. And single mothers. Drug dealers. Those bleeding the social security coffers dry. All blacks. Always the blacks. And what about the Mexicans? Creeping across the borders while we’re sleeping. Words uttered by people terrified of an enemy they had usually never personally encountered.
How many times have I heard my American medical friends threaten to hang up their stethoscopes, close their surgeries if anything that even sounded like National Health looked like being introduced? The intellectual and economic elite, hanging on for dear life to their great big chunk of the pie.
How many conversations have I sat through in the States, in the very shadow of the Statue of Liberty, in which people who had been nowhere beyond their own borders raged against immigrants, refugees, Muslims, bleating about where their tax dollars were going and surmising it was to no-good border-hopping, queue-jumpers bringing in their weird diseases, weirder ways, always with their hands out.
No talk about the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, thank you very much. I was living in America, in my very own United State of Smugness.
And all my years in South-East Asia. Plenty of opportunities for smugness there, too.
I would shake my head that in a city State ostensibly as sophisticated as Singapore that Filipina and Indonesian maids could be imported to work like navvies, given two days off a month if they were lucky, handing over passports to employers who paid a pittance and expected service on demand.
Skyscrapers emerged seemingly overnight in Singapore, a country where the foreign building workers, usually from Bangladesh, India or Thailand, toiled through the night and called empty shipping containers home, ferried from job to job in the back of trucks like so many cattle bound for market.
Exploitation of these poor souls, desperate enough to work and keep their mouths shut, made, in my mind, a mockery of the accolades directed Singapore’s way as the tiny island nation expanded. I would feel anger, dismay on behalf of these men and women. But being Australian, I also felt that certain smugness.
Lest you get the wrong idea here, let me add that I never sat mutely, acquiescing with my silence. I’m a believer in the adage “What You Permit, You Promote” and I was promoting none of it. And besides, if I’m going to be completely honest, there was a sanctimonious thrill in taking centre stage, challenging others personal and national values. Always able to proclaim my own as superior. Australians all, let us rejoice, for we have the right to be smug.
And for a long, long time there, I think we really did. But in all good conscience, I no longer feel I have the right to play the moral high ground card. There is no Ace to be played in being Australian anymore. Dare I say it, I fear we are closer to being the Jokers in the pack.
Today, were I to be sitting in one of those many countries surrounded by those many people having one of those many conversations in which I once felt so smug, I fear I would be the one under attack.
How, for example, would I explain away the fact that I come from a land in which a new law – passed by both parties on May 14 – the Border Force Act, dictates that doctors and teachers working in immigration detention facilities could face up to two years in prison if they speak out against conditions in the centres or provide information to journalists?
And how too would I explain away the investigations underway in Indonesia that our Australian Government, using our tax dollars, had paid the captain and crew of a people smuggling vessel $5000 a piece to turn around and take them back to someone else’s shore? Not something our Prime Minister wants to discuss with us, however, because he “doesn’t talk about operational procedures”. (As if that’s acceptable in an advanced democracy like ours?)
Or where our foreign aid spending is predicted by the OECD to reach, in 2016, its lowest level since records began in 1960.
How would I justify the fact that two women each week in my country are killed by domestic violence? That the gender pay gap is up around the 18 % mark, favouring men? That childcare is so expensive as to be unachievable for many Australian families?
And while the list I could write goes on, my allocated space does not. Suffice it to say that many’s the morning I wake up here at home, in the Australia I love, and I wonder where I really am. I listen to the news, I go on-line, I read the newspapers.
I hear a new language and tone that we are fast becoming fluent in. It is one of fear and ignorance, self-centredness and greed, xenophobia and jingoism. I hear people being told they are at risk from unknown but evil enemies and I see them believing it. I sense them being sucked into a vortex of fear mongering, barely bothering to fight back.
As for me? I’m staying put for a while. My right to be smug has vanished and I don’t want to leave home without it.