Searching for Australia in Koaland

Shopping for souvenirs in Cairns – a world away  from the nearest koala, emu or sheep.

I enjoyed reading a piece by Nick Bryant on Australia’s national identity and how it has been misshapen through our self-reflective cliches. The way we call ourselves ‘Down Under’ to Americans is cited as one example of how we tend to belittle ourselves. (I would add that our failure to put Americans in their place when they use the term also shows a tendency to ignore our success and pride.)

Nick’s article included this paragraph to help explain our fond attachment to phrases most of us don’t even like or use …

…as the database at the Australian National Dictionary Centre in Canberra reveals, “She’ll be right” gets at least two outings a week in Australian newspapers, while “Tall Poppy Syndrome” has been a weekly fixture for years. As the Centre’s director, Sarah Ogilvie, notes: “People are still using phrases which to an outsider seem anachronistic.”

Nick is a talented journalist whose biography shows he has moved regularly during his time as a foreign correspondent.  Nick’s decision to stay in Australia since 2006 shows, I believe, his admiration for our country, plus some sense of hope in our future. If you thought our best years were behind us, you wouldn’t move here. You would just visit, grab some souvenirs, then head home to where you belong, right?

I have just returned from a week in Cairns, in Far North Queensland, where the souvenirs tend to define a city having its own identity crisis. Stifling nostalgia is passed off as a historical discovery tour. Surreal caricatures of our fauna trivialise any natural beauty that lies outside our cities.  If you subscribe to my Facebook Feed, you would have seen my gallery of the region’s eclectic architecture and other oddities but neither of those begin to explain the schizophrenia  Cairns suffers trying to balance as a home for locals and as an international tourist destination.

As Cairns tries to position itself as the first stop for Asian visitors to our shores – something record airport arrivals would suggest it is doing very well – what greets visitors is a parade of tackiness and a clichéd approach to our emblems, wildlife and culture that presents an Australia unchanged since the 1960s.

Here is what confronted me on my first wander through the town centre; Opals, Ugg boots, koala backpacks and, for when you feel peckish… emu jerky.

Which of these resonates the most with your knowledge or concept of Australia?

Opal shop owners are doing us all a disservice. The romanticised depiction of a man down a mine grabbing a precious stone has kept Sydney’s The Rocks alive for much too long. It’s a tragedy that Cairns is going the same dusty, irrelevant way. Few Australians will ever head to Coober Pedy, and just because even fewer tourists will, doesn’t mean we should shovel such a flawed idea of mining down their bejeweled throats. Yes, we are the world’s largest producer of opal – being responsible for 95% of production – but most of it comes to us not by a rugged man in King Gees and a torch-helmet but like this…

…especially the opals coming out of Queensland.

Ugg boots are a peculiar fashion statement, at best. Wearing Ugg boots in Cairns – as I am told people do when the temperature drops below 20 degrees Celcius – is truly gormless. Trotting out Uggs and sheepskin rugs is also a quaint throwback to an age before polarfleece and cotton blends, when we were all wrapped in wool because there was a shearing shed down the road. But the fantasy must stop that put Australia forward as a sheepish, agricultural economy built on grazing animals for which the export market is rapidly dwindling just as the our ownership of the word ‘Ugg’ is under threat.

No Australian would think of skinning a koala, let alone wearing one on our back. The myth of the ‘Koala Bear’ should really have died off along with Matilda, the winking kangaroo inexplicably wheeled out at the Brisbane Commonwealth Games in 1982. Let’s be honest with our tourists – most people who manage to see a koala find it snoring and if they choose to hug one of the heavily clawed, disinterested beasts, they had better not be in NSW or Victoria where it is illegal in Victoria for anyone other than a Koala’s handler to hold them.

As for emu jerky…

There could be no more superficial Americanisation of Australian wildlife as this. Jerky is a US fascination and employing our national emblems to enjoy a salted chewy treat makes me sick for all number of untreatable reasons.

Cairns used to see most of its tourists arrive from Japan, however China and Germany are now the biggest contributors to the local tourism industry, no doubt due to the relative strength of those two nations. I was surprised to hear German used as the second language after English to give instructions on the Scenic Kuranda Railway.  Likewise, many signs in the town centre are also displayed in Chinese. The local paper, the Cairns Post, reports peak tourism bodies are striving to bring Chinese flights direct into Cairns which would send arrivals from our biggest export market into the tens of thousands per year.

So far, the nation we feel safest putting forward is still tied to the outback and way out-of-touch.

Will we present the world with a decades-old view of our nation’s brightest points; one of a dusty rural paradise where so few drovers actually roam and precious few miners dig for opals by hand, or will it be one that shows off our colours, talent and enthusiasm for life, exhibited in our stunning capital cities and across countless regional centres each with their own appeal? Let’s promote the brands and outfits we stand by, the artists and home-grown designers we know by name. Let’s leave The Kens behind. Ken Duncan and Ken Done, your time has past. Our tourism has become entrenched in a dated value system that elevates our strange marsupials and landscapes above our achievements as a wealthy, warm people who have accepted millions of migrants, built glorious cities, a diverse society and a robust national economy and we will happily share our glorious nature with anyone who visits.  We will even let some of them stay.

Zero-sum game: Why Coke wants you to switch

If you are like me you only drink Coke every once in a while. But recent television ad showing a cinema attendant who switches drinks on patrons still has me annoyed.

It could be the teenager’s smarmy style or it could be the fact that he’s failing at the one task he has now that the collection of movie tickets is largely automated. But the real problem lives in Coke’s attempt to change people’s habits because of rising commodity prices. It’s no surprise they want to save money and, as this graph shows, sugar prices have risen threefold in the last four years.

I actually think Coke Zero tastes fine and nobody needs the six teaspoons of sugar. So my question is why have we been dealt at an unhealthy alternative for years?

You can be sure that sales if Zero are set to climb in line with Coca-Cola’s ad spend, as the popularity of the regular drink starts it’s gradual decline into obsolescence.

(Surely, the sugar-free version will eventually become the standard version and, in a flurry of good PR, people will applaud what is really a cost-saving move cloaked as a health-conscious rebranding exercise.)

But, there’s a sting in the tail.

If the anti-sugar advocates are correct and sugar is an addictive ‘poison’, should we now expect to see a slump in sales without this lethal ingredient to hook in weak-willed soft-drink consumers?

Costco – but at what cost?

Visiting Costco took more gusto than I could previously muster. But today, under the mistaken idea that the big-box store sold dishwashers, I headed into the fray.
I left thirty minutes later, concerned for our society, empty-handed and with bruised ankles.
Here’s how it went down…
1) Entering the carpark on a rain Friday at noon… I discover this is apparently the peak period for masses of adults dressed in smart casual to go bulk shopping in SUVs .
2) I find a car spot and a mega trolley. Costco trolleys are made to carry a month of shopping and a flat-screen TV. And I saw this proved time and time again. It also straps in two children and there’s room for two more. I also saw this fact proved. “Look how big their family is!” My 3-year-old said. And there they were, mum pushing all four kids in one trolley.
3) Entering the building is my first challenge. There are people everywhere but as I watch, none have any discernible direction. There are no signs saying SHOP ENTRANCE so I circle the entire carpark till I am drawn, inexplicably, along with another twenty trolley-pushers, toward what could only be the Death Star.
They all move as one up a long ramp. It feels like Aldi so far, except it’s not to scale.
4) I get inside and there are more trolley traffic jams. As I wait for movement up ahead, I am overtaken several times. It’s as cut-throat as the carpark. At least as shoppers, everyone apologises for ramming each other in the ankles.
Is this supposed to be fun, I wonder? I look around for motivation. Most shoppers look pale and bemused as if this is their regular routine. (If they know how this operates, why did they come in rush hour?) I bypass a woman checking for membership cards. At this point, Costco has gone from supersized Aldi-clone to cult, in my book. I literally whisper “I don’t have one, yet!” And the lady waves me through, explaining where to buy one when I want one. So, why check for cards if you don’t need one? I can only assume it is so that the CCTV operators know which of us to track. I have been marked.
5) As for prices, they are undeniably cheap. I found my TV for $150 cheaper than Bing Lee. Confectionery, coffee machines, dodgy barbecues, they are all 20% cheaper than I’ve seen. I could buy a 4-pack of toothbrushes what I assume is a good price, but who else sells a 4-pack? The same goes for a 500g pack of Doritos. Who ever wanted that much?
Sure, you could get back the $60 cost of membership in one vist, no worries, but it’s certainly easier the happier you are to suspend the belief that you can have too much of a good thing.
6) I told my kids to watch our for who has the fullest trolley. And there were many contenders. If you ever go to Costco, I urge you to play it. Over-consumption is out of control. I understand this could be a monthly trip for some, but seriously, if they offered bigger trolleys, I do think people would fill those too. The only reason I think some shoppers stopped, was because they’d have to leave a passenger behind to fit any more in.
7) I was consumed, but mostly by the scale of the place. They import it, put it on the shelf, it goes home in a huge trolley. If everything can be done this way, why would we need the corner store? Convenience? Cheapness appears to beat convenience, for lots of Costco shoppers.
Naomi Klein’s NO LOGO is a brilliant read on the dangers of Big Box stores and how they have killed off many small retailers across middle America. The true sadness is the service. We are substituting any personal touch for an extra 10% off. The man who owns the store with his son stacking the shelves is replaced by a nameless, apathetic salesman who’s real task is primary task is to maintain order while avoiding eye contact.
I talked to a staffmember – most of whom stand idly by, hoping not to be consulted, just like at Bunnings – who told me that while they didn’t offer dishwashers of ovens yet, they would soon. “They’ve really only just opened. They’re look into all of that,” he said. “Plus, they’re opening a new Costco at Casula, and that one will be bigger!”
Oh boy.
My father used to have a card for Campbell’s Cash and Carry. There were myths around about how cheap it was. In reality, my dad was just getting paper plates in bulk. Those were the days.
8) As I tried to leave, I did another circle of the carpark, unable to find my car. Then, I noticed the shopper ahead of me struggling badly with his trolley. As I got closer, I realised that the pathway, built to provide safe passage around the moving cars, included posts every few metres that made the path about two inches too narrow to allow the mega-trolleys to pass through.
The irony of inconvenience was too much. I gleefully dumped my trolley and headed home.

The Keli Lane twist

Does anyone know what is going on with this? She doesn’t appear to be a manipulating killer capable of pure evil. Yet she makes it through an entire court case and heads off to jail for the good part of her middle age without ever giving a plausible explanation of her missing baby’s whereabouts… kelilane_header.jpg Then, today, just two days after the verdict is delivered, a taxi driver appears – as if out of nowhere – and has a plausible story of how he witnessed Keli dumping her baby in bushland. (Read the taxi driver’s story) The still-shocking event happened during a taxi ride from the hospital and the story ends with the baby be taken away by a mystery woman!!?? Not out of morbid curiosity but …. oh actually it it probably is. Here are my immediate questions… Where was the taxi driver during the months of cross-examination and blanket media coverage? Where was the taxi driver last week when Channel 7 offered half a million dollars for this kind of info Who is this lady who picked up the baby? Was it arranged drop-off point? Why leave a newborn baby with a bottle unless you expect it to be picked up and the bottle is for the new caretaker? wanted300.jpg

What do you think? I want to hear some theories…

I also want to know the baby is still alive.

UPDATE: The twist also has a twist. The taxi driver making the claims has been identified as having suffered mental illness and had their licence cancelled at the time of baby Tegan’s birth. Keli has denied she dumped the baby in bushland.

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