In early 2019, New York Times columnist Bari Weiss penned a commentary on her brief experience of Australia. She detected a welcoming and laid-back culture and a general lack of interest in what others do for a living. Commenting on entrepreneurship, Weiss reported on how common tall poppy syndrome was in the country. Essentially, she observed that, if people elevate themselves too highly, they are likely to be cut down. Weiss’ article attracted a considerable amount of backlash and some Australians expressed their own frustrations at being misrepresented by the column. However, Weiss is far from the first person to make these observations.
Even before federation in 1901, revolts such as the Eureka Stockade and the Rum Rebellion began to define what it meant to be Australian. Since Australians are a people who took issue with authoritarianism from the outset, it should come as no surprise that many of the nation’s foundational cultural icons—Pemulwuy, James Squire, James Ruse, Ned Kelly and Harry “Breaker” Morant—were convicted of crimes. Some of these figures are revered as martyrs for having stood up to the oppressive colonial powers-that-be during their exploits.
The ANZAC digger legend of the First World War is littered with accounts of Australian irreverence toward superiors. As early as the Gallipoli campaign in April 1915, Australian soldiers had been reported as unruly and indifferent toward command. British concern about Australian attitudes was so great that the secretary of the war council, Maurice Hankey, felt the need to write a reassuring message to British prime minister, Herbert Henry Asquith. He observed that, although Australians do not salute as much as the British, they are nevertheless unmatched on the battlefield.
Numerous British officers commented on the difficulty of commanding such a socialistic corps. Junior officers and men were often recruited from the same social class. Australian soldiers reportedly referred to officers as chum, boss and cobber, while undermining the more draconian punishments meted out by British officers to other soldiers of the British Empire. At the end of the war, John Monash, an Australian hero of the conflict, would write in defence of the Australian rank and file’s individualism and perceived indiscipline in his book, The Australian Victories in France in 1918.
Suspicion of social hierarchy among the lower ranks of the Australian Defence Force has reportedly persisted to the present day. Australian Army officers observe that many of their colleagues feel the need to be accepted by their men and women, rather than feared or perceived as socially superior. This contrasts with allied forces such as those of the United States and United Kingdom, where social hierarchies are heavily embedded. Conducting operations alongside US troops can prove amusing to their Australian counterparts, particularly when the former stand to attention while addressing their superiors, saluting with zeal and responding with phrases such as Sir, yes Sir!
Australians’ lack of familiarity with social hierarchy extends far beyond colonial rebellions and armed conflict. Generations of robust industrial relations activism, combined with a non-existent social hierarchy, means that hospitality and service workers earn a liveable wage. You won’t get too far by being condescending or expecting your ego to be massaged in exchange for a gratuity. In the US, one might call the guy to have something fixed. In Australia, that person is a tradesman, many of whom earn more than university graduates.
Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott fondly remarked on his experience as an Australian Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford’s Queen’s College. During a 2018 address to the Oxford Union, Abbott reflected on his don’s likely suspicions he had been “stuck with just another muscle-bound rugby player from the dominions.” As prime minister, Abbott himself would face Australia’s disregard for social hierarchy when he was mocked for reinstating the titles of Knight and Dame to the Australian honours system—a move swiftly reversed by fellow Rhodes Scholar and political rival, Malcolm Turnbull.
During his tenure as Australia’s prime minister, Abbott was the subject of considerable political satire. He has regularly been depicted with large ears, a big forehead, little clothing and a sinister grin. Australian cartoonists aren’t shy of making fun of the behaviour of other public figures either, particularly sportspeople acting in an unsportsmanlike manner. After Serena Williams’ highly publicised tantrum during the 2018 US Open, cartoonist Mark Knight made the now infamous mistake of arousing the ire of an international mob by reproducing her behaviour in a caricature. This led to criticisms of both sexism and of racism reminiscent of that of the United States’ Jim Crow era. Knight was baffled by the outcry, having caricatured countless individuals from various demographic profiles over many years. Soon, criticism of Knight reportedly escalated to death threats. The Australian Press Council later ruled that the cartoon did not breach media standards—a ruling which was itself met by renewed criticism.
Unflattering? Yes. Racist? No. Nothing wrong depicting an actual event in a cartoon. #SerenaWillams had an epic tantrum & felt so entitled to win that she embarrassed herself. Mark Knight is the best & a fair cartoonist & already hit Nick Kyrgios earlier. #USOpen @Knightcartoons pic.twitter.com/AHgpuu2l3Q
— The Warrior Factor (@warriorfactor) September 11, 2018
The prevailing sentiment in Australia referred to variously as true blue, socialistic, egalitarian and tall poppy syndrome is evidently lost on those from other cultures who perceive themselves worthy of special treatment. In direct contravention of biosecurity laws enacted to protect flora and fauna, Johnny Depp and his partner, Amber Heard, were accused of smuggling their Yorkshire terriers into the country, while visiting to film Pirates of the Caribbean in 2015. This led to public tongue in cheek criticism by federal politician Barnaby Joyce, which included a threat to euthanize the animals. In keeping with Australia’s attitudes, Joyce reminded Depp that being voted the sexiest man alive doesn’t put him above the law. Both Joyce and Australia’s quarantine laws then became the subject of years of ridicule by Depp.
The Twittersphere was set ablaze by another airborne celebrity controversy on 16 November 2019. A series of tweets by American musician William Adams, a.k.a. will.i.am, accused a Qantas flight attendant of racism during a flight from Brisbane to Sydney. Following an altercation over noise-cancelling headphones and laptop stowage, Adams named this private citizen multiple times in viral tweets. The led to the Australian Federal Police being called to the aircraft. Qantas has since voiced public support for the flight attendant, including legal support if she decides to seek damages. The flight attendant has reportedly been the subject of threats and abuse via social media since the matter went viral. Adams may face difficulty bolstering his case by branding Qantas as bigoted. The organisation’s CEO is widely known to be a prominent supporter of social justice causes.
These celebrity incidents offer a tiny window into the Australian psyche—and it would be erroneous to conflate them with bigotry. Australia is an eclectic melting pot of descendants from the world’s oldest continuing culture, petty crime convicts, gold prospectors and people fleeing tyrannies and oppressive social hierarchies around the world. Of the twenty-five or so million people who call Australia home, only two-thirds were born on the continent and less than half were born to two Australian-born parents. The country’s largest religious affiliation is no religion, a growing trend that illustrates that Australians are even reluctant to submit themselves to metaphysical deities.
Admittedly, the lucky country has a far from unsullied track record. Conflicts over the nature of indigenous land ownership; the group of twentieth-century policies known collectively as the White Australia Policy; the experience of Chinese, Irish and post-war immigrants; and participation in questionable wars—these are just a few of the historical controversies that have left a lasting legacy and continue to fuel debate in modern Australian society.
Australian cultural diversity has given rise to Australia’s growing influence in the arts, some of the finest fusion restaurants in the world and arguably the most robust coffee culture in existence. In fact, the Australian snubbing of Starbucks, which led to their demise and subsequent relaunch in the country’s tourist centres suggests that the frontier cultural backwater of yesteryear is but a distant memory.
Despite the radical transformation Australia has experienced over the past century, one cultural characteristic has remained eerily consistent: Australia is unapologetically egalitarian. If an American celebrity expects to be treated as exceptional, many Australians will not oblige. If he or she acts like a prima donna, many Australians might take the additional step of mocking the behaviour. This occurs regardless of which intersectional category a celebrity happens to fit into. It might just be easier to practise some humility.