It is a bit of an Australian cultural paradox. On the one hand the Australian self perception as the pioneer bushman who braves new frontiers and the carefree larrakin who will do anything for a bit of fun; and on the other hand the extreme risk aversion manifested in the way we defer to the government to fix everything. The paradox was highlighted for me recently, when driving with my brother in the rented car.
Holidaying in Australia from Denmark, he and his family had driven up the east coast from Sydney to Lamington National Park and had encountered numerous stretches of roadworks, where traffic was directed by ‘authorised traffic controllers’. They thought this form of risk management quite contrary to the anti-autharitan image they had of Australians. As we drove back to Brisbane through road works at Logan, mobile lights controlled the traffic seemingly adequately, yet several ‘authorised traffic controllers’ were also on site with their lollipops. Like keeping your pants up wearing a belt as well suspenders, really.
Every time something happens – something dreadful – Australians are quick to deny any personal role in it and suggest that ‘they’ must do something about it. A train hits a person at the level crossing, and the safety precautions are dreadfully insufficient. A crocodile mauls a person swimming in its habitat, and the animal must pay. A serious road accident holds people up on the highway, and it is the appalling state of the road. And the funny thing is the way the Government responds to this outrage and finger pointing: trains are ordered to toot when approaching level crossings and elaborate pedestrian gates are built which fence in pedestrians; crocodiles are caught and killed or relocated from their home; and endless authorised traffic controllers are employed when the road conditions change and road works require car drivers to take care.
Thus Australian governments assume responsibility and create rules and preautions to minimise risk for citizens. It acts as a nanny state. And this is a downward spiral that confirms and strengthens the culture of ‘it is not my fault’. All of these rules remove risk assessment and decision making from citizens and place responsibility with government, should something go wrong in spite of precautions and the rules being followed. Instead of Australians taking responsibility for their own lives and the local communities they are part of, politicians and policy makers seem content to invent new processes and make more rules that remove responsibility from citizens. How come it is necessary to have both trains tooting, warning lights, alarms sounding AND pedestrian gates at level crossings that close even before the train stops at the nearby station? Who is to blame when crocodiles act in ways perfectly natural and normal to the species and why do they have to pay the price of the patent stupidity of the swimmer, probably disobeying multiple warnings about crocodiles? Why can we not rely on Australian drivers to obey the signs and drive with care and consideration of other road users?
Government taking risk minimising measures does not make us safer. They give us the perception that we are safer, and they may even provoke a rebellious response to circumvent the measures and break those rules. After all, the Australian self-image is all about taking risks and pushing life at the frontier – the bushman, the larrikin and the rebel.
‘I would be so bored as a traffic controller’, said my 16-year-old niece.
‘Perhaps you could play games on your phone in between cars coming?’ suggested my 10-year-old nephew.
Perhaps the authorised traffic controllers are an employment scheme. Not only for the people with the lollipop signs, but the authorisation that needs to be processed and controlled by bureaucrats, the training that needs to be designed and delivered, the authorised traffic controller vests that need to be designed, produced and sold, traffic controllers that need to drive cars to get to places where their services are needed – it is a whole value chain, helping our economy to grow(!)
And it gives us the sense that we are safe in this dangerous world, which is in our Australian self-understanding to want to conquer. Go figure.