By Siri Gamage –
Sri Lankan immigrants to Australia and sometimes visitors consider Australia as a model that can be adopted for fundamental reforms in Sri Lanka (see Dr. Harsha Weerasinghe- A Good Australian Down Under, The Island 26.04.2018). This is a view that comes up in private conversations more than in the public debate. Such a viewpoint is often based on comparisons of governance, service provision, rule of law, cleanliness, orderly behaviour, functioning systems and institutions, norms and manners. Commendable aspects in the broader community such as voluntarism in disaster and emergency management, respect for privacy, egalitarianism, openness, non-interference in private life also contribute to forming such a view. Equal opportunities existing in many fields for individuals to progress in life in terms of education, employment and wealth creation – if they have the desire and motive -are other aspects worth noting (though structural barriers still exist for Aborigines, immigrants, ethnic minorities, women, those from rural and regional areas, and those in Lower Socio-economic groups). Before arriving at such a view where Australia is cited as a model that Sri Lanka can adopt, we need to explore some fundamental aspects of both societies carefully.
Both Australia and Sri Lanka have majorities in power i.e. Anglo Australians mostly born in the country in Australia and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. Approximately their proportions come to about 75% of the population. English is the official language in Australia. As Australia has a significant non-English speaking background population, translation services are available in government departments, hospitals and other important institutions that provide various services. In Sri Lanka, there are three official languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English. Australia is run with a Westminster style government. However, the country is divided into five States and a couple of territories. There is a Federal Government based in Canberra and State governments in Sydney (New South Wales), Brisbane(Queensland), Melbourne(Victoria), Perth (Western Australia), Hobart(Tasmania) and Adelaide (South Australia). Thus, the country has a federal system of government. Leaders of State governments and territories plus the federal government meet annually to sort out governance issues such as the distribution of GST (broad based tax) income. State governments have control over education, policing, land, hospitals, fire service etc. The head of state in Australia is the Queen whose representative is the Governor. The governor performs constitutional duties and ceremonial roles. For example, when there is a new cabinet, members have to be sworn in before the Governor. Federal government provides annual grants to state governments. However, state governments also levy indirect taxes, e.g. car registration, stamp duty for property transactions, fire levy. Federal government is in charge of collecting personal taxes and the indirect tax called the GST which is 10%. When people buy goods, and services this is added to the bill.
Sri Lanka has a Presidential cum parliamentary system of governance since 1978. The President is elected directly in a separate election whereas the Prime Minister is selected by the MPS elected via the parliamentary election. Additionally, Sri Lanka has 9 Provincial Councils. Each Council has a chief minister and a Council of ministers. In each province, there is a Governor appointed by the President. Central government provides grants to Provincial Councils but the latter has revenue collection measures of its own also. In Australia, state elections are won by different parties such as Liberal (sometimes with the support of national party) or Labour. There are situations when the federal parliamentary power is held by the liberal (and national) parties, power in some state governments is held by the Labour party. Nonetheless, functioning of the governments continue in an orderly manner.
Australia is a pleasant country to live. There is order in public life, people generally follow rules, respect each other, rules are applied equally irrespective of the status of a person, services are available with not much hassle, and people generally look after their own affairs without bothering others. In times of distress, those around generally come to assistance. The emergency services are well organised. If someone gets sick an ambulance can be called and within a reasonable time it arrives whether one is poor or rich (private medical funds pay for this service for their members). Those in low income or destitute categories are provided with a reasonable living allowance by the Federal government. This depends on one’s age, employment status, health and disability, whether single or having a family etc. When a society has order applicable to all, people have the ability to plan their activities with predictability.
There is competition in the corporate sector. Thus, when an individual wants to get access to utilities such as telecommunication, water, electricity, they can access the better deals. To monitor the behaviour of companies there are various monitoring mechanisms e.g. Dept. of fair trading, competition commission. Consumers can take complaints to Ombudsmen in each industry also. However, we have to understand that Australia is a high taxing country. Services are provided by the Federal and State governments from the taxes and levies collected from the people themselves.
As a developed country, Australia is not generally reliant on foreign aid. Instead it provides foreign aid to less developed countries. However, there is this myth among people, particularly those who do not pay taxes, that the government is like Santa Claus handing various handouts. One can’t blame them. It is only those who pay taxes who feel the pain. A University lecturer with an annual salary of $90,000-100,000, usually pay between $25000-30000 personal income tax to the government (some work-related deductions are possible). The more one earns the more one pays tax. When a person transfers his properties to family members, they have to pay stamp duty to the State government. If one lives in an apartment, there are multiple payments one has to pay in addition to the mortgage payment. This includes strata fees, water levy, Local Council rates, electricity, gas. The list goes on.
However, many migrants, especially doctors and other professionals who came to Australia from Sri Lanka and other countries decades ago have been able to accumulate sufficient wealth enabling them and their children to enjoy a higher level of life that is not open to many middle and working-class families. While such professionals with more than adequate wealth are able to enjoy an upper-class lifestyle with corresponding trappings of high life and culture, many of those in the middle to working class categories struggle to make ends meet as they have to juggle between the income they get from work and outgoings including for children’s education, housing, medical and so on. It is only in later in their lives they are able to lead a restful life if their children also do well in education and work. Many don’t enjoy such rest and comfort as children grow up according to city based Australian way of life which is basically a consumerist lifestyle. Some children start living their own life and neglect parents whereas the majority I must say still care and respect their parents as they have grown up in an environment nurtured by religious and cultural values and norms of parents.
As such, it is risky to make simple comparisons and ask Why Sri Lanka can’t adopt the Australian system or the model? Beneath the beauty that we see in Australia, there is significant social and economic inequalities affecting the minorities, those in lower socio-economic groups, rural and regional areas, big cities, with disabilities and impediments etc. It is true that the State (both federal and State level) looks after those who are at the bottom layers of socio-economic hierarchy. Nonetheless, the globalised economy and free market policies have only benefitted some and not all. Rich gets rich. Poor gets poor. A few in between move upward. Many moves downward also.
Australia benefitted from the mining boom for a decade or more as the prices for coal, Iron ore and other minerals in the global market, particularly in China, were high. Large numbers of people from the cities and even abroad found lucrative jobs in remote areas where the multinational operations for mining etc. took place. Since the collapse of this market and income to the government by way of taxes, Australia has been struggling to generate alternative sources of work and income. One of the strategies adopted is to bring in close to 200,000 skilled immigrants annually and a large number of temporary skilled workers as well. They make a significant contribution to the economy. When an immigrant family arrives, they become consumers for goods and services. This is good for the corporate sector and finally the government.
As Australian population is becoming aged, the country needs more people not only to boost the economy but also to undertake various roles in hospitals, aged care facilities, transport, call centres, and other service outlets. Thus, one can see many from Asian countries working as nurses, age care workers, child care workers, and more. Exports to China and other Asian countries from Australia including agricultural and animals continue. However, Australia has developed service industries such as in education to compliment the agricultural and animal trade (beef, pork, poultry and fish). Such industries are drawing billions of dollars to the country annually.
Along with globalisation, free market economy and trade, there have been several negative aspects emerging also. This includes casualization of the workforce, stagnant wages, cutting down of working conditions (e.g. holiday loading), limits on trade union strike actions, and more. Public institutions such as universities have adopted executive style of management used in the corporate sector destroying collegial management structures and systems that existed before. This has made academics angry. They have reason to be angry as the majority of them in a given faculty or School are marginalised from the decision-making processes. Instead a few who are appointed by the Senior Executive of universities try to run the show by dictating terms to the rest (Compliance, efficiency, performance review, academic output, volume of student numbers, etc. have become buzz words in this new management culture). Where there are trade unions, such attempts are thwarted to some extent and seek negotiations to settle disputes among academics but it is an uphill struggle. Advertising and marketing campaigns by universities hide this reality within. In other institutions dealing with education, health, social services etc. also we can see this corporate style of management playing havoc in the name of efficiency and so on.
One commendable aspect of Australian society and the way it is organised is the strength of Local Government. While the Federal and State governments look after big picture issues, it is the Local Councils that look after the local matters such as roads, waste collection, water supply, maintenance of parks and public facilities, cleaning and more. An elected Council and a Mayor run these Councils. For specific projects, they are able to apply for Federal or State funding. Elected members to parliaments at State and Federal levels, work cooperatively with Local Councils to promote their own areas and interests. During Festival times such as Christmas, Local Councils provide entertainment and lighting including fireworks displays for the community. Within Local Council areas, there are numerous community organisations set up to address specific issues. For example, charities, those working for sustainable development, solar, and wind power, youth work, women’s refuges. To help elderly living alone at home, there are services to provide food subsidised by governments. Sporting clubs and Service clubs such as Rotary and Lions also function at this level.
As stated earlier, Voluntary service is a hallmark of Australian community life. When floods, fire or other natural calamities occur, there is a State Emergency Service(SES) with trained volunteers, vehicles and equipment. When there is severe storm or flood damage they spring into action. There is a Rural Fire Service which looks after fire control during summer months. These services are augmented with volunteers who otherwise do day jobs elsewhere. They can obtain leave from employers to perform such services.
When a person retires, he/she usually volunteer a day or two to work in a charity or some community organisation. A list of such organisations is maintained at the Local Council. Some drive school buses. Others mind crossings near schools in the morning and afternoon. Citizens consider it is their duty to give something back to the society when they retire and have more time to spare in addition to enjoying life with grandkids etc. Some help out in sporting clubs or service clubs such as the Rotary. As there was a view that men do not access services for mental health issues, Men’s Sheds have sprung up in various localities. Men with nothing to do come and meet other men over a coffee, learn some skills such as in carpentry, mechanical work and so on.
Big cities such as Sydney and Melbourne – each will have over five million people – have overgrown. This is because so-called development has been city-centric rather than decentralised to the regions. This is a complain that many in regional areas make. State governments with Federal funding spend an unequal amount of funds to build infrastructure within cities including rail, roads, hospitals, sporting facilities, museums, convention centres. New immigrants also arrive in such big cities though a fraction move to rural and regional areas for a few years. For example, instead of developing Cities like Newcastle and Wollongong which is about two hours’ drive from Sydney and connecting them with high speed rail, government leaders continue to spend the dollars on developing Sydney itself. People, including new immigrants, youths from rural and regional cities flock to Sydney (and Melbourne, Brisbane etc.) in search of jobs while rural and regional cities decline in population or lack growth. Businesses in country towns struggle as a result. Instead of developing fast rail between cities, planners are focused on further developing air travel within the country and freight transport on road. One exception is the planned inland rail project between Melbourne and Brisbane through middle of Australia. Thus, the planning for development is overwhelmingly city focused. Developers from the private sector capitalise on this and build high rise apartments and office blocks at every available vacant piece of land making cities somewhat ugly looking. Unlike in Europe, USA or Canada, the architectural appearance of such apartments and office blocks -at least from the facade -look monotonous. They all l look like concrete blocks and boxes. There is an emerging trend for groups in cities to object to such over development. However, politicians do not seem to care.
What I tried to do here is to show that to say Australia can be a model for Sri Lanka is too simplistic without specifying what particular area is it? As someone who worked in the higher education sector, I do not recommend the Australian model of higher education to Sri Lanka(based on neoliberal economic principles rather than conventional public university concept) where the primacy is given to attract fee paying foreign students at the expense of university collegial culture, style of governance and research performance (though the model is premised upon the view that more income from foreign students can enhance research etc.?). Instead, Sri Lanka needs a system focused on social justice, moral principles, personality development along with skills acquisition, service to the community instead of totally job oriented degree programs. Perhaps a few higher education institutions can go this path but the majority of State funded universities need to focus on the holistic development and nurturing of the individual. In terms of the governance, there are obvious lessons one can learn from Australia. Anti-corruption is one aspect. Rule of law is another. Separation of powers between the legislature, executive and the judiciary is another. Nonetheless, note that even in Australia the trust on elected politicians is declining. One reason for this is their closeness to the corporate sector and their lobbyists. There are examples when politicians retire they accept appointments in the corporate sector often in areas where they held responsibility when in office. There is a growing disenchantment among the population about the performance of major political parties and a trend to support independents and minor parties.
Australia is a mainly Christian country with a Christian heritage. This can be seen in wherever one goes. However, there is an increasing awareness of the Aboriginal heritage and the need to move forward together as a country. This was apparent at least symbolically in the recently concluded Commonwealth Games opening and Closing ceremonies in the Gold Coast. There is a long way to go to make key institutions such as the Federal parliament, judiciary, sports, commercial media, medical field, police and armed forces diverse. Though there is a vibrant multicultural and ethnically, linguistically and religiously diverse community practicing their own traditional cultures and beliefs, there is a long way to go in terms of making Core institutions of society diverse. At least, it will take another 50-100 years to witness such diversity in the core institutions, especially if currently high immigration levels continue.
One area where there is a difference between two countries is in the foreign policy. Both countries are in the Commonwealth but being a close ally of USA, Australia’s foreign policy is heavily influenced by US foreign policy and those of other Western nations, especially English-speaking countries. Sri Lanka still adopts a non-alignment policy. However, in the economic field both countries are oriented toward free market, neoliberal economic policies where the merits of competition, individual choice and free trade are admired.
If Sri Lanka or Ceylon for that matter did not gain independence from Great Britain in 1948, it would have looked like Australia at a smaller scale. Many early immigrants from Sri Lanka to Australia still believe Sri Lanka would have been better off to remain as a colony of Great Britain, especially looking at the deterioration of services, standards, democratic norms, corruption of politicians, lack of rule of law etc. While there is some truth to this view, the enjoyment of freedom from colonial rule is not comparable to other difficulties and disappointments people feel due to weaknesses in governance. Australian Aborigines have felt the pressures of colonial rule due to dispossession, racism, effects on traditional culture and way of living, alcoholism and more over the last two centuries. They are still struggling to live a decent life even with government programs of financial and other support. The effect of colonisation on their identity, culture, way of life and rituals has been very destructive. The view held by Anglicised, Westernised and well to do Ceylonese about a golden past during the British colonial period is one not shared by many Sri Lankans of later years who have made Australia home.
Whether one lives in Australia or Sri Lanka, there is no way one can live as frogs in a well. Countries and peoples are so well connected today with enhanced communication, travel etc. and the networks established between the diaspora and home countries. As a result, many have adopted hybrid identities and ways of life. It is impossible and even unnecessary to try to live an ideologically purist life whether they be ethnically or religiously prescribed unless one desires to for personal and spiritual reasons. Such hybridity is founded on consumerist lifestyle produced by the multinational corporate sector in conjunction with the ruling classes in developed and developing countries. Materialism is the key driver.
The irony is that as people get older and frail, subject to various illnesses and fragilities, including loneliness in some cases, they look for social security within the system they live in. Australia is blessed with governmental and non-governmental services available to the elderly, sick and frail. Sri Lanka still adopts a family support system –instead of substantial state support) for this category of people while the religious establishments provide the spiritual support. Many Asian countries that have gone in the direction of neoliberal, free market economic principles and practices do not have substantial government welfare systems as one can see in Australia or for that matter other English-speaking countries. This is one attraction for many migrants to aspire to come to Australia. A country can be judged on the basis of what it does and how it takes care of the sick, elderly, frail and weak rather than how their ruling class live their life. Australia can be proud of how it has organised services for these sorts of people.
In both countries, communities are under threat from over development based on globalisation mantra and neoliberal free market economic projects-whether they be in infrastructure, mining, agricultural production, industrial and service areas such as education. They promote individualism rather than sustainability and community empowerment. Such ventures acquire land and want access to resources that people depend on. This is another topic to expand on another day.