On a warm Friday night in Melbourne in 2010, Formula One star Lewis Hamilton was arrested for doing a burnout in his car. The news prompted Australian F1 driver, Mark Webber, to take to the media and blast Australia’s many rules and regulations.
He half-jokingly said that he had spent the previous few days dodging speeding and parking rules. “It’s a great country, but we’ve got to be responsible for our actions, and it’s certainly a bloody nanny state when it comes to what we can do”.
He lamented that “we’ve got to read an instruction book when we get out of bed — what we can do and what we can’t do … put a yellow vest on and all that sort of stuff”.
When reflecting on my run-ins with Australia’s rules and regulations, two events come to mind. Several years ago, I forgot to ‘touch on’ my Myki card (public transport card) before getting onto a train in Melbourne’s suburbs. I had enough balance on my card to cover the $4 trip ten times over and admitted the honest mistake to inspectors at the gate (instead of simply getting back on the train to avoid a potential fine). Despite this, I was issued with an AUD$273 fine (US$200).
Records also would’ve shown that I had touched on and off successfully on almost every weekday for the two previous years, an indication of my compliant disposition and the fact that this wasn’t a case of intentional fare evasion on my part. But there would be no room for nuance, only a black and white interpretation of a law, and a curiously large fine.
Fare evasion on Los Angeles’ Metro will set you back US$75 (62% lower).
Fare evasion in Germany is just 60 euros (65% lower).
In the United Kingdom, fare evasion incurs a penalty of just £20 (86% lower).
Even in Singapore, arguably a country with one of the most compliant cultures in the western world, a place where the improper disposal of chewing gum can cost you AUD$1,000, and spitting in public can cost you AUD$2,000, the penalty for fare evasion is just S$50 (82% lower than in Melbourne).
My other run-in with said rules and regulations takes me back to sitting idle in my car on St Kilda Road one Wednesday morning. I was within one kilometre of the CBD, but traffic was bumper to bumper and barely moving. I was growing tired of whatever it was I was listening to at the time (probably an Iron Maiden album), and decided to get a CD (this was circa 2015) from my glovebox.
I unclipped my seatbelt and leaned over to find myself another disc, and it just so happened to be while a police car was making its way down the tram tracks parallel to the road. As I got back up, and before I had a chance to buckle up, I made immediate eye contact with a police officer who had stopped next to me.
Said police officer proceeded to get out of the car, walk over to and stand in front of my car, holding his hand out, as if I were a fugitive on the run for embezzlement and this was a roadblock. Despite my obvious protestations, I was issued with an AUD$330 fine for not having a seatbelt on top of 3 demerit points.
I’m not one to argue not wearing a seatbelt, far from it, but there was no room for nuance. I was momentarily not wearing a seatbelt in traffic that wasn’t moving, and not posing a risk to myself or anyone around me, but a black and white interpretation of the law is just that.
But $330 and 3 demerit points? Again, penalties are far lower overseas for the same offense. United Kingdom (40% lower), Los Angeles (90% lower, at just US$20), and Singapore S$120 (63% lower).
The black and white interpretation of laws by people in positions of power and with either little sense for nuance, or a need to hit key performance indicators (KPIs), is reminiscent of what you might sometimes find at the door to a nightclub. There, big burly bouncers are often told not to let any males in without dress shoes and a collared shirt on.
Ultimately, the rule is about ensuring a certain ‘type’ of clientele enters the venue. The simple rule exists to help bouncers make decisions without thinking too hard or needing to have any sense of style or social status themselves.
But if I, a successful investment banker, turned up to said nightclub, looking the business with a dress tee, a blazer, chinos, and a pair of desert boots — all of which cost a combined $1,500, what do you think would happen? “Sorry mate, you need a collared shirt and dress shoes”.
The rule suddenly becomes more important than its original intent.
In 1975, British economist Charles Goodhart observed that when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.
The observation is known as Goodhart’s Law, and in the aforementioned case, it means that anybody with a cheap pair of $10 dress shoes and a cheaper collared shirt they found in their deceased father’s closet can gain them entry to the club.
Another example of Goodhart’s Law in action was demonstrated by Victorian police, who were found to be inflating breath test bags themselves in order to meet their nightly quota.
On a more sinister level, when police are given key performance indicators to dish out more penalties, the rule becomes central and the original intent (i.e. keeping people safe, or ensuring people don’t intentionally fare evade), becomes an afterthought.
Just look at the following penalties dished out in Victoria:
In Western Australia, an 11-year-old girl had her lemonade stand shut down by the local government council over ‘health and safety concerns’.
Is it any wonder Australia lags other western countries in innovation, when we step all over the entrepreneurial traits of innocent, young kids?
What all of this points to is the removal of personal responsibility, and instead fining people into almost mindless submission.
Indeed, Canadian journalist Tyler Brûlé said Australia was on the verge of becoming the world’s dumbest nation as a result of all of these rules.
He lamented Sydney’s lockout laws, which had decimated the nightclub industry, and other over-the-top laws. “I need to be able to open a pop-up shop in Surry Hills and walk on the pavement with my wine glass. To me, that’s actually important. It is not going to bring about the collapse of society because you do that.”
Heck, in Germany, there is no law against open-top bottles. During my trip to Germany for the 2006 World Cup, I first experienced the relative joy of taking my open-top stein of beer from one pub and walking over to the next pub — fair play so long as you left your 2 euro deposit for the beer glass. This is to say nothing of the country’s relaxed speeding rules, or lack of them on most of its freeways.
Why wasn’t this the case in Australia? What was behind our draconian rules and regulations?
Some, like journalist Sam de Brito, argue, in the immortal words of Lady Gaga, that we were born this way. Australia was founded as a penal colony. The nation’s foundations were laid by the blood, sweat, and toil of English convicts, who were transported across the world for offenses as minor as stealing a loaf of bread, never to see the family for whom they stole said loaf for again.
As Edward Gibbon Wakefield, convict turned colonial reformer, wrote in his 1829 book, A Letter From Sydney, “Who built Sydney? Convicts. Who made the excellent roads from Sydney to Parramatta, Windsor, and Liverpool? Convicts. By whom is the land made to produce? Convicts. Nearly all we possess has arisen from the happy influence of penal immigration and discipline”.
However, de Brito dismissed Brule’s grievances, suggesting that the journalist “buy a handy bottle of vodka for the freezer at home like the rest of us and get on with enjoying one of the safest, cleanest, most beautiful cities in the world”.
Yet, with each passing year, there seems to be progressively less to enjoy.
As Michelle Elias noted for the New York Times, a group known as the Wowser Nation art collective put posters up around the famous Bondi Beach. The posters warned that ‘Bondi Joggers Must Wear a Helmet’, and “No alcohol, no smoking, no music, no dancing, random cavity searches — Happy Australia Day’. The guerilla art display was an obvious dig at the tightening of rules, and the diminishing freedom to actually enjoy ‘one of the safest, cleanest, most beautiful cities in the world’.
Indeed, go to most Asian or European beachside towns, and you’ll find sunbeds, bars, and waiters populating the beaches, as far as the eye can see. Not in Australia though.
Despite having over 25,000 kilometers of pristine coastline, bars on the beach would pose a risk to Australians, or so we’re led to believe, and begrudgingly accept. Oh, and be careful taking that ice-cold beer out of your cooler at the beach. It might be a 37 degree celsius day, but it’s a $240 fine, remember?
Elias wrote that the Wowser Nation’s name “borrows from the past…’wowserism’ was originally used to criticize a Protestant social reform campaign to tighten laws on liquor and gambling in Melbourne around 1900. Now, a wowser is commonly someone who looks to crack down on enjoyment”.
Is it any wonder then that Australia today has the most draconian COVID-19 restrictions in the entire world? Hardly.
At the height of Victoria’s lockdown laws in 2020, an 8PM curfew was in place, non-essential workers could not leave their homes for more than an hour in order to exercise, and one couldn’t have any visitors over.
And as of writing, Victoria’s 6.6 million people have again been locked up, on the back of just 18 new COVID-19 case numbers.
Since the outbreak and as at writing, the state has recorded 20,799 cases and 820 deaths. Australia has recorded just 20 deaths from COVID-19 for people under 60 in the past 18 months. The number ‘balloons’ to 58 for under 70s.
Border restrictions are currently in place between most Australian states, and travel between restricted states requires exemptions and 14 days of at-your-own-expense hotel quarantine.
Is it really reasonable to shut down an entire economy on the back of several cases, or even several dozen cases?
Is this really a plausible long-term strategy?
It seems that politicians have their hopes and dreams set on the vaccination rollout buying us our freedom.
But in an article in Nature, arguably the world’s most respected academic journal, Christie Aschwanden argued the following five reasons for why herd immunity is ‘probably’ impossible.
Given all of this, and given our experience with other vaccinated-against transmissible viruses, it would seem increasingly likely that we won’t, at least for the foreseeable few years, eliminate COVID-19 completely.
So where does that leave us?
Australia’s uber-sensitivity to top-line case numbers, at the expense of hospitalizations, deaths, and economic and mental health consequences, sets a dangerously low set-point.
While I try to stay away from Twitter stoushes, I came across the following tweet which tried to remind people just how ‘infectious’ the Delta strain is.
I couldn’t help but respond with the obvious.
This worrying and popular “2 infections too many” narrative, essentially an eliminationist one, sees our politicians’ hands tied, but they’re partly to blame for it.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world is opening up, despite significantly more active case numbers than what we’ve become used to in Australia. California, for example, recorded 14,097 new cases on the day this article was penned.
Can we really expect to hide from COVID-19 forever? The Economist doesn’t seem to think so.
In its May edition, it stressed that Australia needs a plan to reopen to the world. Yet, at the moment, its states and territories are having a hard time staying open to each other.
Australia (and New Zealand) were held up as posted-children for dealing with the pandemic during 2020, but per Goodhart’s Law, the statistic they were gaming (case numbers) was achieved by the least sustainable of means — simply by cutting themselves off from the rest of the world. And in May of this year, the Australian Government announced a plan, one that will keep its international borders shut until at least mid-2022.
Australia’s former deputy chief medical officer, Nick Coatsworth, told a room of doctors that Australia could not ride out the pandemic in an eliminationist bunker.
The best way to boil a frog is to slowly turn up the heat. Most Australians have come to accept this eliminationist rhetoric, becoming grateful to be allowed an extra hour of outdoor time each day.
On regulation creep, Clary Akon, who launched the Wowser Nation art collective in 2016, says that “the gradual creep of governance over the last two decades has allowed the cultural shift to slip by unnoticed.”
It doesn’t take much scanning Twitter to find tonnes of submissive comments from people almost celebrating lockdowns as if taking some great sense of pride in their ability to stay at home.
But, can we blame them?
COVID-19 has turned out to be the media’s wet dream. It’s the best gift outside of a world war that you could give to a media outlet hungry for ad revenue in an incredibly competitive industry with almost non-existent barriers to entry.
The way most media outlets make their money today is through eyeballs and clicks. But here’s the thing about that — an article with 100,000 views can generate anywhere between $500 and $5,000 in ad revenue.
But most articles won’t generate anywhere near that many eyeballs. Most will generate crickets.
As a result, media outlets face downwards pressure on budgets. They simply lack the budget or the time to pay investigative journalists thousands of dollars to spend days doing real journalism.
Why would you, when it is so much cheaper and easier to hit traffic targets by appealing to two human emotions — fear and anger? Goodhart’s Law strikes again.
Why spend days investigating for a piece that may or may not get traction, when you can put out another scare or outrage piece, based on repurposing what has been said on other media outlets, in under an hour flat?
Heck, I too wrote this piece anticipating that it would perform better than my usual articles which typically focus on productivity in the workplace.
Since the outbreak, the media has taken advantage of these two human emotions to a tee, and have ultimately left Australia’s politicians between a rock and a hard place.
Whatever your opinion of Victoria’s left-leaning premier Daniel Andrews, or of New South Wales’ conservative premier Gladys Berejiklian, they’re damned if they do lockdown, and damned if they don’t.
Having normalized case numbers as low as a crisis worthy of lockdown, these premiers don’t have much room to move.
If they don’t lockdown and numbers increase, the left-leaning media, the opposition party, and the increasingly militant liberal public will cry bloody murder.
If they do lockdown, then right-leaning media, the opposition party, business councils, and the increasingly militant right-leaning public will cry bloody murder.
The right-leaning public will argue that the percentage of case numbers is ridiculously low relative to tests, but they’ll have kittens over the number of adverse reactions to vaccines — also similarly low relative to the number of doses.
The left-leaning public does the exact same thing, only in reverse.
Issues have become politicized and polarized, and people are all too happy to take sides and sing from said side’s songbook, instead of developing nuanced arguments.
These realities make it even harder for politicians to acknowledge these nuances without being labeled a murderer or a dictator.
At the Vivid Festival in Sydney in 2015, Tyler Brûlé said that “there will be a collapse of common sense [in Australia] if health and safety win out on every single discussion”.
And six years later, that’s exactly what we’re seeing — a health and safety issue has become increasingly politicized, and common sense has taken a backseat — one in which it would be well advised to wear a seatbelt.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 870,000 people lost their jobs in Australia within three months of the initial outbreak, with 2 in 3 businesses reporting a decrease in revenue by June of 2020.
Fresh July 2021 data from the Australian Institute of Health shows rates of self-harm, and the use of mental health services have been on the rise since the pandemic started.
But few media outlets are giving such narratives the light of day, especially when compared with COVID-19 case numbers.
There is an almost dogmatic focus on top-line case numbers at the expense of hospitalizations, deaths, and downstream economic and emotional consequences.
I’m sure that left-leaning observers will attack this article with cries reminiscent of The Simpsons’ Helen Lovejoy’s “won’t somebody think of the children?!”.
But the children are doing just fine.
Perhaps Berejiklian, an increasingly unpopular figure amongst both the left and the right, put it best, “there will come a point where we have to change the way we measure our success against COVID”.
From what I’ve observed, we’re well past the point already.
Steve Glaveski is on a mission to unlock your potential to do your best work and live your best life. He is the founder of innovation accelerator, Collective Campus, author of several books, including Employee to Entrepreneur and Time Rich, and productivity contributor for Harvard Business Review. He’s a chronic autodidact and is into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and hold a warrior three pose.