photograph of Aussie classics: vegemite and an Arnott's biscuit tin


In the press recently, an expert on branding, Simon Anhalt, declared Australia the 'dumb blonde of the world'. Mr Anhalt went on to explain that while other countries view us as attractive, they also think we are shallow and unintelligent. His opinion seems to have been based on reactions to recent tourism promotions featuring Paul - shrimp on the barbie - Hogan, and Lara - where the bloody hell are you? - Bingle. Perhaps to soften the blow, Anhalt went on to add that Australia still ranked best in the world for natural beauty and as a place to visit, as long as money wasn't a problem.

Predictably, the expert's pronouncement roused the public firing squad, readers who seemed not to understand that Anhalt was not taking a personal swipe at the country, but rather criticising a couple of advertising campaigns designed by Tourism Australia. Online, one reader responded with the war cry: Ozzie Ozzie Ozzie oi oi oi. Others lashed out with: You insult my intelligence with this crapola; What pure dribble; At least we are happy and get laid regularly; How many tourists want to come and visit our science labs? To a final thrust from Ray of Modbury, who expressed the view that were definetly (sic) dumb watching the poms let all the blacks in stuffing up their country and now were (sic) doing the same.

One lunch time around the same date, I was sitting in a cafe which opens into a food hall in the city. At the table next to mine, a young couple and their two children had ordered up big but didn't seem interested in eating. The woman was busy punching buttons on her mobile phone, while the children squirmed on their chairs and made rude sounds with the straws in their milkshakes. After a while, the four of them got up to go, leaving behind the debris of an almost untouched meal. Within thirty seconds, a man of unremarkable appearance - fiftyish, tidily dressed, dark-haired with hints of an ethnic background that might have been Mediterranean - strolled through the food hall and paused at their abandoned table; he picked up a big white bowl of hot chips, selected a fork, and moved to an empty table.

But the woman on duty in the cafe was sharp-eyed; within seconds she was bustling towards his table, her body taut with outrage.

"Excuse me, sir, but I don't think those chips belong to you, do they? I think you took them from that table over there."
The woman whisked the bowl from under his nose, and he sat passively, hands in his lap, as she marched back into the cafe with the bowl of food held high, as if it were a trophy. There must have been a bin out of sight behind the counter, because she emptied the contents with a flourish. With the chips disposed of, she rubbed her hands together - that was that, her body language seemed to say. Meanwhile, the man sat quietly for a moment, perhaps swallowing his feelings of humiliation, before rising calmly, slipping his arms into a small backpack, and walking away towards the street.

The incident so disturbed me that I went back to my office, logged onto Facebook, and posted this small cameo of city life, reporting it impartially to see what other people would say. I suppose I expected expressions of something like my own shame and embarrassment for belonging to a society which would rather bin perfectly good food rather than allow someone who is hungry, and prepared to risk leftovers, to eat it. In floating the idea that there might be countries in the world where the woman would have rushed over, not to chastise the man, but to offer him a clean fork, I suppose I might have betrayed my feelings.

I imagined most of the people I know being appalled at the profligacy of the couple who had ordered more than they could possibly eat. Parents would be concerned about modelling conspicuous over-consumption to children. I expected questions to be raised about the ownership of the food - after all, it had already been paid for and no longer really belonged to the restaurant; at most, they owned the bowl and the fork. What, I wondered, did this scenario have to say about our wider attitudes to waste, to nourishment, to need. We live in the 'Lucky Country', right? So why was this man's luck so bad, and why did the woman from the cafe feel justified in making it even worse?

Posting on Facebook is like talking out loud in the street, except that because it is silent it is not regarded as weird, although perhaps it ought to be. In this instance, my soapbox moment drew a resounding lack of interest. No one else, it seemed, was much struck by this slice of city life, and it was at that moment I began to wonder whether I was, after all, living in the heart of the dumb blonde. Not because the hungry man had taken the food, or because the cafe woman had subsequently deprived him of it and thrown it in the bin, but because nobody appeared the least bit moved by what had happened; nobody, it seemed, had the empathy or imagination to stand in the shoes of the hungry man or indeed any shoes other than their own.

I know that there are probably cafes all over this city, and elsewhere, where the staff would have chosen to look the other way, and that sampling a single incident between two individuals cannot be made to stand for the whole of Australian society's behaviour. But it happened in a week when the media was awash with reports of racism and bitterness towards asylum seekers, and the one-off confrontation felt like a microcosm of what was going on across the country.

I am not actually much of a Facebook fan, but I admit the lack of response troubled me. It is not that I have hundreds of online 'friends', but upwards of eighty bright and thoughtful people do have access to my posts. In the end, there was a small response. Interestingly it came from a friend who has recently been dealing with some life difficulties, and another whose professional life revolves around human travail. So perhaps we need to experience being down ourselves in order to activate the empathy button. If so, I must have caught Facebook at a moment when everyone was feeling too happy, enjoying life too much to want to cross, however briefly, to the darker side.

Every day we brush against unknown lives, many of whom must be in the midst of private crises, or enduring hardship and sorrow. And the one thing we can be certain of is that anything they are facing could come our own way, given time. Just before Christmas, 1971, my father was admitted to hospital with a brain tumour, and my mother still remembers being incredulous - as she walked home from seeing him before surgery - that the people she passed had the energy to care about shopping, or putting up tacky tinsel decorations. So while at one moment you might be the happy shopper, you just never know if or when you will be the one facing brain surgery. It's difficult to understand why, for most of us, this knowledge doesn't seem to have any discernible effect on the way we treat other people, either privately or politically.

The affair of the man who wanted food that was excess to someone else's requirements has made me wonder, not for the first time, about compassion, or rather the lack of it, in Australian society. While religion is, for me, more a matter of disbelief than faith, I can't help pondering the sheer commonsense of that commandment from Matthew 7:12 'Do unto others as you would have others do unto you'. Clearly, this is not a fashionable stance in twenty-first century Australia, but if, as a society, we were to make it as much a part of daily life as, say recycling waste, or conserving energy and water, we might be seen as less dumb, less blonde, even. We might become a country that actually is as good as it thinks it is, a country that can hold its head up, not because it has some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but because we who live here understand that what diminishes one person, inevitably diminishes us all.