The perfect symbol of Australian unity? I’ve seen it

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What’s the best thing about Australia? Or at least the most emblematic thing? Here’s my vote: the free gas barbecues in local parks. They’re everywhere: outer suburbs, regional towns and beachside parks. The local council pays for the gas, even though half the people using that gas are ring-ins from other areas.

“No worries, help yourself,” the local council is effectively saying, “your people can pay back our people when they get around to visiting your part of paradise”.

That would be the paradise called Australia.

The humble council barbecue: clean, convivial and communal – and a symbol of Australia at its best.Credit: iStock

I came across one of these happy scenes the other day: a waterside park in Abbotsford, in Sydney’s inner west, sun glinting through the trees, kids playing cricket with wheelie-bin wickets, dads cradling beer as they poked at the sausages, the mothers lolling on picnic rugs.

In Europe, it would be a fenced-off private club. In the UK, it would be raining. In the US, the kids would be playing baseball while the parents argued over fine legal points about the rules, with at least one person wondering if it was time to fetch their gun from the car.

Other than the free barbecue, what else is quintessentially Australian? When we think about that question, our Australian mind – a mind that dislikes self-congratulation – often settles on the negatives.

True, there are plenty of negatives. The place is full of flies. And mossies. Much of Australia is unreasonably hot. Or too cold. Plus the continent, as the mood takes it, often sinks into drought or flood. Then, occasionally, bursts into flames.

Also, due to deadly jellyfish, you are unable to swim in the ocean in exactly the places, and exactly the times, when a swim seems at its most inviting. Northern Queensland, all of summer.

Plus, in Australia, every industry is a cosy duopoly. There’s competition, sure, but no one wants it to get out of hand. Even the official outfit – the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission – has no competition. What hypocrites! Couldn’t we have at least one other competition commission?

All this, though, is outweighed by the good stuff. Compulsory voting, which forces the main political parties to woo the moderate middle. The free beaches, unencumbered by hotel sun-loungers, private beach huts or private bars selling drinks. And there’s a minimum wage which means hospitality workers are not desperately relying on the size of the tip.

Throw in Medicare, two public broadcasters, the world’s best farmers, successful multiculturalism, sensible gun laws, the novels of Tim Winton and the music of Kate Miller-Heidke. Then add the CSIRO’s increasingly successful campaign against the flies. Arise the noble dung-beetle, oh how we admire your work.

Yes, I know: too much blowing of your own trumpet and the Australian palate sours. We need some more negatives, just to confirm we’re not up ourselves.

I’m here to help.

We’ve allowed our governments to become addicts of the gambling industry, and the misery taxes they raise. We let advertisers flog sugar to kids, an obscenity banned in similar countries. We have politicians who believe that representing regional Australia requires no more effort than wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

The distances, too, are ridiculous. Brisbane, possibly the best city in Australia, should be a bit closer to Sydney. That way, both populations could mingle more, without needing to fly. Just three hours closer and the drive would be doable, and we wouldn’t need to give money to those bastards at Qantas. This is also true when it comes to Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart and – certainly – Perth.

But back to the barbecues. The councils clean the barbecues, but most of the time that task is unnecessary. Despite the absence of any hectoring signage, nearly everyone understands you should leave the barbecue in the state you found – sparkling and ready to use. You also see people aware of the queue, should one have formed. They cook quickly, clean up, then signal to the next group.

It’s part of a collectivist urge that still exists, somehow hanging on, despite the push from some quarters to embrace a dog-eat-dog world, in which individualism triumphs over society. How did Margaret Thatcher put it? “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

Well, tell that to the volunteers of the Rural Fire Services. Tell it to the volunteer lifeguards, training up the Nippers, and the army of soccer, cricket and netball coaches. Tell that to the orange army of the State Emergency Service. Tell that to the Australians who don’t bend the rules on their taxes, because that tax pays for the services we all share.

Maybe that should be our slogan: “We’re all in this together.”

I’m hopeful the looming referendum will cast Australia in a great light: that the result can be added to the “list of positives” and not the “list of negatives”. I don’t believe I’m telling you how to vote, as you will have your view about which result best expresses the essence of this place.

There’s a greatness to this country, though, the spirit of that sunlight through the trees, illuminating a humble council barbecue – clean, convivial and communal.

It’s a symbol of how, at the best of times, Australians still have an urge to look after each other.

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