Friday, 27 February 2009

It's a rich woman's world

I’ve just done something quite scary. I’ve worked out the percentage of my salary I pay in tax here, compared to the UK.

When you add together PAYE, National Insurance and council tax, I paid about 32% of my total monthly salary in tax in the UK. Here I pay about 17%. Yes, that’s right, just over HALF of what I pay in the UK.

Wowee. Now, to put that in a bit of context:

• I get a sizeable tax break because I work for a charity – the logic being that because people get compensated through the tax system charities can pay lower salaries. (Although I actually earn a bit more than I’d get in the UK in a similar role).

• There’s no NHS here and although basic treatment is covered through Medicaid, most people have private health insurance. I don’t because I’m young, fit and healthy and I figure if something bad happens to me I’ll go home and use the NHS!! But if I lived here permanently I’d probably feel the need to get insurance. That might bump my 17% up to about 22%.

• It’s much more common for people to send their kids to fee-paying schools here – about 30% compared to the UK’s 7% (2/3 of this is enrolments at fee-paying Catholic schools). Wouldn’t be my choice but it helps to explain some of the difference.

• There’s no council tax here although homeowners do have to pay rates as well as a ‘strata’ fee (which covers building management & repairs). As renters, we don’t have to pay anything but again, if were here permanently that would add to our tax bill.

So as a confirmed leftie, how do I feel about this? Well, to be honest, I really don’t mind paying high tax in return for social policies that do something about poverty, inequality and social injustice and I hate the concept of private health and education. I do, of course, think there’s massive room for improvement in how social policies work in the UK and I hate the level of waste that goes on in local government particularly – but it is kind of nice to have the policies in the first place, underpinned by a general sense that most people kind of broadly think that there should be some give and take in society – all of which is sadly lacking here. But it does help to explain why so many expats with values quite different to mine are out here!

Perhaps it helps to explain why there is so much political apathy here. It’s probably just as well Aussies are forced to vote because I dread to think what turnout at elections would be otherwise. At least when the government is taking a third of your hard-earned cash, you feel slightly motivated to hold them to account at the ballot box and engage in some debate about policy.

Of course, it’s nice to have some extra cushioning from the big wads of cash I’m saving while I sit on the moral high ground!!!

In defence of sharks!

Poor old sharks have been getting a bad press here with two recent attacks on people in Sydney waters. A navy diver has lost a hand and a leg, and a surfer ended up with his hand only just hanging on by a thread. Suspects are bull sharks in both cases.

There has been loads of the usual alarmist news reporting about this and people have been put off going in the water because it’s so ‘unsafe’. As usual when you dig a bit deeper, the reality is a bit different:

1. Sharks are known to feed at dawn and dusk so sensible people avoid being in the water at those times – one of the attacks happened at dawn, one at dusk.

2. Shark attacks almost always happen on lone snorkellers, swimmers, surfers and divers so sensible people go out in groups and don’t hang about on their own. Er, again, both attacks happened on lone diver / surfer.

3. Sharks are NOT interested in eating humans – most attacks are the result of them testing their prey (they take a bite and effectively go ‘yuck that’s not fish’ and then leave). Unfortunate if you happen to be on the receiving end of a test bite, but no need to demonise the poor things as monsters – if they wanted to kill and eat people, they would!!

Sunday, 22 February 2009

And life goes on

So I didn’t quite make it to the end of blogging about our holidays because news broke of the ferocious bush fires in Victoria and I didn’t feel quite right about writing about what a fabulous time we’d had on holiday while hundreds of people were either dying or being made homeless.

Needless to say Australia has been in something of a state of shock since two weekends ago when the number of fatalities from the fires reached more than double the number of the previous worst ever fires. There’s been some speculation about different reasons for this year’s unprecedented level of death and destruction but no real conclusions other than it’s been a fairly horrible amalgamation of different factors – hottest summer on record, longest drought for a while, not enough management of the bush which has meant a big pile of fuel just building up, questions about the preparedness of communities, and the sad fact that some fires were started deliberately.

Today was a national day of mourning and there has been a huge amount of aid donated to help those affected. Whether lessons will be learned and future similar disasters avoided remains to be seen.

Anyway, lives in Sydney have pretty much been going on as normal - Victoria seems very far away really – ours included. Last weekend we attempted, for the second time, to go diving up the New South Wales coast. And for the second time we were foiled by very heavy rain and weather too bad for boats to go out. We did manage to do a shore dive – where you walk in from the beach and dive about 20m or so out – but even that was miserable and involved a few scary moments of trying to put fins etc on in waves that were big enough and strong enough to knock all 100kg and 2m of Kevin over – so you can imagine what they did to me!

It was very strange to be in that kind of weather, knowing that fires were still raging in Victoria…

This weekend has been nice and quiet after a fairly busy week of social events including leaving drinks for a pal from work on Friday – never good to finish the night in a pub called the Scary Canary!

Some banal facts of the week:

Ran three times, 100 mins in total, so probably about 10 miles – quite pleased.

Cooked a very nice chicken curry during the week and now trying a potato & green bean one, yum.

Went to a ‘forum theatre’ production with few people from work, put on by Milk Crate Theatre, which works with homeless people in Sydney. Involves telling someone’s life story with audience contributions & suggestions for where doing things differently might have led to a different ending. Audience mostly homeless or ex-homeless people.

Currently reading Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (struggling to get into it) and The Choice of Hercules by A C Grayling (good so far).

Managed to do most of cryptic crossword in this week’s Guardian Weekly – not managed one of those for about 5 years – not sure if this is good or bad thing!?!

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Saturday 31 January: Fleurieu Peninsula

We had a great big breakfast this morning in McLaren Vale’s local deli – the best sausages I’ve had in a long time – and then decided to do some driving around the coast of the Fleurieu Peninsula (mainly because the heat was so unbearable that being in an air-conditioned car was all we could stand!) The stretches of beach and little bays and huge expanses of ocean went on forever – it’s staggering how vast this country is!

We looped back to McLaren Vale through the wine-making surrounds and decided that, really, it was about time to hit some wineries and do some tasting. Three wineries and who knows how many samples later, we still hadn’t tasted a bad wine and had lots of order forms and scribbled notes (mostly along the lines of ‘very nice’!) I’d love to say I knew what I was talking about when it comes to wine, but really I haven’t got a clue.

As K was driving, he was spitting his wine samples – or giving them to me to finish! – which meant that I was in need of food and a snooze by mid afternoon! We found a nice little cafĂ© in a coastal town that did a great plate of prawns and chips and then I slept off the day in the car while K drove us up to Adelaide, where we checked into our motel, read for a bit, then wandered out to take in the excitement of Adelaide on a Saturday night (except there wasn’t much!)

Friday 30 January: A long road!

We’d originally planned to fit in another walk today before heading back on the road but there was no sign of the temperature dropping and, frankly, even if we had the energy, it would have been fairly dangerous to go walking in that kind of heat (let alone the risk of bush fires!). So we decided to head straight to Adelaide, a drive of around 800km. We weren’t sure what the drive would be like and had kind of psyched ourselves up for a long, arduous day in the car – but it was actually really quite nice. The road was long, straight, almost empty and very pretty in a dried out, bleached kind of a way. Spotted quite a few kangaroos in the yellow grasslands along the way. The sheer amount of parched land with almost no trace of water around was quite staggering. Amazing to see how the trees survive and frightening to think about what must happen when bush fires take hold (as is currently happening).

The border crossing between Victoria and South Australia was uneventful and we stopped just after that for a spot of lunch from our cool bag (which loses its coolness quite quickly when in the back of a car in 40+ degree heat for several hours!)

As we made good progress, we ended up near Adelaide ahead of schedule so decided to drive to McLaren Vale, on the Fleurieu Peninsula. We checked in to a fairly basic caravan park and left the air conditioning on in our little wooden cabin for a few hours to cool it down from sauna-like temperatures to something bearable. In the meantime we went for a swim on Maslin Beach, which is possibly the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen. Really gorgeous sand, ocean and stratified cliffs in the background. Stunning. After our swim (and a slightly unfortunate incident involving K, bodysurfing, a very large wave and the bottom of the seabed!), we walked along the beach for a while – and then realised we’d ended up at the nudist end of it! As you do…

Dinner tonight was at the divine Salopian Inn, a really gorgeous, intimate little place with its own wine cellar and a beautiful seasonal menu. We ended up having three courses and a very, very good bottle of cabernet sauvignon from one of the local wineries. Mmmmm!

Thursday 29 January: Grampians

We left the coast today as the temperature soared to close to 40 degrees and the news on the radio was full of the fact that this heatwave is the longest and hottest since records began. We were heading into the hills and were hoping it might be slightly cooler there as we had planned to do some bushwalking – no such luck. It was, if anything, even hotter! We arrived in Halls Gap, the main habitation in the Grampians, to find it completely deserted and absolutely baking. We resigned ourselves to driving around instead of walking! And later in the day, the only place we could take refuge was the local swimming pool, which even though it was packed with kids, was a blessed relief from the heat. After an early evening drive around to some local scenic spots and some kangaroo spotting, a quiet evening in the very nice eco hostel passed by with a home cooked pasta & pesto, and a glass or two of wine.

Wednesday 28 January: Great Ocean Road Part 2

Today was time for more driving, more amazing views and more hot weather!

We took a detour off the Great Ocean Road to drive round Cape Otway, including the Cape Otway Lighthouse, which was quite an impressive sight. This bit of coastline was apparently fairly treacherous in bad weather in the 19th century and many a wreck is to be found on the rocks around the area. Therefore, a lighthouse was built, accompanied by a telegraph station. And that was pretty much it as far as the community went. It’s been turned into a very good museum now, which tells the stories of the various families and people that passed through the two houses. When the occasional survivor of a shipwreck turned up, they’d sometimes stay for months on end while return passage etc was being sorted out. And at other points, the lighthouse keeper and the telegraph operator would be in dispute about something and would have to write to the colonial powers to get it resolved (good old neighbourly disputes never change!).

The drive to and from the lighthouse was through the Otways National Park and the road was lined with eucalyptus trees – and yes, quite a few koalas! I got quite good at koala spotting and they are really quite cute!

Later that day, we arrived at the Twelve Apostles, one of the most well-known sites along this stretch of coast. The apostles are sea stacks, formed through erosion of the coastline and are a pretty impressive sight. Unfortunately it was about 38 degrees when we arrived at them so we didn’t hang about too much to absorb any spiritual significance or anything!

And finally, we reached Port Fairy, our stopping point for the day, where we ended the day with a lovely seafood platter for two and a nice bottle of white. Mmmmm.

Tuesday 27 January: Great Ocean Road Part 1

So today was the start of our ‘big road trip’, driving from Melbourne to Adelaide via the Great Ocean Road and the Grampian Mountains.

We picked up our hire car around 10am and began the meander out of the city. Our first destination was the Bellarine Peninsula, a jutting headland that forms one side of the mouth of Port Phillip Bay. Then, from there, we hugged the coastline all the way to Apollo Bay, our end destination for the day. On the way, there were more scenic lookouts than you could shake a stick at and endless, endless expanses of crystal blue ocean and dusty white sands. Gorgeous.

Apollo Bay, and the ‘eco beach’ youth hostel we stayed in, were both very relaxed and laidback. One guy in the hostel arrived in Australia from England 4 months ago and had since spent all his time since meandering up and down a 50 km stretch of coastline, just surfing and drinking. Not a bad life! After a long walk up and down the beach, and a bit of a swim in the sea (well, more like a splash), we had a late-ish dinner in a very nice bar and watched the tennis over a bottle of wine. Bliss.

Monday 26 January: Big Day Out

Based on a tip from Peter, my friend from my old temp job, we’d bought tickets for Big Day Out, a kind of Aussie version of T in the Park etc. The line-up was ‘eclectic’ to say the least – Neil Young was the headliner, preceded by the Arctic Monkeys and with the Prodigy on in another tent. We found out after we’d bought the tickets that Big Day Out is renowned for having quite a high “bogan” element (this is the Aussie equivalent of “chavs” or “neds” and is one of my favourite Aussie words, even though I know it’s wrong of me!). In the end, the audience was probably as diverse as the line-up and there was a fairly relaxed atmosphere – apart from the excessive nanny state-like security, that is. Firstly, drug sniffer dogs – come on guys, if young people can’t take a few drugs at music festivals, where can they!? (And note – a young girl died after taking 3 ecstasy tablets in one go after taking fright about getting caught when she saw the dogs coming). Secondly, ridiculous insistence that everyone under the age of about 50 has to wear an ID bracelet saying they’re old enough to drink – SO patronising!! Thirdly, not allowing people to take alcohol outside ‘gated areas’ so you couldn’t just get a beer and sit in the sun and watch a band. Fourthly, the complete stupidity of the ‘beer token’ system which meant that when they’d run out of light beer (one token) and we only had one token left, that we couldn’t just get a normal beer (two tokens) instead. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more patronised and treated like an infant since, well, I was at nursery school!! God knows how young Aussies survive when they go overseas and are actually treated like adults with a brain.

Apart from that though, it was a good day and we saw some reasonable music. And thankfully, although it was hot, it wasn’t as hot as it was last year when apparently they had to water bomb the crowd using the helicopters that normally get saved for putting out bush fires!

Saturday 24 January: Australian Open

Had a not-too-uncomfortable night’s sleep in our very basic hostel room, although as it had no windows, I could have slept all day – I need the light of the morning to wake me up (whereas K loves the blackout effect!).

After a brekkie of fruit salad and tea / coffee at a nice little place around the corner, we headed off with excitement to Melbourne Park for the Aussie Open. We had tickets for the main arena (Rod Laver) which is the equivalent of Centre Court at Wimbledon, although only for the daytime session, so we weren’t sure who would be playing. I was hoping for Andy Murray but when we arrived, it turned out he was playing in the evening on the equivalent of Number One Court (the Hisense Arena). Assuming that the evening tickets would all be sold out, I swallowed my disappointment and we settled down to watch the matches that we’d paid for! Nothing too spectacular, but saw Serena Williams, Amelie Mauresmo and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. Decided to stay on in the grounds to watch the Murray match on the big screen there, and then realised that there were actually still tickets on sale – hurrah!! Rushed to the box office, thinking there would only be a few left (you’d never get tickets at Wimbledon!), but as it turned out the arena was half empty and if it hadn’t been for a pretty good and noisy contingent of Tartan Army types, it would have been like a graveyard! It’s bizarre, sport is so much more accessible here – prices are lower and the small population means it’s easy to get tickets – but yet things don’t sell out – Australians don’t know how lucky they are sometimes!

Thoroughly enjoyed the match and was good to see Murray looking in good form (although he was later to meet his match against Verdasco).

Friday 23 January: Melbourne

Having been in Melbourne for a few days for work, we started our holidays with an evening out for drinks with a group of social enterprise people that we both know. Melbourne is completely different from Sydney in its pub & going out culture – and much more like what we’re used to at home. In Sydney, licensing laws have historically meant that it’s difficult to open anything other than a fairly basic ‘beer shack’ (and they all have the ubiquitous ‘pokies room’ – an even bigger shed filled with games machines, which are huge money-spinners for the pubs, but obviously not for the punters). Melbourne, on the other hand, has a really vibrant, lively pub and club scene – it makes me think of a slightly diluted version of New York (not that I’ve been!). This evening we went to a place called Cookie, which was on several levels, including the rooftop (but there was a massive queue for that!). After a few beers, and as the numbers dwindled, K and I grabbed a quick dinner with another guy, James, in a really busy Chinese place, where James assured us the fried dumplings would be to die for – and he was right! It was the kind of place we’d never have known about without him and it was exactly what we needed to soak up the beer!