Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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April 5, 2013

Breeding greedy capitalism? Australia has moved somewhere over the rainbow

— — For the past two weeks I have been a stranger in a strange land. Stranger still, the land of my encountered strangeness was where I grew up — Australia.

It has been 40 years since I first left Oz to seek my fortune overseas, a goal that is obviously still a work in progress. Of course, it would be unreasonable to expect things to have remained the same.

By now I might only have expected an historical marker on my old family home, announcing that this is where Reg Henry first met one of the loves of his life (beer) and sought to trap a bandicoot — a type of small leaping marsupial — living in the backyard. Unfortunately, this effort was unsuccessful and the humiliation of being outwitted by a bandicoot at an early age would set anyone’s life on an absurd course.

As it is, the old family home has been knocked down and the neighborhood has changed along with the whole of Australia. I’m not sure what happened to the bandicoot. It is probably sipping a latte at a coffee shop.

Over two weeks, I was confronted by changes that seem to have made Australia bounce along like a kangaroo, leaving the past in a cloud of dust. If anything, the pace of change seems to have picked up since I last visited in 2011.

The main reason for the visit was to see my daughter, Allison, and her husband, Critter, and their baby, Matilda — Tillie for short. She is very cute, even allowing for the fact that it’s easy being cute when you are 18 months old; the trick is being cute at the age of a grandparent.

I will return to the subject of Tillie in a future column that may have to be printed with an Adorable Scenes Ahead warning. For the moment, I observe that Tillie is a tiny doll even by baby standards, and her parents missed a great opportunity on St. Patrick’s Day by not dressing the little leprechaun in green and sending her toddling into pubs to seek donations.

Just joking. I would never suggest sending a baby into a bar to raise money. I would dress as a leprechaun and do the job myself. For Australia has become expensive, particularly in Sydney, where they live, and some extra funds would be helpful.

To the casual visitor’s eye, few signs of recent worldwide economic recession are visible in Australia, although no doubt some pockets of hardship are hidden away amid general scenes of prosperity.

Real estate prices in the big cities are through the roof. You’d be lucky to buy a shed for a million bucks in Sydney, but luckily you wouldn’t have to, because the young and trendy seem to live in restaurants and coffee shops.

Australia never used to be a cafe society. It was an unpretentious, no-frills sort of place where meat pies, long a national staple, were the finest expression of the culinary arts. Australians have grown sophisticated and cosmopolitan in their tastes and attitudes in food as in everything else. The whole culture has grown more inclusive and tolerant.

All this is to the good and it would take a reactionary old fossil to doubt the march of progress. Hey, mate, did somebody call my name? Something about the new, modern Australia does makes me yearn for the simpler days.

This is an observation grounded in a lifelong love of the country. And it comes with a recognition that much of the good remains. The physical setting is as superb as ever — the golden beaches, the gum-scented forests, the brilliant sunlight, the extraordinary fauna and flora.

It is still a place of relaxed, friendly people who say “no worries” as if it were the national motto and retain their sense of humor undiminished. You will find more leg pulling in two weeks in Australia than you might encounter in a year in a chiropractor’s office in America.

My fear is that prosperity has bred the sort of greedy capitalism that subverts the egalitarian spirit at the heart of the Australian character. It was always a country where Jack believed he was as good as his master. Jack may have been deluded, but it made for a fine principle of democracy.

Now the gap between the very rich and everybody else grows wider and wider with every new multimillion-dollar apartment complex that rises over its neighbors. This is not a problem limited to Australia, but it seems especially out of place there.

No worries? I hope so for the sake of all the little Jacks and Tillies.

Reg Henry writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette; distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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