Australia: Where the good life comes at a price
- 24 February 2013
- From the section Magazine
Australia has managed to come out of the global financial crisis without a recession. But as a result of its booming economy, the cost of living is extremely high.
It was the limes that finally tipped me over the edge.
In the sleepy Australian seaside village where my parents live, not that far away from several citrus orchards, I was in a supermarket staring at a sign:
Two Australian dollars, twenty-five cents.
That's £1.50 (US$2.30). Not for a bag. Not for a pair. Each. One lime cost £1.50. Infuriated, I stormed out of the shop, limeless.
"The country has lost it," I fumed to my mum and dad over dinner that night. "How can anyone afford to eat in this country?"
"Darling," my father replied. "Look around. People here are rolling in money. We live in an unbelievably wealthy nation."
And he is right. In the 12 years since I last called Australia home, it has changed. It was always the lucky country, blessed with fertile land, abundant sunshine and plentiful natural resources.
Now, we are more than lucky. We are rich. Bloody rich. So rich that no-one blinks an eye at paying as much for a lime as some of our neighbours in Asia earn in a day.
Ten years ago, not one single Australian city was in the top 50 most expensive cities in the world to live in, now three are in the top 15
And you can feel it, just by looking at the small stuff.
For example, there is no litter on the streets. Nowhere. And I am yet to see a central reservation where the grass is not well-tended and the attractive shrubs not perfectly pruned.
It is the cars. I swear there is none on the road that is older than eight years. They are clean and dent-free and meet strict safety standards.
It is the obsession with gourmet food shows, the shiny European appliances in the shiny designer kitchens that seem to be a feature in even the most average family home.
It is the seriousness about single-origin coffee made by baristas who get paid £17 an hour before tips to bestow their caffeine-laced munificence on their devoted followers.
I do not mean to sound flippant. Of course, there is poverty too, and the gap between rich and poor is growing.
But the overall feeling I get is that this is a country that can afford to be worried about the small stuff, because the bigger things - food, shelter, water, employment are pretty much taken care of.
Australia was one of the few developed nations that came out of the global financial crisis without a recession.
It was down to the prudent economic management of the government at the time, but it was also largely because of the huge mining boom this country has been riding for nearly a decade.
The world, especially China, wants what Australia has in the ground. And it has been willing to pay for it.
And it feels to me, a long-lost daughter, that the country has been irrevocably changed as a result.
My parents' sleepy seaside village used to be inhabited by retirees and fishing families. Now we share the one pub with hundreds of mine workers, who come for their days off to burn money on bottles of spirits and the newly installed slot machines.
Their driveways are stacked with fishing boats, jet-skis and monster trucks - all the boys' toys.
We call them "cashed-up bogans", which roughly translates as "urban rednecks". Plenty of money, not much sense.
It is a term my middle-class tribe uses disparagingly to make us feel better about being educated, but comparatively poor.
I am not the first privately educated, university graduate who wishes she had done a truck-driving course instead.
Sure, I might be bored, but at least I could afford to buy a house.
I asked my taxi-driver the other day if he thinks Australians are rich. He was originally from Turkey.
He looked at me as though I was stupid. "We are living in the lap of luxury here," he said, gesturing to the blue sky and the magnificent city skyline.
So I asked him if he thinks Australians are happy. This time, he sighed.
"When I was at school my teacher asked us who had to work harder, the poor Africans, or the rich Americans," he began.
"A lot of us said the Africans, but my teacher told me no, it was the Americans. They were always working to find ways to pay for their lovely life. Australians are the Americans now."
It made a lot of sense. As a country, we are richer than we could have ever imagined 20, even 10 years ago.
But we are more anxious, too, worried about our non-existent public debt, worried about what we will do when the mining boom is over, which it will be soon.
Worried about how we're going to pay for our next overseas holiday, because that's what we've all come to expect as normal.
And me, I am especially worried about how to make sure the limes on my newly planted lime-tree grow, because I sure won't be buying them in a supermarket any time soon.
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