World

Eat Your Heart Out Americans: 10 Remarkable Facts You Didn’t Know About Australia

The land Down Under has a lot more to offer than just picturesque scenery and Crocodile Dundee.

When Americans think of Australia they generally imagine a vast and arid desert, inhabited by killer wildlife and famous for Crocodile Hunter, Sydney Opera House and glorious beaches. However, the land Down Under is far more progressive than many countries care to understand and in fact could actually teach the United States a thing or two about how to look after its own population. Here are some interesting facts and policies found in Australia that you probably haven’t head about.

1. Minimum full-time wage is almost $17 per hour.

For those seeking a good excuse to move to Australia, look no further. Australia’s minimum wage is $16.38 an hour ($15.77 USD), demonstrating that high wages do not necessarily hamper a country’s economic growth. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in May 2013 the average full-time adult weekly earnings were $1,105.20

While the minimum wage for youth is still on the lower side, the hourly rate actually increases by $2 every two years between the ages of 15 and 21. Casual workers are covered by a national minimum wage and paid an extra 24 percent, which equates to up to $20.30 an hour. In the state of New South Wales, the average hourly rate for a 21-year-old is $18.30 an hour, with casual employees paid an extra $4 an hour: $22.33 per hour.

Despite the fact that Australia is comparatively more expensive to live in than the United States (a Big Mac costs approximately 53 cents more), the system is working to Australia’s advantage with unemployment in the country sitting at only 5.6 percent.

2. Youth are paid to study and look for jobs.

For Australian youth aged between 16 and 24 years currently studying, undertaking an apprenticeship or looking for work, the Australian government rewards them by providing a generous monetary allowance, which is income-tested. A person under 18 years of age and living at home with her parents can earn up to $223 biweekly, which increases to $268.20 ($258.30 USD) once she reaches 18 years of age.

Yet, the benefits do not end there. If or when a youth decides to leaves the parental home for study reasons or to look for work, her youth allowance can be increased to $407.50 biweekly. Alternatively, if a youth is single, lives away from the family home and has a child, the government will pay her up to $533.80 ($514.10USD) biweekly. 

3. Healthcare is a universal right.

Australia’s public health system, called Medicare, is one of the best in the world providing universal basic coverage to all citizens and free treatment at public hospitals. The Department of Human Services branch of the federal government pays for Medicare benefits and includes coverage for dental, optho, and mental health as well as services for the elderly and disabled.

There is some cost-sharing at private hospitals and for certain doctors but even then the government foots the majority of the bill (up to 75%). Medicare is funded partly by a 1.5% income tax Medicare levy. An additional levy of 1% is imposed on high-income earners without private health insurance. In addition to Medicare, there is a separate Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme that considerably subsidizes a range of prescription medications.  

4. Aussies receive up to 30 paid days of vacation per year.

Unlike the United States, where mandatory paid holidays for employees simply do not exist, Australia is the vacation nation capital. At the minimum, each Australian is legally entitled to 20 days (4 weeks) of vacation per year, plus 10 paid annual public holidays, with public servants receiving even more generous vacation benefits.

Two weeks of vacation can be "sold" or cashed-out. Australians also get “Long Service Leave” to encourage Aussies to stay with a company which is payable after 10 years service at the same employer or seven years in the public service—accumulated at one week leave for every 60 weeks of employment or 8.5 weeks additional leave for 10 years service.

5. The government pays people to have babies…plus additional allowances.

To encourage population growth, Australians can apply for the “Baby Bonus,” an income-tested payment of up to $5,000 which is made in 13 biweekly installments to help with the cost of a newborn baby or adopted child under 16 years of age. This scheme has been criticized in the past for being “wasteful middle-class” welfare and was almost abolished by the Labor government this year, but to date is still alive and kicking much to the delight of many clucky young couples.

The government also offers a number of civilized allowances for its citizens with financial help available at every corner to assist with rent assistanceage pensionbereavement allowancecarer paymentdisability support pensionorphan pensionfamily tax benefitpartner allowancesickness allowance and widow allowance.

6. Prostitution is legal.

Australia has some of the most modern prostitution laws in the world and often cited as a success storyin an effort to make sex work a safe and reasonable job for women. Unlike the United States where prostitution is outlawed, in Australia the state governments regulate prostitution generally.

From complete decriminalization in some states to licensing and regulation of legal brothels in others, Australia is constantly reviewing its prostitution laws with sex workers considered to be service providers who can even file “unfair dismissal” employment claims in New South Wales and have the right to receive pay. 

In Victoria, licensed commercial brothels are legal and single-owner managed brothels with one additional worker are also legal if the owners obtain a license to work. Pimping is also legal as non-sex workers are allowed to manage licensed brothels and benefit economically from prostitution.

Some organizations such as Scarlett Alliance Australian Sex Workers Association view prostitution as a legitimate occupation. While the system has its flaws—obtaining brothel permits can be tough; sex workers still don’t have civil protections to the same degree as other occupations; and licensed brothels have to compete with unlicensed operations—the laws are definitely headed in the right direction in recognizing the rights of sex workers.

7. Bikie-gangs are outlawed.

Australia is currently in the midst of “bikie warfare” with a number of states recently having outlawed motorcycle gangs following a series of violent incidents involving notorious bikie gangs Hells Angels and the Finks (affiliated with the US bikie gang Mongols MC).

Queensland is the latest state to criminalize bikie gangs declaring 26 motorcycle gangs to be “criminal organizations” under tough new laws which provide mandatory sentences of up to 15 years for serious offenses committed as part of a motorcycle gang activity. The state has also introduced “bikie-only” maximum-security facilities.

Such laws, which are now being followed in other states such as Victoria, have been criticized for being draconian, particularly for likening gang members to terrorists. Nonetheless, efforts to tame the "Bikie Wars” in Australia are gaining momentum.

8. Gun laws have been “hailed” by Obama.

President Barack Obama recently commended Australia on its gun laws at the Navy Yard Shooting Memorial. Since Australia’s gun laws were reformed in 1996 following the Port Arthur Massacre in which a lone gunman opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle killing 35 people in Tasmania, there has not been a single shooting massacre in the country’s history, whereas prior to the gun law reforms, there had been 13 massacres in 18 years.

Australia’s gun laws prohibit all automatic and semi-automatic weapons and impose strict licensing rules. Even paintball guns need a permit. There are also background checks and lengthy waiting periods for all purchases. Following the laws, more than 600,000 prohibited weapons were destroyed at a cost of half a billion dollars. Consequently Australia’s homicide rate is 1.1 murders per 100,000, while the United States' murder rate remains at 4.7 murders.

9. Ranked #1 "Happiest Developed Country" in the world.

Despite the United Nations World Happiness Report this week declaring Denmark as the happiest country, earlier this year Australia took the title as the World’s Happiest Developed Country for 2013 for the third year in a row as ranked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Better Life Index.

Australia fares exceptionally well in the following areas: safety, income, housing (on average each person has 2.3 rooms), life expectancy (which stands at an average age of 82 years) and lifestyle—more than 80 percent of the population live on the coast and 84 percent say they are satisfied with life.

Australia also ranks high in having a strong sense of community and high levels of civic participation with 94% of people believing they know someone they could rely on in a time of need. In Australia, 71% of people say they trust their political institutions, in direct contrast to the United States where polls show Americans have high general distrust in government institutions.

10. Aussies don’t do diets well…with majority exceptionally fat.

Despite the image of the bronzed, muscled and tanned beach babe depicted in pop culture, Australia is in fact one of the most obese countries in the world. According to a new report, 40% of the country is “dangerously fat” with 75 percent of the northeastern state considered to be grossly overweight. As a result, last week the federal government announced a plan to launch a major anti-obesity advertising campaign to fight the obesity epidemic.

The best part? For those Americans seriously considering moving to Australia, while you won’t necessarily be entitled to the same degree of benefits as an Aussie, the government does offer new arrivals a range of payments and services to help out while you settle, subject to certain waiting periods, as well as extensive information on job resources and visa options. Best be packing your bags!

Jodie Gummow is a senior fellow and staff writer at AlterNet.