11 Things Americans Get Wrong About Australia

Fosters is not Australian for beer, forget the “shrimp” on the barbie...but the dingo really did eat the baby.

As an Aussie living in the United States, I find myself regularly confronted by Americans with the same common myths about Australia.  Certainly, there are folks that say, “G’day mate,” eat vegemite, wear short shorts and subscribe to a carefree motto of “no worries,” as they bask in the glorious sunshine.  But, the vast majority of these stereotypes which have evidently been influenced by pop culture, are simply incorrect.  Here are the most common, yet convincing, misconceptions Americans have about the land down under.

1. Australia is the most dangerous place on earth courtesy of its “killer wildlife.”

It is true that Australia is notorious for its dangerous animals like sharks, snakes and spiders, which frightens tourists away and certainly makes for great, sensationalist stories.  But all things considered, the dangers of Australian wildlife are grossly exaggerated.  The only time a person is likely to encounter one of these mean creatures is out bushwalking or swimming outside of flagged beached areas.  Furthermore, snakes prefer ‘flight to fight’ and are likely to recoil at the first detection of human movement. As for sharks, the chances of being killed are 1 in 292,525 with an average of one shark attack per year.  In fact, overall wildlife attacks account for only five deaths per year in Australia.  To put that in perspective, 300 people die from drowning in Australia every year.

2.  Australians drink Fosters and consume a lot of beer.

Contrary to the popular commercial for Fosters beer on American T.V. baring the slogan: “Fosters, Australian for beer,” Fosters is rarely consumed in Oz and largely unpopular compared with most other beers.  The advertisements imply the beverage is quintessentially Australian when actually it is owned by British brewing group SAB Miller and manufactured in Europe.  Moreover, while binge drinking does occur among our young adults, compared with other countries, Australia is actually ranked 44th on the global alcohol consumption ladder, with American not too far behind. Australia also has an extensive wine culture, home to some of the most prestigious wineries around the world.

3. Australia has a Bill of Rights and a pristine human rights record.

Unlike most other liberal democracies, Australia does not have a Bill of Rights in a single document protecting human rights. Instead, a limited number of civil liberty protections are found in the Constitution (including the right to trial by jury and the right to freedom of religion) as well as protection in legislation and common law.  What’s more, our human rights record is far from perfect.  Just ask the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers arbitrarily subject to mandatory immigration detention, some held indefinitely, in prison-like conditions without any right to due process.  Dubbed as a flagrant disregard for human rights, Australia has been found guilty of 150 international law violations over refugee detentions.  Our treatment of indigenous Australians isn’t much better.  The Australian government only issued an official apology in 2008 for the past wrongs that the government inflicted upon the indigenous Aboriginal population, particularly the “Stolen Generations” comprising of thousands of children forcibly removed from their families from 1907-1970.  Today, our prison rate is a national shame with 97 percent of prison populations in the Northern Territory comprising of indigenous juveniles.

4.  A koala is a bear and kangaroos literally roam the streets.

One of the greatest misconceptions about Oz is when people refer to koalas as koala bears.  While a koala may look like a bear, it is in fact a marsupial mammal and related to kangaroos and wombats.  So how did this fable begin? When European settlers set foot in Australia, they thought koalas looked like cute bears so they labeled them accordingly.  As for kangaroos, they most certainly do not wander city sidewalks in Australia, nor save people’s lives or guide them through the bush to safety, as portrayed in the popular 1960s television show Skippy.  In fact, the recent worldwide news of a kangaroo entering the Melbourne Airport chemist only went viral because such an occurrence is so unusual. In reality, the only place a tourist is likely to run into a kangaroo is at the zoo or in a trek across the desert.

5. Australians live in the outback

Thanks to Hollywood blockbusters like the movie Australia, most Americans think Aussies live in the arid wasteland and are rugged bushmen who hunt crocodiles and argue over the size of a knife. That’s not a knife!However, the majority of Aussies are actually urban dwellers.  Despite the fact that the “outback” spans over a million square miles, 90 percent of the population lives on the coastline.  Over half of Australia’s 23 million population live in the five largest cities and a third of all Aussies call Sydney and Melbourne home.

6. Australians are racist.

On the world stage, Australian is often perceived as racist nation.  Even The Daily Show has dubbed Australia “comfortably racist.” Whether Australia really is a discriminating country cannot be assessed objectively but one thing remains certain: Australians do not view themselves as racist, rather as misunderstood.  In 2005, Australian made international headlines for the racially motivated Cronulla riots and ethnic violence that ensued. Our prejudiced treatment of aboriginal Australians has also been the subject of contention. On the other hand, Australia is considered one of the world’s most successful immigration societies, commended as a top resettlement country and more than 25 percent of our resident population is born overseas.  In addition, Australia does not have extremist right wing political parties unlike the United States.  The unpopular anti-immigration party One Nation Party only ever-received marginal electoral support and was recently slammed when a candidate thought Islam was a country rousing Sarah Palin comparisons.

7. Aussie like to throw a “shrimp” on the barbie.

Crocodile Dundee’s Paul Hogan coined this famous phrase in a 1984 tourist advertisement when he said, “I’ll slip another shrimp on the barbie for ya.” While it’s true that Australians do love a good barbeque – which we call a barbie – we don’t use the word shrimp – in Australia we call it a prawn.  And on that note, we call a trash can a bin, a gas station a servo, peppers are capsicum,flip flops are thongsand a sidewalk is a footpath.

8. Toilets flush in reverse because it’s the southern hemisphere

In 1995, an episode of The Simpsons perpetuated the popular myth that toilets flush the opposite direction because it’s in the southern hemisphere.  The belief was largely based on the coriolis effect where we perceive the direction of travel of certain moving objects as reversed based on the opposite rotation of the Earth in the southern hemisphere.  However, in reality, toilets flow down instead of around due to lower water levels in Australian toilets. 

9. Australians are fit and tan

Despite the image of the bronzed, muscled beach babe depicted in pop culture, Australia is in fact one of the most obese countries in the world.  40 percent of the country is “dangerously fat” with 75 percent of the northeastern state considered to be grossly overweight.  Moreover, Australia has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world due to exposure to the harmful UV radiation, with many Aussies staying clear of the sun due to increased public awareness campaigns of sun cancer, which revealed that 80 percent of cancers in Australia are skin cancers.

10. Australians are uncouth

It is true that compared to Americans, Australians are not as politically correct and we tend to laugh at ourselves more than most nations which can come across as improper.  The “uncivilized Australian” typecast was exacerbated by the depiction in Crocodile Dundeeand our general disdain for authority and dislike of discipline imposed by military and police.  Yet, Australians are very well read, highly educated and work tirelessly in a competitive job market within a very efficient economy.  We’re also high achievers on the international platform.  Most notably, Australia discovered the anthrax vaccine in 1918, invented in-vitro fertilization, the black box flight recorder and the bionic ear, according to Phillip Knightley, author of “What is Australia? Perception Vs. Reality.”

11.QANTAS Airlines never crash

Thanks to Dustin Hoffman’s autistic character in Rain Man,many Americans thinks QANTAS has an impeccable flight safety record. In one of the best-known movie scenes, Huffman’s character Raymond refuses to travel on any airline except Qantas on the grounds that “QANTAS never crashed.”  While QANTAS is arguably one of the safest airlines in the world and has never had fatal jet airliner crash, in its early history it did have a couple of fatal incidents relating to small aircrafts and in recent times, a series of incidents involving electrical failures and lightings strikes tarnished its name.   Nonetheless, last week QANTAS was voted the safest air carrier in the world, without a fatal crash since 1951.

Despite American misconceptions, the land down under has many positive stereotypes that have worked in its favor to create a solid bond between America and Australia.  Our picturesque scenery, reputation as welcoming and friendly nation and the fact we are ranked the World’s Happiest Developed Country has made Australia a popular tourist destination for those Americans willing to make the long journey over. 

Knightley concisely sum its up: “I think that’s the problem in trying to decipher Australia. Just when you think you’ve grasped what it’s all about, it suddenly slips away again and you realize that it is a very different place from what you imagine when you’re looking at it from abroad. This is not ‘Britain Down Under’. It’s not a slice of Europe or Asia. It’s not a branch office of America.  It is a very different place," he said.



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