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The frustrations of perfection

Australia may be one of the world’s richest countries, but that doesn’t mean it’s satisfied

Two young people relax in Kings Park in Perth, Australia.
Two young people relax in Kings Park in Perth, Australia.Gettyimages

There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times. (Edward Gibbon, British historian)

The Spanish general election is drawing near and politicians are bending over backwards to convince voters that they have the recipe to build the country everyone dreams of, a stable and prosperous nation like Sweden, Switzerland or Canada, or perhaps the most fortunate of them all – as it has sun, beaches, good food and wine – Australia.

Not only in Spain, but in the entire Western world, the implicit goal aspired to in political speeches is something resembling the Australian utopia: low unemployment, low deficit, low criminality, low corruption, high growth, solid financing, social equality, and a strong and independent judicial system.

With their material problems already resolved, the Australian national obsession has become avoiding death

And as if all that wasn’t sufficient cause for envy, Australia is also a country with a refreshingly egalitarian spirit – a place where the receptionist doesn’t get intimidated in front of the boss. “Hello, mate,” is how Australians greet each other in the morning – there’s no feudalism, no “Good morning, Mr Chairman,” no “Doctor,” as is the case in too many Spanish-speaking countries.

Nevertheless, I’ve just spent 10 days there and what I felt most when I got on the plane for the flight home, knowing that what awaited me was the relative disorder of Old Europe, was relief – on the one hand, because the worries of most Australians are so banal; on the other, because paradise is boring.

With their material problems already resolved, the Australian national obsession has become avoiding death. Not one day passed during my visits to Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney when I didn’t hear about some new initiative from the nanny state seeking to eliminate all risk and all possibility of life’s suffering from the average infantilized Australian citizen.

I got a clue about what would be awaiting for me as soon as I landed at Sydney airport. Before passing through immigration, one sign after another put across the idea that I was arriving in a country anxious about protecting itself from the bad things it sees in the rest of the world. There were not only fears about ebola, but also over something called Middle East respiratory syndrome. What’s more, for reasons I never understood, anyone who had been in Central or South America in the last six days was obliged to fill in a special form.

The buses contain signs warning the public, inexplicably, not to enter the bus through the window

I suspected that this was not going to be a country friendly to smokers, and I wasn’t wrong. The cigarette packs feature the tobacco brand in tiny letters and what assaults your eyes are the almost pornographic photos of cancerous tongues and throats, rotten lungs and gray newborn babies with their faces covered by oxygen masks.

Sydney’s main park features signs saying: “For your safety we advise you not to visit the park during or just after heavy rain and strong winds because of the risk of tree failure.” Which is to say, because a branch might fall on you. I also discovered that in schools swings had been banned because of the dangers they pose; that every teacher needs to hold a certificate – renewable every six months – validating that they are capable of responding to an emergency caused by a peanut allergy; and that part of a teacher’s job is to teach children to type in such a way as to reduce the possibility of contracting repetitive strain injury.

On the beaches, everyone dresses like they did 100 years ago – with most of their body covered – out of fear of the sun. The fines for drivers who break the very low speed limits by more than three kilometers an hour are enormous, as are those for people who risk crossing the street at a place where there is no pedestrian crossing. The buses contain signs warning the public, inexplicably, not to enter the bus through the window, while anyone who wants to work on a construction site needs to pass a series of tests in which they are asked, for example, if they know the correct procedure for climbing a staircase without falling.

Australia shows that if human beings do not have any problems, they have to invent them, and that the problems of a country are relative

And as a measure literally aimed at cheating death, when they reach the age of 50, all Australians receive from the government a plastic container in which they are asked to send a stool sample to the health ministry. The idea is to detect in advance the possibility that they might suffer from bowel cancer.

The aim of writing about all this is not to ridicule Australia, a demonstrably admirable country, but also to exploit the opportunity to propose a couple of reflections on our species: one, that if human beings do not have any problems, they have to invent them and, two – as we already know, but is always worth being reminded of – that the problems of a country are relative.

Seen from the perspective of most of Latin America, Africa, Asia or the Middle East, Spain or Great Britain, to take a couple of examples, are nations as pleasant, peaceful and prosperous as Australia is to a Spaniard or a Briton. The fact that in Spain or Britain there are secessionist movements or new political parties clamoring against social injustice and inequality would seem to respond, for most of the world’s inhabitants, to a need to generate problems when there aren’t any.

And there is no country with fewer problems that Australia; no country that has achieved a better quality of life in material terms in the history of our planet. But what it hasn’t achieved is peace of mind or satisfaction, because nothing is ever good enough for humans. The lesson that the Australians give us is that life without struggle is not life. We will always feel frustrated, always dream about more, and we will not be satisfied until we achieve eternal life. And even then, maybe not.

English version by Nick Funnell.

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