Tales from the Man who would be King

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Australia and the U.S. – A Contrast

© 1995, 2010 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

[In the mid-90’s, I signed up for a university-level English course. It was all about essays and I really enjoyed it. One of my assignments was to write a comparison/contrast essay. I present here a revised version of that essay along with a few other bits of related information.]

Australia and the United States of America are two modern, democratic, English-speaking countries both originally colonized by the British. For all their similarities, however, they have remarkable differences in their systems of government, law enforcement, taxation, education, and health services, to name but a few areas.

Australia was not settled by Europeans until 1788 when Captain James Cook led the First Fleet of settlers and convicts to Botany Bay, near present-day Sydney. [Almost all Australian states started as convict settlements.] The US had declared its Independence in 1776, and fought a war with the British to obtain that independence. For 40-odd years, the British had been transporting convicts to Georgia Colony (the present-day US state of Georgia); however, once the war started the British needed an alternate dumping ground. And although they might have settled eventually in Australia anyway, there is no doubt that US independence sped up Britain’s search for a new penal colony.

Australia started out with a central government; states came later and, finally, local governments came into being. In the US, the process was completely reversed; diverse communities combined into territories and states, which in turn became the Unites States. Not surprisingly, many of the differences between these two societies can be traced to this fundamental difference.

Politics and Government

Australia became independent via a peaceful process and, like most other former British colonies it remained a member of the British Commonwealth. As such, it adopted the Westminster parliamentary system at both the Federal and State levels, and it added a few other twists. Voters elect upper and lower chamber representatives for their electorate (i.e.; voting district) only. The party that wins a majority of electorates forms the government, the head of which (the Prime Minister at the federal level and the Premier at the state level) is chosen by the elected representatives, not the people. Unlike the US system, there is no Executive Branch. In the absence of a simple majority, coalition governments are possible. There is no such thing as a primary election; candidates are chosen by each party based on its own rules. Independent candidates are permitted. New parties can be created and, from time to time, they (or independent candidates) have held the balance of power. The government controls the parliament's agenda. Voting is compulsory; you must exercise your right or risk being fined! Voter registration is a once-in-a-lifetime process although a move from one electorate to another requires an address change.

Governments are elected for a maximum term [typically of three years] rather than a fixed term. [However, some states have moved to fixed 4-year terms.] The government can call an early election and often does so when its leaders project that it will be harder for them to get re-elected later on in their term, especially if economic conditions worsen. And if things are going well, they might call an early election to extend their time in office. They need give no more than six weeks notice for a general election, and they can and do catch the opposition unprepared. There are no term limits.

Political appointments are largely non-existent because all government agency employees are civil servants and by law are prohibited from political partisanship. The only personnel appointed are the staffs of cabinet members and parliamentary representatives. Recently, however, some top public servants were appointed for a fixed term, which makes them beholden to the government. 

Party politics is seldom seen at the local government level. Local government is by the local people for the local people and is generally not influenced directly by state and federal leaders.  There is a ban on political advertising for the three days prior to an election, which allows voters to evaluate the information they've received and to make up their minds without further pressure.

The US gained independence by fighting a war. It created a unique form of government with an executive branch separate from the legislative branch. Citizens vote for their President and Vice President (almost) directly, and independently of their choice for federal or state representatives. As a result, the President may come from a party that does not control the congress.  Voting is not compulsory and turnouts of 50% or less are common.  Voter (re)registration is necessary under certain circumstances and considerable effort is spent on this process.

At the federal level, the President is elected for a 4-year fixed term with most State Governors having the same.  Since 1951, the Constitution has prohibited the President from serving more than two full terms. Many states also have term limits on their Governor and/or state representatives. [My own state, Virginia, allows a Governor to serve two terms, but not consecutively.]

Political appointments number in the thousands with the top two or three tiers of many government agencies changing with each new administration, especially when a different party takes office.  Party politics permeates all levels of government. State and federal leaders, especially those who are charismatic or good orators, are often involved in drumming up support at the local level; the President might campaign for a big-city Mayor, for example.  Political advertising runs right through Election Day, which for many positions is “the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November”. A congressional session runs for two years. The terms of all 435 members of the House of Representatives and one third of the 100 senators expire at the same time. The term of a President matches two 2-year sessions of Congress. A new Congress is sworn in on January 3, and the President at noon, Eastern Standard Time, on January 20.

Law Enforcement

Australia has two kinds of law enforcement:  state and federal.  Essentially, police officers are civil servants and are never under the control of a political entity per-se. As a result, politically related police corruption is virtually impossible. To become a uniformed officer, typically, one must pass a strict entrance examination and then attend a police academy as a cadet full-time for three years. Cadets are trained in basic law, police procedures, usage of weapons, and traffic control.  Non-uniformed officers either graduate from the uniformed ranks or have degrees in particular fields along with specialized training.  Private ownership of most kinds of guns is prohibited without membership in a gun club or via some special justification. Until 25 years ago, most uniformed officers did not carry a side arm.

In the US, law enforcement is largely run like most other aspects of government, at the local level. Different police forces exist at the city/township, county, state, and national levels. Then there are specialized police: Secret Service/Treasury Agents; Drug Enforcement Agency; Immigration; Post Office; State and National Parks' Services; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; sheriffs for various court systems, and District Attorneys' offices, among others. In many cases, there is considerable debate over which law enforcement agency has jurisdiction over a crime scene.  The level of equipment and training is proportional to the wealth of the force's tax base.  Opportunities for corruption are significant from within many forces as well as between the force and a controlling local government. Cronyism is rife. In some areas, locals vote to elect their sheriff who might not even have any law enforcement training. Some local judges are also elected.


Australia has one form of income tax, namely federal.  And it is relatively expensive. However, taxes are used to subsidize a number of important areas, such as tertiary education and health care.  There is no overt sales tax; certain imported or luxury items do have taxes, but these are included in the published price. About 10 years ago, a national Goods and Services Tax (GST) of 10% was introduced, which is much like Britain's VAT and Canada's GST.  From a tax point of view, there is no real difference in living in one county or state versus another.

The tax system is very conservative. For example, couples cannot file jointly nor can taxpayers use multi-year averaging.  When the economy is strong, the government tends to increase taxes, which often stifles growth.

While the usual real estate property taxes exist, there is no personal property tax per-se. In fact, states and local governments are limited in their ability to raise money via taxation. [For a while, South Australia had a tax on bank transactions.] All licenses for business, driving, auto registration, and the like, are obtained from regional offices of state agencies.  Home loan interest is deductible, once per lifetime and the deduction is inversely proportional to the applicant's income. And because the threshold is below most families' income, few qualify. Despite this, the home ownership rate is very high. Negative gearing is allowed on rented properties, where interest paid on the loan for a rented property is deductible from income tax.

In the US, not only is there federal income tax, but most states and some cities and counties also raise revenue from income taxes. Sales tax is levied by most states and in a growing number of cities and counties. Local areas also have hotel occupancy, rental car, and other “use” taxes often times to pay for new sporting stadiums to lure professional teams to the area. However, there are no federal sales or consumption taxes.  The federal tax system, and those of many states, is quite progressive and for those with discretionary income, even generous. [For the first few years I lived in the US all interest paid on credit card bills was deductible!] It is a national pastime (and one that supports a substantial advisory industry) to try to legitimately avoid paying taxes. For many, the avoidance process begins at or before university graduation.

Local governments often raise revenue via personal property taxes. For example, in most counties near Washington D.C., residents must pay a tax on the book value of all privately owned automobiles and recreational vehicles for “the privilege of housing them in the county”. Businesses in those counties also pay a tax on the depreciated value of all tangible assets owned or leased by their company, for the same privilege.  In many regions, business licenses are issued by local government and are based on the business's gross income.

Home loan interest is deductible, on both a primary and secondary residence, forever! And because a residence need include only separate areas for sleeping, bathing, and food preparation, large yachts, aircraft, and motor homes can qualify. [What a system!]

State and local taxes can play an important role in choosing where one lives, shops, and sets up a business. And given that many major population centers straddle state borders, there is a constant flow of trade across state lines to take advantage of neighboring states' lower, or even non-existent, sales taxes. The differences in state sales taxes have resulted in a high sales volume by mail-order companies and internet sites.


By and large, Australia is a land of well-educated, well-off, middle-class people.  One of its cornerstones is the attention given to all levels of education. While private (mostly church-run) elementary and high schools do exist, the majority of students attend public school, which is free. And like all main services, education is controlled at the state level with funding from a federal education department. Each of the states and federal territories has its own separate, but equivalent, school system.  Public school teachers are essentially civil servants and, for the most part, those with less tenure can be posted anywhere in the state. [South Australia now requires teachers in and around the state capital, Adelaide, to change schools after 10 years, although dispensations are possible.] Teachers are state-certified and, in most cases, state-trained.  Being centrally funded, education is immune from the economic misfortunes of local areas. Yet communities having more wealth or fund-raising ability can make significant contributions of library books and equipment. Most schools have dress uniforms.

For 15 or so years starting in 1973, tertiary education was provided free of tuition fees. Students needed to pay only a nominal student union fee for on-campus activities, as well as for books and materials, and living costs. And in the case of the latter, many students qualified for a government allowance.  In certain disciplines, quotas existed for mature-age students who passed an aptitude test yet who would not otherwise have qualified for university entrance.  Now, all students must pay fees for tertiary study. This is called the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS). Fees can be paid in installments once the graduate commences full time employment and receives a salary above the designated minimum. Most undergraduate degrees take three years full-time with the academic year running from March to December.

There is relatively little research and development, and what is done is largely funded or subsidized by state and federal governments. As a result, there is a small market for those with graduate degrees.

In the US, there are some 2,500 separate school systems each running its own Kindergarten–Year 12 program. While a few states have a statewide system, most are organized at the city or county level. Each system recruits its own teachers, performs administration, and funds its own building construction and repair. Like many other aspects of American life, the quality of education is directly dependent on the local wealth. While some counties have an excess of computers, others can barely afford pens and pencils, let alone pay competitive teacher salaries. Many Americans view public school systems as providing significantly inferior education.  Teacher certification varies considerably and a license from one state does not guarantee eligibility in another.  Few schools, and then mostly private ones, have any uniform dress codes. More than a million students are home-schooled.

The cost of tertiary education varies from fair to outrageous. In-state schools are subsidized by their state government and may cost as little as $6,000 in tuition fees per year. The most prestigious schools run more than $40,000 per year. Such high costs often require students or their families to take on significant debt. Many students work part-time to help support themselves, or they take classes on a part-time basis.  Most undergraduate degrees take four years full-time with the academic year running for two 16-week semesters, February-to- May and September-to-December. Community colleges offer 2-year Associate Degrees. These schools are very popular, much cheaper, and many offer a transition path to a 4-year university.

Given the considerable government- and privately-funded research and development, there is a very big market for those with graduate degrees. In fact, considerable emphasis is placed on higher degrees. For example, teacher certification in many school districts requires the applicant either have a Master's degree or currently be working on one.

And for our Final Comparison …

How many Aussies does it take to change a light bulb? In theory, at least 10. The process of changing a light bulb comes under the jurisdiction of the Australian Association of Associated Australians Union (AAAAU). Union rules require that an electrician be present, and that workers be in teams of two just in case one of them is electrocuted while taking a leak at the jobsite, right next to some exposed live wires. And if they are called in at nights, weekends, or on public holidays, they must be paid a minimum of four hours. Of course, hot tea must be provided along with frequent and long “smoko” breaks. And then there are the assistants, the supervisors, and so on. In practice, “Any way, isn’t that why we bloody well have immigrants?”

How many Septic Tanks (Aussie rhyming slang for “Yanks”) does it take to change a light bulb? Well we used to change the actual bulb, but one day the guy doing it cut himself when the bulb broke. Well, the lawyers got involved, a whole Court TV cable channel sprung up surrounding the case, and everyone involved got three College Credits for watching. So nowadays, we’re much more careful. For the small bulbs, we shoot them out with handguns (which, of course, are lying by the dozen on every street corner). For mid-sized bulbs, we use shoulder-fired missiles from a discreet distance. And for the really big bulbs, we have small thermonuclear weapons. Oh, and in that rare case in which an actual person is needed, “Any how, isn’t that why we damned well have immigrants?”

Some Interesting Facts

For Australia, WWII began in 1939, and Aussie troops served with distinction in North Africa. However, after Pearl Harbor, they were brought back nearer home to defend the British Commonwealth territories in South East Asia, from Malaya, Singapore to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and, eventually, the homeland.  When General Douglas MacArthur retreated from the Philippines, he set up his HQ in Australia.

Contrary to popular belief the US did not “go it alone” in the Vietnam War. It had two staunch allies that committed significant numbers of troops and quantities of materiel: Australia and South Korea. And like the US, Australia had a national lottery system of conscription (and subsequent anti-war protest movement). However, instead of its being at age 18, it was at age 20. [In December 1972, the newly elected Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, took office and implemented immediately two big campaign promises: to get Australia out of Vietnam pardoning all draft resisters, and to make tertiary education free.]

Ignoring Alaska—which is huge but largely empty of people—the size of the other 49 states is not that much bigger than that of Australia. However, while the US has more than 300 million people, Australia has only 22 million, the population of greater New York City.


Democratic systems and modern lifestyles come in many forms, each having their strengths and weaknesses. What is most interesting is that the Australian and American societies each have customs and laws the other simply would not tolerate. But, after all, isn't that their democratic right?

[Thanks to Kevin, Dave, and Frank for their help in revising the Aussie data, and especially to the AAAAU for keeping acceptably low the number of deaths of electricians leaking on live 240-volt wires.]

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