8 Things About Australia I Took For Granted

They say that you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. It’s a truth that I haven’t been able to stop thinking since I left behind the only home I’ve ever known. Relocating to Canada gave me the change in pace that I needed, along with some perspective about some of the things I took for granted about life in Australia.

Canada’s culture is an odd and fascinating mix of British, French and American influences. For instance, speed is measured in kilometres per hour, but space is measured in square feet; nearly everything is written twice — once in English and once in French; and the province of Quebec is like its own country within a country. I’m having a great time here in Vancouver, and I don’t necessarily want to go home just yet. But adjusting to a new life in a new country has got me thinking about a bunch of seemingly inconsequential things about life in Australia.

Before we get into it, I want to be clear that I’m not here to have a whinge or make unfair comparisons. These are just some of my reflections and lessons about some things I took for granted as an Australian now living in Canada. Examples are based on personal experience and are only there to provide context.

#1 Better Banking Technology

Banking is a pain in the bum everywhere, but Australia showed the rest of the world that early adoption of new technology does more to enhance security than compromise it. Electronic payments took over as the preferred method of payment in Australia a long time ago, making cheques and all related fraud all but obsolete. Meanwhile, some countries still write cheques today for employee wages, bill payments and refunds. Here in Canada, for example, it’s not unusual for tenants to pay rent with post-dated cheques that are handed over at the start of the lease. And while Visa/MasterCard debit cards are now ubiquitous in Australia, Canadians still rely heavily on EFTPOS-type cards that can’t be used online or outside of the country. Canada might have the soundest banking system in the world, but Australia holds the Number three spot and appears to be much quicker at integrating technology for the sake of convenience.

In fact, it wasn’t until I tried to pay my first mobile phone bill in Canada that I discovered BPAY was actually an Australian invention. It turns out BPAY was the world’s first single bill payment service when it launched in 1997, and now it processes 27 million bills worth $19 billion each month. Since I didn’t want to pay Canadian bills with my Australian credit cards, and there was no way I was going to pay with a cheque, my only option was to pay that mobile phone bill with a direct deposit that required a manual search. I’ve yet to find something as unified, convenient and seamless as BPAY outside of Australia.

#2 More Secure Shopping

Australian merchants, on the whole, seem to be more vigilant when it comes to credit card security. In the time that I’ve been living in Vancouver, I’ve walked away several times with the merchant’s copy of the receipt or not signing for my purchases at all. When they do ask for my signature, they don’t check it against the one on the back of the card. The only time I ever got checked was when I bought a bed at a department store — in other words, when a large amount of money was involved. I’m sure it’s not just Canada as well. Maybe these countries are using other, more discreet ways that I’m not aware of to prevent fraudulent activity.

#3 Reasonable Food Portions

There’s something disturbing about sitting down for dinner at a restaurant, having a ginormous plate of food put in front you, not being able to finish it, and then ending up with a bill that’s a lot less than what you would expect to pay in Australia. In North America, soft drink refills are usually free, and a small-sized meal at McDonald’s is the equivalent of a medium-sized meal in Australia. Fortunately, it’s much rarer to see this kind of generosity in Australian restaurants — our obesity levels are struggling enough without them. Photo by feministjulie (Flickr).

#4 Local Produce

Grocery shopping is an eye-opening experience of its own kind. Brown onions are the size of small melons, strawberries are freakishly large, margarine tubs are as big as saucepans. When everything comes in giant sizes, food (and money) inevitably goes to waste, especially when you’re only feeding two people. While there are opportunities to buy normal-sized locally-grown produce with careful planning, it’s next to impossible to completely avoid foods labelled with “Product of USA”. I find it odd because Canadians, especially in the province of British Columbia, seem to be very conscious about the environment and genetically modified food. So while Australia’s food prices might be one of the highest in the world, the combination of reasonable portions, wide variety of ethnic foods and locally sourced produce make for a better eating experience, at least for this Australian expat.

#5 Unit Pricing

Australian supermarkets started adding unit pricing on most grocery items in 2009, and it forever changed my shopping habits. Instead of using bad maths to work out which laundry detergent offered the best value for money, the new labelling showed me exactly how much each bottle cost by the litre. Australia isn’t the only country with unit pricing, but it’s one of the few that make it compulsory on some level. Since none of the supermarkets seem to do it in Vancouver, I’m back to using the bad maths to work out who’s trying to rip me off with sneaky labelling or unusual packaging. I also realise now that the ACCC deserves more credit than it gets as Australia’s consumer watchdog for enforcing policies like unit pricing and clarity in pricing, as well as going after dodgy SMS services. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

#6 One GST to Rule Them All

When you walk into a women’s underwear store anywhere in Australia and see a sign that says “3 panties for $27”, you pay $27 for three panties at the till. If you were to walk into that same store with the exact same sign in Canada, three panties will cost you between $28.35 and $31.85, depending on which province you’re in. It’s a similar story if you’re shopping in the US and many other countries around the world.

When you grow up with GST-inclusive prices, having to add 12 per cent at the point of purchase can feel a bit like misleading advertising at first. Canada has a comparatively messy system of sales taxes that vary from province to province. In British Columbia, they can’t even make up their minds about having two separate taxes or combining them into one Harmonised Sales Tax (HST). Some places will even add a “green tax” at the checkout without telling you, such as a 25c recycling deposit or an environment handling fee. Australian retailers, from my experience, will usually tell you if you that plastic bag is going to cost an extra 10 cents.

#7 Universal Healthcare

Australia’s publicly funded healthcare system is routinely ranked as one of the best in the world [PDF]. Getting treatment under Medicare in Australia might involve long waiting periods, but the whole point of universal healthcare is that it’s accessible to everyone. Canada also has universal healthcare, as do some European and South American countries. But you’re out of luck in China or the US. I’ve heard enough horror stories about Americans who couldn’t afford private health insurance being left to die. Even though the introduction of ObamaCare has improved the situation in America slightly, so I’m grateful for the system we have in Australia, as flawed as it may be. Photo by Getty Images. [clear]

#8 Better Value on Mobile Phone Services

This one surprised me the most. We often complain about how Australia gets screwed when it comes to the latest technology, but things have definitely improved and it’s really not all that bad.

Mobile phone plans and contracts are woeful in Canada due to weak competition between the carriers. Voice and data plans are expensive and stingy. Phone plans have started to become more competitive now but they’re still expensive compared to Australia. For example, Virgin Mobile in Canada charges $55 per month for unlimited talk and text but you only get 2GB of data. In Australia, Virgin Mobile is currently offering a $50 sim-only plan that gives you a total of 10GB of data with unlimited calls and text. Even on Telstra, the most expensive carrier in Australia, you can pay $50 and get 5GB of data. No carrier in any country offers perfectly transparent and easy-to-understand mobile services, but I prefer the way it’s done in Australia.

Once again, I’m just pointing out some of the things that I miss about Australia now that I’m living overseas. I really am having the time of my life here in Vancouver, and Canada is an awesome place to live with plenty of things to brag about too. We often talk about how Australia’s high cost of living is putting the squeeze on families, but it also brings a high standard of living that is envied by the rest of the world. It’s what makes Australia one of the most desirable places to live, but that’s not easy to appreciate when life in Australia is the only life you’ve ever known. When I eventually make my way home, I’ll get my second chance to make the most of it.

Agree or disagree with any of these? Got something to add? Discuss your thoughts in the comments below.

This article has been updated since its original publication.

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