A Bob Djurdjevic Column, January 1999
Also check out... Mandatory Bicycle Helmets: Danger to Public Health, Not Only Civic Liberties (Nov. 1999)
WESTERN AUSTRALIA, Jan. 1999 - "What's the Rottnest Island's obsession with helmets about?", this writer asked a middle-aged attendant at the only bicycle rental shop on this beautiful tiny Indian Ocean island, half an hour by (fast) boat west of Perth, and a favorite vacation or weekend spot for both the Perth residents and visitors.
The reason for the question was that there were signs everywhere reminding the customers that helmets are mandatory. And while the bikes were not, they are the only means of transportation around the island, except for the stinky diesel tour buses. And thus virtually mandatory for all able-bodied people.
"It's not just the Rottnest Island. The helmets are mandatory everywhere in Australia," replied the bike attendant.
"You're kidding me?"
"I am afraid not. Where are you from?"
"Ah, the desert country." As if encouraged to speak his mind upon learning this, the bike attendant relaxed and continued. "Don't worry around here. The island police won't bother you if you don't wear a helmet. You can just hang it on the handle. But I've seen the cops stand on a corner of a Perth street, and just hand out $50-tickets to anyone riding a bike without one."
"Really? And what's the point of all that helmet-mania? Does Australia have a surplus of headgear from the Vietnam war or WW II? Or some ailing helmet factories which needed government protection to stay in business?", this writer asked tongue-in-cheek.
"Don't know 'bout that But I tell you mate, this law is one of my pet peeves. They told us when they passed it that it was going to save lives. And maybe it did. People simply stopped riding bikes. Within a year, five bike shops in Perth went out of business."
So there you have it. A typical socialist solution looking for a problem creates new problems. Like driving the small entrepreneurs out of business. And causing people to stop exercising.
And where was the bicycle makers' lobby when this legislation was being rammed down the peoples' throats? On a business trip to China, exploring new export opportunities in the world's biggest bike-riders' market? Or selling out to China, one of the world's biggest bicycle-making countries?
Never mind that riding a bicycle is one of the healthiest, most relaxing, and cheapest cardiovascular exercises that almost anyone can do. Never mind that the Australian health care costs are probably up now due to increased incidents of heart disease, as people who stopped riding may have reached instead for a pint of beer, a bag of chips, or the shrimp on the barbie. And even if they had reached for nothing at all other than a TV remote, their health is probably worse now than had they climbed on a bike instead.
And just think, all this is happening in a nation which loves its sports and practically lives outdoors! Except for the politicians and government bureaucrats, I suppose, who now boast about "saving lives." As do some people who wage war (remember the Jack Nicholson character in the movie, "A Few Good Men?").
* * * *
Later the same day, after a vigorous 16 kilometer (10 mile) bike ride around the island, much of it against a 15-20 mph wind, and all of it up and down the hills, three members of this writer's family were glad to sit down at a local restaurant, and order a pint of beer each.
"Sorry, Sir, but you must have a meal," the bartender replied, after we had placed the order.
"I must have a what?"
"A meal, Sir."
"I must have a meal even though I am not hungry, only thirsty?"
"Sorry, Sir, but it's the law."
"There is a law in Australia which tells a customer when and where he must eat?", I said mockingly, so as to emphasize the ludicrousness of the situation. "Is this a Rottnest Island- or Western Australia-only law?"
"No, Sir, I believe it's pretty much the same across the country."
"And just what constitutes a meal? Can I order a bag of peanuts, and then have my pint of VB?" ('Victoria Bitter' - a popular Australian beer).
"Well, Sir, what I usually tell people, is that an $8-food order is a 'substantial meal'. And we are supposed to make sure that bar customers have a 'substantial meal' before serving them any drinks."
"Guess, that' would be quite a few peanuts. I like peanuts, but not really that much." So I told the bartender to pour us three VBs while our daughter and I went to order "a substantial meal."
It was actually less than $8, but it's a secret as to how we did it. So shush, please Don't tell anyone that we spent less than $8! Lest some Aussie policemen finds out that we broke a law, and gives us a $50 meal ticket. (That will be the day, I know Policemen giving people meal tickets!). J
* * * *
Back in Perth later the same evening, we befriended in a hotel lounge a Sydney business executive who travels regularly to Western Australia on business. We told him about our exciting day on Rottnest Island (which, by the way, was named that by the original Dutch explorers who mistook the delightful little "quokkas" - the small, furry and exceptionally friendly wallaby-like creatures - for big rats. No wonder, I suppose, the Dutch were fooled, given the size of Amsterdam canals and the corresponding rats, versus the size of the oceans the Dutch had had to cross before running into the quokkas!). J
When we got to the point about the Aussie health care costs possibly rising due to the mandatory helmets, and after the executive had found out that my wife was a Canadian, he laughed. "That's splendid! When they introduced the national health care system in Australia, they held up the Canadian system as an example. Now we have a bloody mess on our hands. So here's to Canada!," he jabbed my wife, sarcastically raising his glass of champagne as a toast.
"Thank God Hillary (Clinton) didn't get her way on that one in the U.S.!" this writer returned the toast.
Even my Canadian wife indulged in a rare critique of her native country. "There are many Canadian doctors in Arizona," she told the Aussie executive. "And most of them say that they emigrated to the U.S. to escape the Canadian health care system."
* * * *
A few days later, I decided to check out my hypothesis about the ailing Aussie helmet industry being bailed out by its socialist government. I wanted to see where the helmets are made. No dice. I am still looking for a bike story in which to conduct this economic experiment. Looks like more than just five stores went out of business.
Meanwhile, I did see two used bicycle helmets in a used furniture store south of Perth. They were made in Taiwan. Shucks! There goes my hope that there might have been at least an ounce of common sense in this government policy.
But the experience brought back some youthful memories. Having been born in a communist country, I can recall numerous examples of similar economic stupidity. Sugar factories being built hundreds of miles away from the sources of sugar beet; pulp and paper mills erected in flatlands with no forests in sight; steel factories built in the midst of mountainous forests Naturally, they are all rusting away today as ugly monuments to Socialist Man's dependence on government regulation, rather than common sense.
* * * *
While finding bike shops around here seems to be like pulling hens' teeth, there is no shortage of "made in China" products. The American TiM readers who have written to us in the past about their individual efforts to boycott the "made in China" goods, would find it nearly impossible to carry on such a boycott in Australian cities. (Australia's rural communities, however, may be much more self-sufficient than America's).
In an April 21, 1997 address by Alexander Downer, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, delivered in Sydney, this Madeleine Halfbright's Down Under cohort said that, "China's sustained economic growth, and the increasing openness of the Chinese economy, offer unprecedented opportunities for Australia. Australia's trade with China has grown twice as fast in the past decade as our trade with any other major trading partner. Australia is now China's ninth largest trading partner. By the year 2000, if recent trends continue, China could be our third largest trading partner, after Japan and the United States."
As our Sydney-based executive explained to us over champagne and beer in Perth, this means that Australia now has a new Queen. Her name is Jiang Zemin. Just as at the time of the British Empire, Australian resource-based exports fueled British factories, which, in turn, manufactured and sold their finished products to the colonies, the current globalist economy is based on the same business model.
So God save Australia! (And other former British colonies, including the U.S.). For, if this Aussie business executives' assessment is on the money, Australians and all the rest of us in the West, may one day have to start waving little red books and chanting: "We love helmets! Down with bicycle bourgeois! Long live the police! Thank you for saving us from ourselves." Yukh
* * * *
P.S. Another disturbing thought... Just went to a local music store. Tried to buy some classical music CDs. And did. Got the Beethoven's Ninth. So what's so disturbing about that? A Madonna CD was worth seven Beethoven Ninths! Yukh, again
Fortunately, the local kangaroos seem smarter than the music producers. The roos' ears perk up in a distinct way when we now play the Beethoven's Ninth at sunset, their feeding time. So, there is hope for at least some Australia natives.
Gotta go back to Arizona soon and see if the same tactic may work to mellow the U.S. politicians' senses? Have a feeling I know the answer in advance But I'll keep my mind open. Just in case there are some roos among them donkeys and elephants.
* * * *
There is a saying here in WA - "the bush fly capital of the world," according to a local resident, that the flies come when the visitors come. (The tourist season here starts in mid-December). And when do the flies leave? Well, what follows is perhaps a surprising answer to this question...
"Thank God that the bush flies are finally leaving," this writer made small talk with a couple of sales ladies at a local computer store in mid-January.
"Yes, the flies leave when the beetles come," replied one of the ladies.
"When the beetles come? Not when the visitors leave? Why? Do the beetles eat the flies?"
The two ladies just looked at each other and started giggling. "We'd better not talk about that," one of them finally said.
A few days later, another local resident, a male, also mentioned something about the flies and beetles.
"What sort of beetles did you say?"
My Aussie friend replied with something which sounded like "dumb beetles" to an American ear.
"What? Dumb beetles?"
"No, dung beetles?"
"What sort of beetles are the dung beetles."
"The beetles that eat shit. Literally. Or dung, if you prefer a more polite word."
"You're putting me on."
"Swear to God. They were introduced in Western Australia by farmers to help them clean up the yard of animal waste."
Amazing. I stood there with my mouth dropped, and my jaw practically touching my chest. Then it dawned on me why the two ladies giggled the other day, and quickly changed the topic when I asked them if these beetles ate the flies.
My local friend then proceeded to explain how expedient the dung beetles are in consuming their favorite food. "If you watch them go at the dog droppings, for example, in just a few minutes, there is practically nothing left, except for a few bits that look like ash."
"What a great idea!" I thought. Maybe we should try to import such useful insects into the U.S.? After all, they would have abundant food supply, especially in places like Washington or New York.
Am I now putting you on? Well, to find out, guess you'll have to come to Western Australia in late January and check it out for yourself. Just don't expect any local ladies to take you on a sightseeing tour of the dung beetle farms.
Back to "Travel Vignettes" header