Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Indians brand Australians as dumb, drunk, racist

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BRISBANE -- Here's a challenge. Sum up your country in three words, but please don't use 'dumb, drunk, racist,' because Australia has secured copyright.

Dumb, drunk and racist is what India is calling Australians who until recently were affectionately regarded as an uncouth but convivial people -- disarming, tail-waggingly friendly and possessed of a rough-hewn charm.

"Friendly, coarse, irreverent'' might have been our three-word summary but now globalization, which has reduced the world to a gossipy small town, has thrown up -- dumb, drunk, racist.

Pithy enough to feature regularly in the Twittersphere, it originated in Indian call centres where managers instructed staff Australia was the stupidest continent on the globe, populated largely by bigoted drunkards.

Staff was told to speak slowly to Australians who were "technologically backward'' and gently warned Australian customers might also call them, wait for it, "brown bastards."

Sydney-based journalist Joe Hilderbrand, deeply affronted by such baseless vituperations, decided to set the record straight by inviting four well-educated young Indians for an Aussie road trip to prove what an affable crowd we really are.

Rather awkwardly for Hilderbrand, his mission, broadcast this week by the ABC, only proved that, yup, dumb, drunk and stupid was not merely a perceptive summary of our character.

It was 'right, bang on the money,' as an Australian punter might say.

While Hilderbrand is a savvy satirist, he was clearly unnerved to uncover an ugly seam of almost wilful ignorance running through his nation while filming the documentary, creatively titled Dumb, Drunk and Racist.

White supremacists, rowdy bands of protesters intimidating asylum-seekers and street-fighting drunks were all greeted by the puzzled stares of the visiting Indians who, as if to elucidate our ignorance, were cultivated and courteous people.

Hilderbrand did face a difficult challenge. India has for years been suspicious about Australia after widespread reports racists often bash Indian students studying in Australia.

And it's true Australia is no longer seen as the friendliest kid in the global playground. American comedian Robin Williams famously declared after a visit Down Under "the Australians are basically English rednecks.''

Williams insists he was misinterpreted -- "I should have said good ol' boys'' -- but the outraged local reaction reached all the way to the prime minister's office and confirmed we're sensitive to what might be uncomfortable truths.

Reputations of countries can be unfair and far removed from reality but, for better or worse, each has one.

The majority of Australians gazing at America might think 'brash, confident, successful,' which conjures up images of a wealthy businessman.

Thinking of England, an average Australian might go for 'superior, conservative, stoic,' with perhaps one of the royals slipping into our minds.

For Italy, we might settle on 'exuberant, festive, food' and France 'cultured, intelligent, rude' while Switzerland is a little more difficult -- 'staid, pretty, and something about chocolate.'

An Australian vaguely familiar with Canada might offer 'solid, progressive, tolerant.' That's something of a contradiction in terms and conjures up images of a pot-smoking-but-otherwise-diligent Mountie.

It might also be wide of the mark. But you've got to admit, it's a whole bunch better than 'dumb, drunk and racist.'

Michael Madigan is Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 22, 2012 A13

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