You've found Father McKenzie. But are you really looking for Eleanor Rigby?

Monday, September 22, 2003

VALE SLIM DUSTY. Same week as Johnny Cash, too. (Trivia: What does Johnny Cash have in common with Vincent Van Gogh? Answer below.)

Some years back, for my sins, I was exiled to live in Canberra (for any non-Aussies reading, this is our national capital, a frighteningly neat and ordered mini-city where everything was built in either 1927 or 1972).

Now, there are many good things about the Australian Capital Territory; good roads, dry weather when it's warm (although prone to devastating bushfires), and the world's most representative electoral system (this title devolved on the ACT in 1998, when Tasmania's major parties decided that it was easier to keep Greens out of Parliament by cutting the number of seats per electorate than by persuading voters that Labor and Liberal had better policies). BUT the ACT has one serious problem. The good burghers of Canberra have no idea how to merge in traffic.

In other States of Australia, even much-vilified New South Wales and Queensland, drivers have a basic under-standing, an unwritten social contract of the road. It doesn't need to be enforced by the courts, because it already has informal sanctions attached; Let's all do it this way, and we won't have a car crash. The protocol is this: The merging car, the one entering the freeway or parkway or roadway, maintains its normal speed and waits for a slot to come along in the nearest lane (that's leftmost, here in Oz). In return, any cars already in that leftmost lane will move into the centre or right lane to make room, if possible, for the newcomer.

Sounds pretty sensible, huh?

Doesn't work that way with Canberra drivers.

Instead, everyone zips along in the left lane and stays there. And won't move over even if another car is trying to merge. Yes, even if there are completely empty centre and right lanes to slide over into. The newcomer has to come to a complete halt in the merging lane and wait until the road is empty.

The majority of Canberrans are federal public servants of some kind. It came to worry me greatly that decisions about federal government grants and my student allowance have been, and are still being, made by people who have not grasped the concept of move over a lane while you're doing 100 km per hour so that someone trying to merge at 60 km per hour won't have to slow to a complete stop.

How this relates to Slim Dusty is that I started trying to compose a … well, I'd never say a parody, but a song to the tune of his classic The Pub With No Beer:

"It's lonely away from Australia and all,
Getting hassled by youths at the Belconnen Mall
But our roads, they are wide; and the courts, they will vindicate us,
As we drive around Canberra in the Saab with no indicators …"

The second verse was going to end:

"We've got GET OUT OF JAIL cards to use, like our leader Kate has,
As we drive around Canberra in the Saab with no indicators …"

– but then Kate Carnell (non-Aussies: think that Romulan Senator chick in Star Trek: Nemesis who tries to betray Shinzon to Picard, crossed with The Simpsons' Governor Mary Bailey) was ousted as Chief Minister. Her present successor in that role – not being a parliamentary representative of the Liberal Party – has not inherited Kate's and her co-partisans' immunity from the traffic laws of this great brown land. So that verse is now functus officio. I had other lines but I can't remember 'em now.

PS: [1] Not that drivers outside the ACT are always smarter. You'd not believe how many have swallowed the dodgy scientific theory that entering a private car-park nullifies the ordinary laws of physics so that using indicators is not necessary; if you side-crash another driver who didn't realise you were turning, no impact will arise.

PS: [2] Johnny Cash and Vincent Van Gogh: JC was traumatised as a child by the sudden death of his older brother, named Jack. VVG was traumatised as a child by his parents taking him to the graves of his several (three, from memory) older brothers – all named Vincent too, and all of whom had died in infancy.

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