• Sweden edition
'There's more to Australia than spiders and sharks'

'There's more to Australia than spiders and sharks'

Published: 18 Oct 2012 12:50 GMT+02:00
Updated: 18 Oct 2012 12:50 GMT+02:00

The Australian ambassador to Sweden Paul Stephens speaks to The Local's Oliver Gee about the “outdated” image of Australia, the ongoing trial of Julian Assange, and life as the coach of an Australian rules football team in Stockholm.

Paul Stephens has been the Australian ambassador to Sweden for almost three years in a nearly two-decade long career in the Foreign Service which has included past stints in Brazil and New York.

An “athlete ambassador” with a penchant for marathons and a part-time gig coaching football, Stephens found the time to chat with The Local about his work at the embassy, life in Stockholm, and gender equality in Australia after the celebrated “misogyny speech” by Prime Minister Julia Gillard.

The Local: What did you know about Sweden before coming here?

Paul Stephens: I’d never been to Sweden before, but I’d heard about the successful economic transition and equitable society and I wanted to see the Swedish model in action with my own eyes.

However, I wasn’t as aware as I am now about importance of things like the weather and sports. Swedish children grow up attached to a pair of skis, and that’s something we don’t have in our culture. And I soon found out that weather’s not just a conversation starter, but a conversation topic of its own.

TL: The weather certainly separates Australia and Sweden, but how about the connections?

PS: People-to-people connections are strong despite the distance. Some 30,000 Swedish tourists visit Australia each year and there are 1,200 to 1,500 Swedish students coming to Australia to study at tertiary institutions. This has built up awareness and given an overwhelmingly positive impression of Australia, which has been a great asset.

TL: What’s the latest on WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange? How has his situation affected Swedes’ perception of Australia?

PS: We are waiting for the situation to be considered further between the UK and Ecuador and we will just see what happens from there. In terms of Swedish people’s reaction, I haven’t seen any change in Swedish perception of Australians. That perception has surprised me with how almost universally positive it has been.

TL: What is this perception?

PS: Well, the perception of Australia has become a little outdated, relying on iconic images, such as the flora and fauna and the beach scenes - in some ways it’s a good thing to be seen as a laid back country where everyone can fit in, but there’s another element to it.

Australians are hard-working, technologically savvy, we’re almost exclusively living in cities.

The outback scene is iconic and atmospheric but very few Australians live there. A bit of work needs to be done to realign this image and make it more modern.

It’s a misconception to think the country is full of dangerous animals, it’s an unrealistic portrayal. There’s a lot more to Australia than just spiders, snakes and sharks.

TL: Another Australian that’s made headlines lately is Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Her “misogyny speech” went viral and was even on the front cover of Swedish dailies.

PS: I don’t have any comments on the Prime Minister’s speech. On the subject generally, I will say that Sweden is well recognized in Australia for its gender equality and the social and economic benefits this brings.

TL: What does the Australian Ambassador do on a day to day basis.

PS: It’s a very diverse job. The embassy is relatively small and we cover Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but primarily Sweden. My job is to build the relationship, which can include collaboration with Sweden in big international issues, whether Syria, Afghanistan, or the Arab Spring.

Trade and investment work is important as well, and it’s quite substantial - about A$3 billion ($3.1 billion) a year both ways, and investment is considerably higher.

There are 150 Swedish companies with a presence in Australia. There are fewer Australian companies here but the presence is growing.

We’re working on building up links in areas such as energy efficiency, urban renewal and sustainable living where Sweden has been such a strong leader and Australia is increasingly looking to make similar moves.

We’re looking at a marrying up of Swedish expertise with Australian needs, which has a lot of potential.

TL: What else is on your plate?

An important part of work here and in the entire global network is Australia’s bid to join the UN Security Council, with the vote happening on October 18th. Not only to win support for our bid, but to demonstrate Australia’s credentials within the UN system and to show what an effective player we would be on the UN Security Council if we’re lucky enough to get voted in.

TL: How about the home front. Do you enjoy living in Stockholm?

PS: Stockholm is a beautiful city, especially how the water and nature are so well integrated. The other great thing about Stockholm is the architecture. We don’t have buildings that are 800 years old in our city centres back home. Walking through Gamla Stan is a pretty mind-blowing experience. It’s also a fantastic city to run in, especially in Gärdet and Djurgården.

TL: Besides running, you’re into more organized sports too. Tell me about the football team?”

PS: My sons joined a local Australian rules football league when they were here on a gap year and I played a couple games with them. Now, I’m the match day coach for the Södermalm Football Club.

While it’s not exactly the same as Australian rules football with only 9 a side and only 5 Aussies allowed per team on the field, it’s been an enjoyable experience. And there’s a lot of support, including players’ parents, wives, girlfriends and dogs.

While a lot of Swedes may not have originally known much about the game, it’s been a great way to meet people and connect with the Australians here.

Oliver Gee

Follow Oliver on Twitter here

The Local (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

13:10 October 18, 2012 by robban70226
He is correct, there is more,

It is a goverment that try to kill their aboriginal people, spit in their own citizens right and refuses to comply with international rights for inmigrants, A country created by owlaws and criminals, the trash from England. Tey have a long long way to go to be civilized
13:50 October 18, 2012 by The Green Turtle
And I take it that your own country is the beacon of the world?

Thought not...
01:03 October 19, 2012 by Russel Dalrimple
Right-on robban70226! - that is exactly what it's like... how insightful! great comment!

you've obviously been eh? please come back again! you're welcome anytime. who knows, we may even have time to teach you to spell correctly...
09:07 October 19, 2012 by smilingjack
robban does make a view valid points.

you can be arrested in australia and held indefinitely without charge, without access to legal representation or having your whereabouts revealed to anyone. If released you cannot communicate what happened to anyone - including your family or be charged, Our police and politicians seem to be in the news everyday for lieing. A brazilian student died recently after being assaulted with batons, kicked and punched and tasered 17 times for stealing a packet of biscuits. We happily allowed the NSA and CIA from the USA to upload facial recognition software to cctv country wide.

Everything in australia costs 4x or more then the rest of the world. Most car models etc dont make it to australia. All thanks to a free trade agreement we signed with the USA which we got hammered on.

Our public transport and roads are in disarray. We still dont have dual carriageways between our 3 major cities.

This wont be changing for the forseeable future. Ie generations.

Most roads carry a toll with huge fees and more roads are getting them each day. The only modern country without a fast train - or in some places any train. Even in major cities.

Most roads are monitored where the slightest infringement carries huge fines. 2100kr for 1kph over the limit which most likely wont be posted. Its a nice scam.

Our airports charge the highest in the world for parking . Our banks charge the highest fees in the world.

Our electricity, water and insurance - already the highest in the world are going up about 20% a year. try 280kr per kw hour for electricity. They are planning on charging way more very soon.

Our government adds a new fee, tax or ( their new favourite ) a "one off" levy about every week, From our very christian extreme government who introduced a priest to EVERY school. Weve had it good for a longtime and its time for us to get prepared for reduction in services and way more taxes.

A laid back country. Hardly. Come to australia. Be prepare to be charged and rorted on everything.
14:52 October 19, 2012 by bow290
Australia is Australia, its also what u make of it! if u dont like it get the hell out and or dont visit!

Robban, ur an idiot mate! almost as big an idiot as the aussie prime minister.
15:31 October 19, 2012 by Hisingen
"'There's more to Australia than spiders and sharks'

Sure thing, mate. Fosters for one. Several great wineries for another, and of course - that lovely PM you have. What's her name now ? ? ?
17:00 October 19, 2012 by hayja83
@smilingjack - "A laid back country. Hardly. Come to australia. Be prepare to be charged and rorted on everything."

Your comments above are nothing but clearly spot on! Bra jobbet!
22:59 October 19, 2012 by Dijondel
@smilingjack, you comments are a litany of exaggeration, and you know it. Nicely done for effect, it nearly worked.

I don't have the time or space to address each point. The main one is "Everything in australia costs 4x or more then the rest of the world "

Ever caught the train from Chatswood to Gosford? It costs $6.40, for about 80 road km.

As a comparison, in 1986, I paid 15 POUNDS to go from London to Bath, not much further. At the time, about $30. 26 years ago.

It is also nearly as far from Stockholm to Skavsta. Try Paying 35kr for that trip.

Ever take a bus from Sydney to Palm Beach, 40km? Again, about $6. That distance is about half way from London to the coast. Some people don't go that far for their holidays.

Bought a litre of petrol recently? A week ago, $1.34. Probably the same price as in, say, Madagascar, where it equates to a days wage for some people.

What you should have said is that everything "Australian made" is 4x the price, for one reason, and one reason only.

The block-head unionists have fought for, and won, the right for eveyone to have minimum 4 weeks annual leave, plus 2 weeks worth of public holiday, plus long service leave, plus sick leave, plus carers leave, plus study leave, plus family leave. And don't get me started on months and months of paid parental leave.

There is no incentive to work, or be productive.

I'd have just as much to say on how relatively low the prices are on supermarket purchases, take-away food, cars, the list goes on.

Pull yer head in.
10:23 October 20, 2012 by Kekkavich
Wow, what a storm in a tea cup reaction to an interesting interview with the Ambassador. No claims Australia is the best country in the world.

Talk about a pack of whinger writing some comments here. I thought the poms were the best at complaining. I'm embarrassed by the stupidity of the reactions.
15:08 October 20, 2012 by Ivan Juric
Mr ambassador did you tell our Swedish friends how we pay 22 dollars an hour to park in Melbourne, yes we have plenty of sharks, they mostly wear suits and ties sit in office blocks. We also have a shark in the Prime Ministers role, one that knifed up a popularly elected leader and makes long winded speeches on misogyny.
07:10 October 22, 2012 by Marc the Texan
I wasn't aware of any outdated images of Australia. Aussie! Aussie! Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!
16:01 October 22, 2012 by smilingjack
what - 1 train a day where your likely to get bashed from chatswood to gosford. the train will be a thirty year old clunker that may or may not trun up. Vic where your train will most likley simply be cancelled. Lived at Patonga for a few years so know that run. Tried getting public transport from wiliamstown airport? none.

A litre of petrol is over $1.60 as we speak.

the bus from sydney to palm beach. what time of day? because 99% of the time the road is so traffic jammed you cant move on it. try explaining the spit bridge and how many red light / speed cameras? or the F3 which is blocked every other day from a crash.

how about an entire region like the north west - probably a population around 1,000,000 - 30km's from sydney without a train line and not going to see one ever. they have the luxury of never ending traffic jams and over 250kr a day in tolls.

I lived in Marrickville and gave up getting a bus to the city. either they didnt stop or were packed. so I walked. want to explain hotel costs and airport charges. the hilton in adelaide has crt tvs and no air conditioning! perth is rated the most dangerous place in the world for swimming and I think all of our capital cities are in the top 10 for the most expensive to live in the world.

18 weeks parenting leave worth sweet f a. try 80 weeks in sweden. yes mate 80 weeks. 2.5 million in australia living under the poverty line. many above the poverty line afraid to use the heater or air con because they will be stung with a 30,000kr a year electricty bill.
15:14 October 23, 2012 by lolly
I'm an Aussie, I married my Swedish hubby and he loves it here.

Aside from the giant spiders, drop bears and sharks right?

AU is no more expensive than most other countries. We've found the prices are on par with living in Perth.

Petrol prices are still cheaper than most places around the world bar the big oil producing nations.

You can't blame the Federal govt for prices increases like Electricity, toll roads, those are set by states. Toll roads don't exist in some areas of AU, like WA.

It's still a great place to live, regardless of the whingers, who I would expect are poms :P we can't stop them from immigrating over here!
01:28 October 27, 2012 by Ian C. Purdie - Sydney
Nice to see the "Bogans" out in full force. Descendants of "whinging poms" perhaps?

For the record, Australia isn't a country founded or created by outlaws and criminals. Do some in depth historical research, the evidence is overwhelmingly otherwise.
12:29 October 30, 2012 by rebelart.se
image is illusion......

reality is australia is a convict outpost responsible for the murder, rape and pillage of the aborigines.....

australians should be run into the sea.....( with surf boards)
22:21 November 5, 2012 by jrkn
Really??? How did a simple interview with the Australian Ambassador get in to an Aussie bashing session? All these comments about Australian's being the trash and criminals from the UK who raped and pillage a land is wrong, unfounded, and just plain uneducated. Please do you history. The majority of Australians are descendants of free settlers of varying classes who have formed a pretty egalitarian society. Those convicts were mostly petty criminals who were transported on the basis they would build a prosperous society (i.e. architects, farmers, even lawyers). The worst criminals, who were few, were labourers who built the early infrastructure. Australia now is a multicultural society, much more than Sweden - mainly due to the huge mix of Europeans - British, Irish, Italian, Greeks, Germans, Yugoslavia, and Scandinavians. Couple that with the large waves of immigrants from Asia and the Subcontinent in recent years (but going back to Chinese Gold Miners). This is far different from Sweden who still has the far majority from ONE ethnic group of Europeans with minority groups who have really only arrived in the last 20 years - with more hostility towards them and less integration than Australia. This is fact. And before all this Bullocks about Australians destroying the Aboriginal people, it was never government policy to kill them. History states a white man was charged and punished the same for killing a White man as an Aborigine in colonial times. Aborigines became citizens very late (1967) but for the main reason that Aborigines lived sparsely and in isolated areas - it wasn't till the 1950s they started to come to live in the major cities, and thus were treated very separately from everyday Australians. Although this is not an excuse - there are mitigating circumstances. Australia never has a policy of sterilisation - as the Swedish government did to the Sami people - a native population that didn't get recognised till 1993. And as for Aussie being bogans etc is just plain sad - especially if these are expat Australians expressing the opinion. Yes, there are many people in Australia that would fit the 'Bogan' stereotype, but just like every nation, subcultures exist which are not reflective of the population in general. Most Australians travel extensively (mainly due to isolation and ties to the rest of the world) and tend to have an outward look. My experience of living in Sweden seems to think Swedes are about half 'adventurers' like this, then the other half the insular, non travelled, and more racist half. Just remember most Australians and rural Holden Ute driving, Bathurst watching, black jeans wearing, and Bundy and Coke drinking people. Most live in Cities over a million people, work long hours in an office setting, enjoy outdoor pursuits, and have some of the best dining and cultural pursuits on par with most European cities.
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