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July 06th 2013 print

James Allan

Farewell, California. Hello, Toronto

Our North American correspondent has bid adieu to the San Diego, put his foot to floor and and decamped for Canada, where bicycle helmets and annoying petrol pumps incite nanny-state memories of the Australia he left behind


It was with a heavy heart that my wife and I packed up and left San Diego. First off, the lifestyle is pretty wonderful there. We were renting right on the Coronado Beach, looking over at Point Loma, the most southerly point in the continental US. The three-mile beach virtually outside our door made for great jogging. Not overly surprisingly, whenever I encountered the training US Navy Seals, whose main base was next door to our building, I found myself running faster.


My wife, by contrast, found herself getting a cup of coffee and watching these incredibly fit men (still all men) put through their onerous regime – one which occasionally included crab-walking (hands and feet on the sand with the bum up in the air) the length of the beach and back, which resulted in exhaustion, vomiting and trainees collapsed here and there.

I was also sad to leave because the University of San Diego School of Law was a wonderful place to work. I was teaching a course on comparative constitutional law. My class was capped at 16. At the University of Queensland I regularly teach classes of 400 and more. The idiotic university-ranking systems, which so many overpaid Australian university bureaucrats cite and cling to, wholly ignore life as an undergraduate. They use criteria that systematically underscore US universities so they don’t take the top 48 of 50 worldwide positions (with Oxford and Cambridge); they use other measures that really only apply, if at all, in the hard sciences; and they foster a bureaucratic nomenclature to game these ranking systems.

So, at the USD law school I could hand in my exam a week before students sat it and well after I knew what I had taught them. At UQ (I kid you not) I have to hand in my exam before I even start teaching. It’s a rule!

At USD we had a steady stream of top speakers from Harvard, Yale, Chicago and other top law schools. Almost none had a Ph.d.. Yet in Australia law schools (by government and university demand) are now forcing law lecturers to get  Ph.ds.. This is a wholly worthless degree for law for any purpose other than personal interest – and I say that as someone with one myself. Yet there is already in Australia a huge bureaucracy whose self-interest demands more and more doctorate students. It’s a scam, and one that leaves some people wasting years of their lives.

Oh, and I could teach my USD class as I wanted, without filling out and filing an electronic course profile, on the surprising theory in the US that the professor knows best what to teach and when, and so should have flexibility.

Another difference: students are expected to attend classes in the US. It is no excuse to have a job. Nor are students offered the option of watching taped lectures on line – preferred by Australian university bureaucrats because it is cheaper and they don’t really want, truth be told, to have any students attend any classes.

I love life in Australia, but if anything could drive me out it is working in our over-centralized, over-bureaucratic, dumbed-down universities. I am really, really hoping that an Abbott government will take on the many vested interests in the tertiary education sector. But I can’t say that I’m overly optimistic that it will. Basically, the public doesn’t know how bad things are and doesn’t care.

But back to San Diego. After almost half a year in the Golden State, and an incredibly wonderful time, we packed up the car and readied ourselves for the drive to Ontario, Canada, where my second university sabbatical post was to be in Toronto.

Back in January, we had driven down from Canada via the southern route through Missouri, the Texas panhandle, Oklahoma, Arizona, and then along the border with Mexico. For the return journey we decided to drive up the northern route. On the first day we got through Vegas and into Utah, where we spent the night in Zion National Park, a truly beautiful place where we did a couple of magnificent walks. Next, it was on to Bryce Canyon National Park, also in Utah. This may have been even better. Giant rock fingers shoot up in desolate desert countryside.

For my money, you could do a lot worse than spend a big chunk of your tourist time in Utah. The canyons and trekking are as good as just about anything going, with the possible (and only possible) exceptions of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite National Park.

Our last stop in Utah was Salt Lake City. We wandered around Mormon Ground Zero, as it were, seeing the Temple, the Tabernacle, and the museum. All the streets in Salt Lake City are numbered and designated in reference to this central point – so 2nd South Street is two south of the temple/tabernacle and 4th west is four west etc.

We drove north-east out of Salt Lake, through Wyoming. The change from rocky, desolate to grassland happens, and before you know it you’re looking at some big cattle farms. Wyoming is the least populated of all US States, though its half-million people get the same two US Senators as California’s 32 million.

From there it wasn’t all that far to South Dakota, where I wanted to see Mt. Rushmore, made famous for non-Americans in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by NorthWest.   The four presidents’ visages carved into the rock — Mssrs Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Rosevelt and Lincoln (in that order, left to right) — is quite a sight. But let me let you in on what was for me a big surprise. Ten miles away from Mt Rushmore, on native Indian land, they are carving into the rock face an image of Crazy Horse, the Indian leader who fought against Custer and who was later murdered. This rock-face image of Crazy Horse is much bigger than Mt Rushmore. Indeed Crazy Horse’s face is bigger than those of the four presidents combined. Better still, the sculptor picked by the Indians had worked on Mt Rushmore. I think he was Polish-American who, at the start, did this almost single-handed. Then his many children helped. Now he’s dead but seven of them continue.

For small government types , get this: Both the federal and state governments, after ignoring the Crazy Horse project for decades, are now trying to throw money at it. But the sculptor and his family (and presumably the tribe) say ‘no’. They turned down one attempted grant of $10 million, determined to complete the project on private donations alone. The sculptor said he doesn’t believe government has a role in this sort of thing, and if allowed to become involved would insist on calling the tune.

At this point my wife and I were falling behind our schedule to get to Canada. So we got up early and the next day drove 1,200 kilometres from Mt Rushmore in a day. How? Well, the US interstate road system is really magnificent, and the speed limit is basically 75 miles per hour (NOT kilometres, miles). The police don’t look to write tickets until you’re doing over 85 miles an hour. So the flow of traffic is about 140 kilometres an hour. In Australia, speed limits are ridiculously low, in part because states have so few revenue sources that they need to dress up fines in the name of safety. US (and German) car safety is much the same as in Australia, where you could never travel that far in a day.

We made it through Dakota, through Minnesota and into Wisconsin. And next day we drove into the small Wisconsin town of Green Bay, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Green Bay is famous in the US for one thing and one thing only. This town of 100,000 people has a professional fooball team, the illustrious Green Bay Packers, who reside in what is by far the smallest US city with a major-league sports franchise. The reason is that this sports team is owned by the city itself. It is worth so much that any private owner would long ago have sold it and moved it to Los Angeles or elsewhere. But the municipally-owned Green Bay Packers will never move – and I doubt residents there these days have to pay any local taxes at all.

From Green Bay it was north along Lake Michigan, into the upper peninsula of Michigan State and then across the border into Canada at Sault Ste Marie, whence we drove the next six or seven hours to our Canadian destination. All in all it was a 5,400 kilometre drive, and one we enjoyed thoroughly.

We arrived in Canada to follow the last few days of the dying Gillard government, and the Lazarus resurrection of the man so many in his own party can’t stand. Frankly, it beggars belief to think Australian voters could be so stupid as to put Rudd back into power. I’m still betting on a landslide to Tony. But time will tell.

For my wife and me  it will be six months in Canada. Already we’ve noticed the much higher price of petrol (and the related fact that, when pumping gas, you have to hold the nozzle;  as in Australia and un;like the US, you can’t push in the lever and leave the gas to pump itself, as you used to be able to do in Oz). Also immediately obvious mandatory bicycle helmets and all sort of political correctness generally.

Wait till I start at my Canadian law school. I should have some good stories to relate then.

James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law, University of Queensland (on sabbatical in the US and Canada)