Greetings from Down Under

I've been in Australia all week. If, like most of my generation, your vision of Down Under is based largely upon a school career spent watching Neighbours and Home and Away, you'll be surprised to hear that there is very little surfing going on, romantic relationships appear to proceed at a reasonably leisurely pace and Eighties pop music does not start up in the background each time a conversation reaches an emotional pitch. Also, very few people are called Toadfish.

In fact, in many ways, the news here has a familiar ring to it. There's just been a tightly fought general election, resulting in a confusing and protracted hung parliament situation, which has led, eventually, to a strange and rather compromised government, with a new party (in this case, the Greens) enjoying unprecedented clout.

Life of pie

Having said that, it is interesting to be in a place where the Green Party has more of a ser­ious foothold and where ministers from both of the main parties seem able to say that climate change will be a major priority for them without everyone else sniggering. The main difference is quite simply that the weather is more extreme here. "Hot" in Australia means "hot enough to melt the clothes off your body", rather than "warm enough to consider winding the car windows down".

Here, nobody makes the joke about looking forward to global warming so they can sit in the garden more often. I'm not stooping so low as
to suggest that our own Green Party would gain credibility from a near-lethal heatwave. But they should certainly think about tampering with a few air-conditioning systems.

It's the end of the Aussie Rules football season here and the top four teams are playing off to be crowned champions in a series of games
in front of crowds of around 95,000 people. When you go to an Aussie Rules game for the first time, there is quite a lot to get used to:
the astonishing, no-holds-barred physical commitment of the players; the length of the game, longer than some opera cycles; the virtually compulsory eating of pies. But the biggest and most jarring contrast with our own - more accurately titled - version of football is the good humour. Even the bitterest of contests passes without genuine hatred in the air.

This is also true of many American sporting occasions, but the line from football fans like me is that it's down to a lack of passion in the crowd: you "need" a bit of menace in the air to give live sport the edge it's meant to have. Australian crowds give the lie to this idea. Nobody is more competitive than the Australians, yet they manage to combine that competitiveness with the notion that you don't have to scream abuse at anyone to have an enjoyable afternoon.

It does help that Aussie drinking laws are a bit better thought out than our own. Plenty of bars have late licences, for a start. The right-wing media in the UK were gleeful when the new government announced plans to stop people being served beyond 11pm in most pubs. But it's a fallacy to believe that a time limit makes people drink less; it just makes them drink faster and with more determination for the preceding four hours, then spill out into city centres at exactly the same time and try to kill one another.

Booze after bedtime

In Australian cities, adults - being adults - are allowed to drink beyond bedtime. From my limited experience, they respond to this gesture of respect by not urinating in fountains or overcrowding A&E departments with injuries related to falling down stairs or head-butting. The flipside is that if you are in the market for wandering around a city getting tanked up, it's harder in Australia to lay hands on potentially lethal amounts of liquor. Most cornershops and even big food stores don't sell it - you have to find an actual "bottle shop".

You realise how easy it is to get alcohol in Britain. It's freely available from even the humblest newsagent and it wouldn't be a surprise
if you could buy it from vets or dentists. Perhaps we'd make progress on our binge drinking problem if we stopped obsessing over opening hours and started clamping down on how alcohol is available in pretty much every public space, up to - and including, if you count communion wine - your local church.

Still, I don't want to be one of those travellers who come back talking about how great everything is "over there" and doing down their own country. After all, Australia started as a penal colony. Who knows, perhaps it will become one again. If it does, I'm going to rustle some sheep and hope to be sent down.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 27 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The 50 people who matter