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Industry Contributor 30 Mar 2020 - 2 min read

Australia's brand of 'rugged charm' needs a rethink

By Rose Herceg, Chief Strategy Officer - WPP AUNZ

The Guardian Australia’s Ben Doherty wrote a piece about the defiance of Aussies as they turn up on a beautiful sunny day to swim at Sydney’s iconic Bondi Beach during coronavirus closures.

What was once seen as Aussie charm (rugged non-conformism) is now a serious health threat if people do not follow the rules of self-isolation and social distancing. Rules that will keep people alive. The article brings into sharp focus the fact that the character we once celebrated (flagrant rule-breaking) is the enemy of getting through this thing in as close to one piece as possible, and that getting people to change their behaviour overnight is no small feat.

Key points:

  • Widespread confusion at the rule of social distancing and its enforcement. The unanswerable questions came rapidly: “Is it just the beach that’s closed, or the water as well?” “There are not 500 people out there, why can’t I go?” “If someone gets out, can I go in?”
  • Bondi Beach is a pictorial shorthand for Australia. It has become emblematic of the nation’s struggle to respond properly to the outbreak. The trajectory of Australia’s coronavirus curve mirrors Italy more than it does Singapore, and there are fears things could quickly escalate if the health system becomes strained.
  • There is also an abiding resentment at the imposition on civil liberties that social distancing is, when such egregious official mistakes are made.
  • On the same day that Bondi Beach was ordered closed, the same government allowed 2,700 people to walk off a cruise ship in Sydney’s CBD which had reported more than 150 illnesses. A number of people from the Ruby Princess have since tested positive to Covid-19, some of whom boarded domestic flights home.


The practical difficulties of enforcing a total lockdown of a country that knows no different than café culture, restaurant culture, pub culture, party culture and BBQ culture is bloody hard. The country – (with its blessed weather and natural beauty) is built for all of the above.

Specificity is our greatest friend ever. We need the ‘Social Distancing for Dummies’ like never before.

We need clear, unequivocal, bullet-proof communication about what exactly our government expects of us.

Not quite Marshall law…but almost.

A clear rule book that every single Australian can refer to, to know exactly what’s in and what’s out. Zero grey areas. Zero personal discretion in terms of choices to be made and freedoms to be exercised.

In the Second World War, the world could see the battle. Bombs being dropped. Buildings levelled. People needing to take shelter to survive.

This war is as serious. But because we can’t (physically) see the enemy, we flout the rules. ‘I’m not sick. I’m ok. I can get out into the world’.

Not anymore.

Ironically, in a democracy, all that freedom that people love and exercise, is the enemy. It is not lost on any thinking person that the reason why Wuhan hasn’t recorded any new cases of COVID-19 is that even though China is second biggest economy in the world, it is still a communist country. People follow rules.

The final thought? Individual behaviour needs to be completely by-the-book.

And yet right now, every single brain cell that I possess is being used to out-think this new reality. Lateral thinking, original thinking, new models - has become every day thinking for me. For every single one of our clients. And for every single one of our people. I am undertaking countless online workshops for clients exploring models and ideas undreamed of before. So are every one of our businesses.

Personal life - absolutely by the book.

But professional life - writing an entirely new book. Where finding a new solution in the most original, creative and purposeful way – that keeps the doors open and delivers new ideas - is the ball game.


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Rose Herceg, Chief Strategy Officer


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