all the silly rules

WARNING: This is a rant.

Have you ever noticed that rules and regulations dictate nearly everything we do?

During my trip away, there were two things I noticed nearly every day. The first was the incredible scenery all the way up the east coast of Australia. What a spectacular country we Australians live in! The second thing I noticed was all the rules.

It took me back to when I was in primary school and I had to ask to go to the toilet. There was a special procedure if you needed to relieve yourself. Put up your hand (quietly, don’t call to the teacher), wait, wait some more, jiggle up and down a bit (but still don’t say anything), listen as the teacher explains the next task to the class, then, finally, after a period of anywhere between 30 seconds and 15 minutes, the teacher may address you, upon which point you must say clearly in front of the class that you need to go to the toilet.

From here there are a number of possible responses. Given that you’re in primary school, your pronouncement of nature’s calling may elicit some none too subtle snickers. And don’t make the mistake of asking the teacher ‘can I go to the toilet’ lest you waste more precious time hearing the teacher’s witty remark that they hope that by [insert relevant age] years of age that you have learnt how to relieve yourself. It is absolutely vital that you use the word ‘may’.

So, after an extended and probably entirely unnecessary wait and discussion, you are allowed to run out the door and pray to a higher power that you make it to the toilet on time. I don’t know about you, but in primary school my bladder was even smaller than it is now and I tended to wait until the last possible minute before deciding that I really should find a toilet. Needless to say, there were more than a few skating-on-the-edge-of-my-bladder’s-holding-capacity moments when I was in primary school.

Who would have thought that many years later, as an adult, I would find myself still subject to a similar level of restraint and control that I did as a young child? This is not to say that all rules are ridiculous and unnecessarily controlling. Most of them are very important. But many of them aren’t. And no, this has nothing to do with a liberal capitalist small government view of how society should be run. Far from it.

Let me elaborate with some examples from my trip.

PART I: THE DRIVE NORTH

Arriving in Sydney, we are faced with a multitude of signs saying we are about to owe a company money for driving on their toll road (last time I checked, it was a public-private partnership that built the road and therefore the public purse also contributed to its construction cost). We have three days to call them and pay a ridiculous and regularly indexed fee or else we will be FINED!

Driving along the highway through the Gold Coast, we notice several signs telling us we’re not allowed breakdown on the side of the road. Too bad if our car, you know, broke down or something. Should we push it to the nearest ‘breakdowns allowed’ zone? Or should we wait for a free tow because we are parked illegally?!

Arriving in Brisbane, we go through the toll road rigmarole again, except this time, we have to call a different company and set up a new online account complete with account registration fee, as well as be charged more money per toll road than people with an e-tag because, well, they can. And if we don’t do it, we will be FINED!

PART II: YOU CANNOT CAMP HERE, NO YOU CANNOT

When we got to Byron Bay there were signs everywhere prohibiting people sleeping in their vehicles overnight. There were also ridiculous parking meter costs per hour. And if we didn’t abide by the rules? You guessed it, FINED!

PART III: NATURE MEETS BUREAUCRACY

Later in our trip, as we headed down the coast, we spontaneously decided to camp for the night in Bundjalung National Park. When we got to the entrance, a sign told us we needed to book and pay for a camping spot in advance, either online or over the phone. I tried to book online, but the booking system only allowed me to book two days ahead. Being a Sunday evening, the telephone booking service was closed. Winning!

The sign also told us that we needed to pay our parks entrance fee in advance. We were given two options. We could go to the local National Parks office to buy the specific park entrance ticket- the closest office was an hour and a half drive north and we arrived at the park on a Sunday when the office was closed. Alternatively, the sign said we could buy a yearly all-parks pass online and wait a week for it to be delivered to our home address, before entering the park. Awesome.

Having decided to press on anyway and camp at our planned destination, we woke up the next morning and noticed signs all around the campground warning us that if we didn’t have a parks pass, as well as proof of having paid for our campsite, we would be…FINED! There were rangers who would drive an hour down a dirt road to the camping area, ready to issue a fine, but not to accept payment for the park entrance and camping fees. Go figure…

PART IV: THE CAMPGROUND OF DOOM

Our next spur of the moment destination was just south of Coffs Harbour. For the bargain price of $45 per night, plus $20 deposit for bathroom key, we could camp on an unpowered slope at the back of the caravan park… But hey, it was summer and at least we were close to the beach.

The first real problem we noticed at the campground was that we were only allowed one bathroom key. I sure am glad we didn’t need to poo at the same time!

The second rule that irked me was the camp kitchen. All lights and power off at 10pm. No matter what. No matter how hard it was raining outside. No matter how quiet and courteously the people in the kitchen area were behaving. No matter whether or not people were still in the middle of making dinner. 10pm. That. Is. Final.

The third rule that got my goat was the 10am check out time for campers on unpowered sites. Even though it was raining all morning. Even though the camp sites weren’t designated and not many people were there. Pack up in the rain you chumps!

CONCLUSION: WHAT THE HELL IS THIS GIRL ON ABOUT?

I know this is a particularly ranty post. And I don’t expect many people to make it this far. If you have, well done. You should give yourself a warm pat on the back.

But why am I spending so much energy reflecting on all these small annoyances?

What struck me during my time away was that our lives seem to be dictated by an endless stream of regulations and boundaries that constrain the what, where, when, how and why of our lives. These inflexible rules that don’t accommodate varying circumstances, seem to expect us to be programmed automatons.

And coercive language through threat of punishment really puts a dampener on the enthusiasm, spontaneity and creativity of the human spirit. It also circumvents the need for trust amongst communities and integrity in individuals. Rules are replacing social capital.

Instead of campervans being able to park overnight in a public area and have a quiet evening that doesn’t disturb the residents, they are banned, lest a few of them decide to do the wrong thing.

Instead of trusting that campers in National Parks appreciate the value of the natural environment and will pay to use the area when given a reasonable chance, a ranger will fine those who didn’t pay in advance, in case some of them were trying to avoid the fee.

Instead of putting up a sign asking campers to be mindful of other guests in the caravan park by keeping quiet between certain hours and cleaning up their own mess, a caravan park worker will come around at 10pm and turn off the power no matter the circumstances.

Maybe these rules came about because people did the wrong thing. Alternatively, maybe people do the wrong thing because there are so many rules that people have forgotten how to use their judgment to regulate their own behaviour. It is a chicken vs egg scenario. However nothing good can come of instructing people and restraining them everywhere they go to the point that they can no longer think for themselves and make an independent assessment of how they should conduct themselves.

Rant over.