Australia Day Beach Box

Steve Irwin, Australia Day, And Lopping The Heads Off Tall Poppies

This Australia Day, I want to do something naughty. I want to reveal one our nation’s darkest secrets. I mean, it seems only right to celebrate the nation’s holiday with an act of treason, right? It’s what our criminal ancestors would have wanted.

Today, January 26, is the day when Australians’ celebrate all things Australian. And this year marks 10 years since that essence-of-Aussie Steve Irwin came to his oh-so-Australian death fighting off a deadly sting-ray like the Australian superhero he was. It’s been 10 years since the nation mourned the tragic demise of our own home-grown, real-life Mick Dundee.

Steve Irwin and his wife Terri
‘The Crocodile Hunter,’ Steve Irwin, (R) shows a snake to his wife Terri (L) at the San Francisco Zoo on June 26, 2002, four years before his untimely death. [Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images]
And mourn, we did. It was the kind of grief you experience when you suddenly horrifically realize what you’ve lost, and with a smack in the face, how little you appreciated him when he was alive. It was grief mixed with a big thwack of guilt.

I’ll tell you why.

Internationally, as you know, Irwin typified Aussie-ness. Around the world, audiences accepted him into their hearts as the epitome of the Great Aussie Bloke. He was open-hearted and gregarious, courageous and hilarious, and very obviously enthusiastic about life and all it had to offer.

All very Australian qualities. Bar one — enthusiasm.

“I saw Steve several times at Channel 9: always wide-eyed and innocent and enthusiastic; almost like a kid. I was in the corridor once, yapping to him about something. And I think Mike Munro walked by. And he was so excited about meeting Mike and, ah, and a couple of other people there. And you really had to tell him: “You’re bigger than all of us put together.” I mean, he was an international star. He was a star in 130 countries,” says journalist Ray Martin about Steve Irwin in Australian Story.

Steve Irwin was a very enthusiastic bloke.

Which is exactly why, back before his death, Australians did not like him much.

I don’t say that lightly. There was a palpable seam of disgust running through our country’s consciousness about his cartoonish antics. We were so deeply suspicious of him. He was way too joyful for our taste, and we didn’t like being represented by him. His type of expression was exaggerated and comical to us, and the fact that he was successful only made us lean back a little more.

To us, Steve Irwin was anything but your typical Aussie.

Before his untimely demise at 44, we, as a nation, were not too keen on his ebullient nature. We prefer to be much more taciturn in our expression. We don’t like anyone making a huge fuss about anything; even the most amazing achievement will get a side-mouthed smile and a “Good on you, mate.” In fact, Irwin’s zest for life and his general joie de vivre was looked upon with great disdain by Aussies, which is why he was famous everywhere else but here.

“Jeez Louise, put a lid on it!” we were heard to mutter as we quietly switched the telly over to another channel.

His enthusiasm made us feel uncomfortable. It’s a dark secret here in Oz, but it was only after his death did we accept him fully. Only then could we see what we’d lost.

Steve Irwin at Logies
Steve Irwin ‘The Crocodile Hunter’ being his usual larrikin self at an awards ceremony. [Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images]
Australians are an odd bunch. Descended predominantly from refugees and ex-cons, we cling to our working class values. Even when we make a bit of money, we don’t like to be “showy.” Some of the most common Aussie phrases bandied around the school yard and the water cooler are “to be up yourself” or to “have tickets on yourself.” Both phrases mean to think highly of yourself. And that’s a bad thing in Australia. Seriously. In the States, it’s all about being positive, thinking big, and reaching for the stars. In Australia, it’s all don’t shine too bright, don’t be too happy, and don’t get too successful.

We’re highly suspicious of enthusiasm and success. We’re suspicious of light in general, actually. Joy. We prefer our humor on the dry side. We like it dry as a dead dingo’s donger, another favorite expression. In fact, if we have to give someone props for something, we will deliberately understate it for effect. “She’s a bit of alright” is the highest compliment an Aussie bloke can bestow on an Aussie sheila. We’re so laid back that it’s a wonder we can stay on a chair.

For that reason, Steve Irwin had to find his recognition overseas. That’s a very typical occurrence. We call it the Tall Poppy Syndrome. If someone grows too tall, we lop their heads off (metaphorically, of course). All of our great stars and scientific innovators have had to look to overseas for recognition of their brilliance. We simply cannot see the great ones among us. Even when the rest of the world falls in love with one of our countrymen, that’s no guarantee we’ll suddenly see through their eyes what was in front of us the whole time. When Taylor Swift sang that “People throw rocks at things that shine,” she may well have been talking about the whole nation of Australia. As a tribe, we champion mediocrity and reject brilliance.

So imagine then, what we thought of that humongous bright light that was Steve Irwin. There was not a cynical bone in that man’s body. He never “took the piss,” our expression for the dubious humor that can be had from bullying one another out of the side of the mouth with a biting but humorous taunt. He was loud, he was loving, and he didn’t even drink. He wore his safari suit without even a drop of irony. And he was as successful as they come. He was not one of us.

Of course, he didn’t stop to think about it. He was too busy being awesome!

His death was a shock to all of us, and most of us can remember where we were when we heard. It was like hearing of the death of a child, such was our collective grief. I was collecting my daughter from primary school, and many parents were visibly weeping, including me. Sometimes you just don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. We’ve come to adore him, and now, we will cripple anyone who speaks his name in vain. I’d like to think we’ve learned a thing in the 10 years that have passed since the death of Our Steve, but we could always learn a few more. We could sure use a little more child-like enthusiasm, a little more honest curiosity, and little more humility and awe at the beauty of our country and all its varied inhabitants.

And if I had one wish for us all this Australia Day, it would be to inject a little more Steve in the heart of every Australian.

Rest in peace, mate. And thanks for the inspiration.

Check out Bindi Irwin’s tribute to her dad on last year’s season of Dancing with the Stars.

[Image via Shutterstock]