Two of Australia's most renowned animals are feeling the hard times.
The onset of winter down under brings the prospect of millions of chilly, or frustrated, sheep. A strike by shearers over the width of a comb means the sheep have too much wool to mate, and will be out in the cold when they do get sheared.
Meanwhile, the country's cuddly koala bears--which are not really bears at all and may not be so cuddly--have never been so insulted. The minister of tourism, seeking to widen the image of what makes Australia attractive, dismissed the koala, saying it is "flea-ridden, it piddles on you, it stinks and it scratches."
The difficulties of Australia's 132 million sheep stem from a strike by up to 20,000 shearers. In one of those labor disputes that baffle non-Australians and that even many of the initiated find absurd, the shearers went on strike two months ago to protest the use of wide combs on shears.
It seems that the thousands of New Zealanders working in Australia have introduced a steel comb that is 13 millimeters (about half an inch) wider than the standard size agreed between woolgrowers and the shearers of the Australian Workers' Union.
The shearers get paid per sheep shorn, and they presumably can shear more sheep in the same amount of time with a wider comb. But they feel that eventually wider combs might cost some jobs, and they are determined to enforce use of the union-stipulated size.
This is not only bad news for Australia's $2 billion-a-year wool industry; it is also hard on the sheep. As a result of the strike at the height of the shearing season, many of them are getting quite woolly. Hence the difficulty in mating.
And even if they do manage it, many ewes may not survive the rigors of lambing because of the heavy load of wool they are carrying, sheep owners warn. Many lambs, too, may die from being unable to suckle, the owners say.
Thus they fear the strike will result in sharply reduced flocks, and this after a drought that has cut the Australian sheep population by about 4 million from last year.
If the shearers do go back to work soon, the woolgrowers say, the late shearing stands to make the next few months--Australia's winter--quite chilly for many sheep. Radios will announce "sheep alerts" in particularly cold weather, and woolgrowers will have to rush out with thousands of specially designed small plastic coats to protect their flocks.
"This is one of the stupidest strikes I've ever seen," a western diplomat said. "But it illustrates that there is something different about labor-management relations in Australia."
Besides the effects on the sheep, the strike lowers the quality of the wool (the longer it stays on the sheep, the dirtier it gets) and reduces the amount available for export. Up to now, Australian wool has accounted for 10 percent of the country's exports and a quarter of the world's wool requirements.
Insult was added to injury in the Australian animal kingdom recently by John Brown, the new minister for sport, recreation and tourism.
Addressing a gathering last month on the need to promote Australia as a "more diverse tourist destination," Brown shocked his audience by heaping scorn on the beloved koala, which is featured in many Australian advertising campaigns abroad.
He spoke of a need to destroy "the koala myth," even though the furry marsupial is an Australian symbol and has been chosen as the national team's mascot at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
"The belief of Americans that they are a lovely, cuddly little bear is fairly well exploded when they get here and pick one of the rotten little things up," Brown said before stunned tourism industry leaders at the Brisbane luncheon. "They find it's flea-ridden, it piddles on you, it stinks and it scratches."
Judging by the irate newspaper editorials and letters to the editor, many Australians were not amused. "You leave our koalas alone," warned the Melbourne Herald. Other papers began referring to Brown with phrases like "our koala-denigrating minister for tourism."
One reader described his "bewilderment and indignation" at Brown's remarks. Another wrote that he had "picked up koalas and never got a flea. Is it possible that the fleas were there because someone else cuddled the little bear?"
The opposition spokesman for tourism got into the act by carrying a large toy koala into the House of Representatives in Canberra and seating it in the chair usually occupied by Brown, who was absent that day. The house speaker said stiffly that he did not think the action appropriate, and the spokesman carried the koala out.
Brown seemed unrepentant. In a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald, he suggested that few tourists actually come here just to see koalas. "And in any case, just how long can anyone stand about fondling a furry, 'lovable' marsupial?" he asked, adding that a visitor to Australia "wants better value for money than the questionable thrill of a koala's embrace."
"Forget the piddling koalas," Brown wrote. "Let's come of age as a sophisticated, exciting nation and let's start selling it that way."
Koala specialists conceded that there was some truth in Brown's remarks. The normally dozy marsupial--a member of the wombat family and distantly related to the opossum--can get ill-tempered if handled, like many other undomesticated animals. And if frightened they might urinate.
"But it's not like they come roaring down out of the trees to pee on you," says Dominic Fanning, a koala specialist in the zoology department of the University of New South Wales.
Many Australians believe the koala's usual docility comes from being more or less drugged most of the time on the juice from eucalyptus leaves, which make up the koala's diet. It is when the "high" starts to wear off that the koala gets irritable, according to the common belief.