Thursday, May 30, 2013

A Shout Out to Sweden

I know I blogged about Eurovision last year – two separate entries in fact – and I probably don’t need to blog about it again this year… except that I need to blog about it again this year.  This year, Eurovision was all about Sweden, even though it wasn’t all about Sweden.  Also, as strange as it is for a country that isn’t in Eurovision, this year it was also all about Australia.

I mentioned previously that Australian viewers get a shout out from the Eurovision hosts every year.  This year it was a bit different.  This year we got several shout outs – during each of the two semi-finals and the final itself.  But there was more – so much more.  All 170+ million viewers across Europe saw this clip – all about Australia:

Amazeballs!  We’ve been noticed down here!  And just as the video says, there were heaps of Eurovision parties, including one at my apartment again this year.  Everybody brought food from a different competing country.  I had done Israel and Denmark in the past, so I decided to change it up again this year and go for Belgium.  I bought a waffle maker and several bottles of Belgian beer.  I have to say it was a stellar choice.

This year’s host country – Sweden – gave Australia a big shout out, so it’s only fair that I give a shout out back to them.  Last year’s host country – Azerbaijan – spent over a billion dollars to build a lavish new arena for the event.  Yes, the venue looked pretty fantastic, but was it really necessary?  Also, the Azerbaijanis bombarded us with images and video clips of their country throughout the entire program, including before each contestant.  And they had 3 hosts on stage.  Overkill!  Sweden did it a bit different.  In the midst of a financial crisis that is plaguing much of Europe, Sweden kept it real.  For starters, their budget was under 19 million dollars.  That’s not much for an event that is watched by more people than the Super Bowl.  Also, they poked fun at themselves incessantly.  They even joked about how the event wasn’t being held in a big arena in Stockholm, but rather in a smaller, older venue in Malmo, Sweden’s third largest city.  Rather than bombard viewers with images and clips of Sweden before each contestant, they actually had clips of each contestant in their home country.  It was quite lovely.  But there were two things that were super fantastic about this year’s Eurovision Song Contest:  (1) The Gays and (2) Petra Mede.

The Gays.

It’s no secret that Eurovision has a huge gay following, but that wasn’t really acknowledged in Azerbaijan last year, mainly because their record on gay rights isn’t so fantastic.  But Sweden is the polar opposite, and the gays shined.  The hostess made references to the gays at several points in the show, even joking that all of the single men in the audience just hadn’t found the right girl yet.  Some of the acts themselves were pretty gay.  I was rooting for Finland in the final, and singer Krista Siegfrids’ song “Marry Me” ended with a lesbian kiss to show support for marriage equality and to raise awareness of it in Finland (the only Nordic country without marriage for all).

And then there was Ireland’s entry.  Look at the guys on the drums in the beginning (and all throughout).  If there was ever going to be a number designed specifically for a gay audience, this was most certainly it.  Yummylicious.

But it really got gay with the hostess of the show, which brings me to the other thing.

Petra Mede.

Petra Mede was the sole host of the show (why have 3 mediocre hosts when you can have 1 amazing one?)  She’s a Swedish comedian and she was fantastic throughout the entire program, but it was the end of the final that really skyrocketed Petra Mede to a place of high regard in my book.  While the votes were being tallied, Petra Mede decided it was time to finally sell Sweden to the European audience.  And I think this musical number here is probably the best thing I have ever seen on TV:

First of all, I had no idea Celsius was a Swede, though I did know about the Nobel Prize being from there.  I just loved the way she poked fun at her own country – a lot – an awful lot – but it was hilarious.  She even mentioned the Swedish Chef from the Muppets.  OMG!  And even though she pretty much tore Swedes apart with all of their idiosyncrasies and hard-to-assemble Ikea furniture, she did it in a very loving and endearing way and somehow turned it all into a positive and subtly reminded the rest of Europe that Sweden is better than they are.  Seriously.  Did you see the gay wedding in the song?  The very next line of the song was “Follow our example…”  Oh yes.  She might as well have lined up government officials from every Eastern European country and just smacked them right there on stage.  She was bragging about Sweden’s record on gay rights and recycling and gender roles and accomplishments… and rightfully so.  Sweden is awesome.  It was refreshing to see it brought to attention, particularly the marriage equality shout out, especially after the contest was held in a hostile country last year.  So, for the most entertaining Eurovision ever (well, of the four that I've seen), I must tip my hat to Petra Mede and the rest of Sweden for putting on a fantastic show.  Bravo!

Denmark was crowned champion this year and so has the honor of hosting next year’s contest.  They are going to have a lot of work on their hands if they are going to try to top Sweden’s show.  Now the big question:  Which country should I pick for next year?  Maybe I’ll go Sweden and just pop over to the Ikea and pick up a bunch of stuff from their food section.  Done!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Free Healthcare!

As I very excitedly mentioned in my previous blog, I am now entitled to Medicare.  Woohoo!!!

Medicare is Australia’s universal health care system.  America:  take notes.  Medicare was implemented nearly 40 years ago, and after some fluctuations and political maneuvering, was finally left intact as a permanent feature about 10 years after that.  Of course, just like in America today, there was political debate, and the bill to implement Medicare faced an uphill fight.  The two chambers of Parliament were controlled by different parties, and the Medicare bill was one of the major ones they were squabbling over at the time, though apparently there were a few other controversial bills too.  The fight was so fierce that it led the Queen’s representative here to actually dissolve Australia’s Parliament.  To date, that was the only time Australia’s Parliament has been dissolved by the monarch.

So, what does it entail?  First, let me run a disclaimer:  I’m new to this system, so not entirely sure yet, but I think the below is pretty accurate.  Also, it’s actually quite complicated, so this is a very simplified version.  I think.

So, going to the hospital is free as long as you go to a public hospital.  Going to the doctor is free as long as you go to a doctor that “bulk bills” patients (basically, a doctor who agrees to charge the minimum Medicare rate).  And apparently eye exams are also free but I have yet to explore this fully.  So, what don’t you get?  Well, you don’t get to go to a private hospital.  And you won’t get a private room even in a public hospital.  And no, you can’t choose your doctor.  And yes, you may have to wait a few months to have your tonsils out because it’s not life-threatening.  But rest assured that if you have a heart attack or stroke or are diagnosed with cancer, that you’ll be treated quickly and efficiently at no cost to you.

Let me repeat:  something that would cost tens of thousands of dollars or more – even with insurance – in the US, is absolutely free in Australia.  And this is probably reason # 1 why I moved here.  Cancer doesn’t automatically mean you have to take out a second mortgage.

Also, prescriptions are subsidized by the government as well, so you won’t pay more than $35-ish for any necessary medications.  Not too shabby.

Now, of course, you may pay other out-of-pocket expenses for things aside from pharmaceuticals.  Some doctors charge a higher rate, and the difference between the higher rate and the Medicare approved rate is called the “gap”.  If you really want to go to a certain doctor that costs more and you end up spending a lot of money on gap payments, or have a lot of prescriptions and have to pay quite bit out of pocket, you’ll probably get a rebate or a tax break from the government.  Again, not too shabby.

Also, you have to pay extra out of pocket if you want your own room in a hospital, or if you want to go to a private hospital (though, I’ve heard that public hospitals have more funding and therefore better equipment).  Dental is not included in Medicare.  Neither are glasses nor contacts.  Neither are physiotherapy nor chiropractic.

So, what do you do in those situations?

That’s where private health insurance comes in.  And it conveniently works that it’s often times cheaper than Medicare.  “But Medicare is free, right?”  Yes, but higher income earners pay an additional Medicare levy surcharge of 1.5% of their annual income.  But, if you take out an acceptable level of private health insurance, the levy gets waived.  Also, unless you’re super rich, the government provides a subsidy for private health insurance, and the level depends on your age and income.  I only get a 10% discount because I’m young and single, but I think some people can get up to 40% off if they’re older or have children.  Also, unlike in America, private health insurance here is cheap.  Super cheap.  “Cheap as chips” as the Aussies would say, though they always complain about how expensive it is.  They have no idea.

To get my discount on taxes, I purchased a plan which gives me some basic private hospital cover as well as “extras cover”.  The hospital cover allows me to go to a private hospital, get my own room, and avoid most waiting periods.  As an example, you may have to put your name down on a year-long wait list for something like tonsils when using Medicare, but it may be only a week or two if using private health insurance.  It also provides ambulance cover, which is not a part of Medicare and would normally cost several hundred dollars.  I’d just call a taxi.

The “extras cover” also provides a bunch of other stuff that’s not included in Medicare.  This includes dental, physiotherapy, chiropractic, podiatry, and a bunch of natural therapies such as acupuncture, Chinese herbalism, homeopathy, aromatherapy, remedial massage, and more.

Let me just repeat that:  my health insurance covers acupuncture, aromatherapy, massage, and drugs dispensed by an old Chinese man.  I’m not even shitting you.  And this stuff is considered pretty standard for private health insurance in Australia.  Wow.

Now, it doesn’t always cover the full cost of these things – I’m likely to pay 20% - 40% out of pocket for most “extra” services, especially those provided by a dentist, doctor, or old Chinese man outside my insurance company’s preferred provider network.  But really, that’s not a big deal because most doctors and medical-ish services are pretty cheap in Australia.  Also, my entire plan cost less than $850… for an entire year… That’s like a monthly premium in the US.  The best part:  that is actually less than the Medicare levy surcharge for me, so I’m actually saving money by purchasing private health insurance.  Now, I could go out and buy the Mercedes of insurance plans which pays for everything and the kitchen sink, but I don’t think I’ll need the pregnancy cover anytime soon.  So I’ll stick with my Hyundai type plan.  It’s not very classy but it’s fairly reliable for now.  I’ll consider upgrading to a Honda type plan one day.

But wait!  There’s more!  Just as getting permanent residency in Australia came with the added bonus of full rights to live, work, and/or study in New Zealand, it also comes with a reciprocal health agreement!  So, if I get sick when travelling to New Zealand, I can just flash my Medicare card and “Bam!” I get treated!  Ok, so there may be a bit more paperwork involved, but I’d fill out a few forms for free healthcare.  And just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, not only does Australia have a reciprocal healthcare agreement with New Zealand, it also has similar agreements with the United Kingdom, Ireland, Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Italy, Slovenia, and Malta.  So, if I’m sick in Stockholm – “Bam!” Covered.  Diseased in Dublin?  “Bam!” Covered.  Ailing in Antwerp?  “Bam!”  That’s covered too!  I love alliteration.

Do you know who Australia does not have a reciprocal healthcare agreement with?


Because the US doesn’t have a healthcare system to reciprocate with.

Ain’t that some shit?

Monday, May 27, 2013

Australian Permanent Residency

It’s been a month since I last blogged and a lot has happened since my last entry.  Work has been insane which is the main reason I haven’t had a chance to sit down and type up something meaningful, but a big project that I’ve been working on is now complete so I can take a bit of a breather and focus on things more important than work… like my blog!

The biggest news from the past month:  I am now an Australian Permanent Resident!  Woohoo!

That basically means I can quit my stinkin’ job if they make me do any more massive projects like the last one.  So, what is permanent residency?  For the Americans in the audience, it’s basically a Green Card.  Previously, I was in Australia on a work visa that tied me to my employer.  My employer sponsored me, and if I quit or was fired, that sponsorship would cease and I’d be shipped back off to the old country.  Ick!  But now it’s all different:  I am no longer tied to a company.  I may still work for the man, but I don’t necessarily need him.  I have the right to remain in Australia indefinitely.  But that’s just the beginning.

Not only can I remain in Australia forever, I can also work here – wherever I want – except for a few government type jobs where citizenship is required.  I can study here – whatever I want – so if I want to go back to school and learn a skill that’s more interesting than insurance, I can do that.  Woohoo!  I can travel to and from Australia as often as I want for the next five years, after which time I’d basically need to get a supplementary travel visa which is quick and painless to apply for.  But wait! There’s more!

I am now eligible to access a range of social and health-related payments and services provided by the Australian Government.  So, if I lose my job, I can apply for the dole.  The “dole” is what Australians call welfare or unemployment benefits (because the government doles it out to people).  Trust that I’ll stay far away from the dole, mainly because that requires going into a government office which would surely be filled with a bunch of poor people all begging for money.  Horrifying.  On a less horrifying note, I now qualify for some types of student loans and even “dad and partner pay”.  That’s a foreign concept for an American.  In Australia, you get a “baby bonus” for breeding or adopting – just a bunch of money from the government for each child you have – and you get a year of parental leave as well (maternity or paternity leave).  Gay couples qualify too because this is Australia after all, and even though New Zealand just leapt ahead in the race for equality, Australia is still pretty progressive, especially when compared with America.  So, if I were to meet Mr. Right tomorrow and then marry him (or really, form a de facto relationship with him) right away and then adopt a child together and decide to take a year off work, then I would now qualify for some financial support from the government because I’m a permanent resident.

But trust that I won’t do that either.  I can’t stand children like I can’t stand poor people.

The big benefit, however, is Medicare.  Medicare is Australia’s universal health care and I’m in love with it because I’m sort of a socialist.  I went and enrolled in Medicare the very next day after my visa was granted.  Medicare will thus have a whole entry devoted to it at a later date.

As a permanent resident, I am now allowed to sponsor other people for permanent residency, such as an overseas partner (I’m still looking…) or a family member (except for you, Mom – because I couldn’t handle you kvetching about the giant bugs).  Even more:  I can get some Australian consular assistance overseas which is far more useful to me than sponsoring my imaginary boyfriend or a family member who would surely have a heart attack at the first sight of a huntsman spider.

And just when you thought that the list of benefits couldn’t grow any longer, while researching all of my entitlements just to write this blog, I stumbled upon something that I hadn’t even considered or thought of at all throughout this process:  New Zealand.

I am entitled to New Zealand.


Ok, I’m not entitled to all of New Zealand, but I am entitled to travel to New Zealand without a visa, and even more, I am entitled to remain there indefinitely, and even to work and study!  Just like in Australia!  It’s sort of like a European Union-style arrangement except it’s only two countries instead of twenty-seven and there aren’t as many snooty French people.  BONUS!  Two countries for the price of one!  Woohoo!  Ok, actually, it is more like two countries for the price of twenty-seven.  Which brings me to…

The process of applying for my “PR” (as it’s known in the expat community) was a bit tedious and by no means cheap.  The use of a migration agent is recommended and most employers who sponsor you for PR require it – to ensure it’s done right the first time.  Migration agents also aren’t cheap.  I had to supply a lengthy application, police checks from both the US and Australia, a birth certificate, university transcripts, a full medical exam (yay for peeing into a cup!), and a hell of a lot more.  I also had to list every single country I had been to in the past decade and the dates I was there.  So, how many times did I drive across the border to Canada when I lived in Seattle?   Heaps of times.  And how many times did they stamp my passport?  None.  Fun!  Thankfully I had archived Gmail and Facebook messages which came to the rescue.  The agent did their job and did it well, but my company threw a bunch of other obstacles at me which was entirely unpleasant.  My information was in months before the submit date, but my company waited for months to even start on their piece and didn’t have it all in until just after the last minute.  Thanks!  But, once my application was filed, it only took six weeks to the day for my visa to be approved, so my hat comes off to the Australian Government Department of Immigration and Citizenship for doing their part quickly and efficiently.  Is this was the US, the process undoubtedly would have taken years.

The most important part of this all:  permanent residency also paves a pathway to citizenship for me.  I can apply to become an Australian citizen – passport and all – in less than a year.  The citizenship process is easier – all of the hard stuff is taken care of with the PR.  So with any luck, I should be a true blue Aussie by mid-2014.  And you know what that means…

I’ll be entitled to ALL THE TIM TAMS I CAN CHOKE DOWN.  WOOHOO!!!!

Wait.  Australian citizenship does come with a lifetime supply of Tim Tams, right?