15/12/2014 10:50 GMT | Updated 14/02/2015 05:59 GMT

What Australia Is All About

The #illridewithyou campaign in a shining example of everything that's fantastic about Australia - even if as a Kiwi I have to say it through gritted teeth.

Australia is a funny old place.

Like the American cousins, they've got a lot of big, empty spaces, what is politely known as a 'frontier mentality' and a tendency to come across as a bit rough round the edges.

Us Kiwis tend to treat them a bit like the English treat the Americans - as big, dumb, possibly inbred cousins from the country who struggle with big concepts like climate change, but who basically mean well.

Which is possibly a little unfair. With the exception of the open wound that is both the history and current treatment of the indigenous population - a problem no Australian politician has yet proven brave enough to even look straight in the eye, let alone address - it is a remarkably multicultural and well-integrated society.


Muslim schoolgirls play Aussie Rules in Adelaide - photo courtesy of Michael Coghlan

Melbourne boasts the southern hemisphere's largest Jewish community, the country's growing football prowess is driven by the enthusiasm of enormous Greek and Italian diasporas and immigrants from Lebanon and the former Yugoslavia retain strong identities.

More recently, immigration from South East Asia has changed the face of suburbs in cities across Australia - and most of the time everyone muddles along together reasonably peacefully.

Sure, every once in a while they do something like elect gurning simpleton/bigot Tony Abbott, but generally Australia could be pointed to as a shining example of successfully integrating successive waves of immigrants from disparate nations.

However, the recent history of relations with the country's growing and relatively recently settled Muslim community has been more fraught. The disgraceful treatment of and political point-scoring around 'boat-people'; attempts to whip up anti-Muslim feeling by Australia's Abbotts and Pauline Hansons; and journalists (as per the UK) getting more mileage out of ranting nutters than those quietly enjoying a new life in a country where people don't get shot for hemline violations have all played a role.

And now this. As I write, the hostage taker in Sydney has been identified as an Iranian refugee - a loner on bail for violent offences apparently, evoking similarities with Canada's recent tragedy.

There will be those who blame the situation on Muslims and Islam generally, although this is hardly a phenomenon unique to Australia. Although you never know, Tony Abbott may rise to the occasion and say something sensible once this is all over - but I doubt he'll break the habit of a lifetime.

Australians, however, have already begun to show us what they're made of. In the wake of an tweeted story about a woman removing her hijab while travelling on public transport this morning for fear of abuse or attack, Sydney residents - in their tens of thousands! - have begun backing a Twitter campaign, #illridewithyou, offering to accompany Muslim Australians on their journeys and stand alongside them to combat any backlash.

Described by one tweeter as "not just a practical show of solidarity, but a lifetime commitment to anyone who might feel marginalised", it is a grassroots campaign of direct action in the no-nonsense, get-on-with-it vein Aussies consider to be their forte.

Larissa Tuohy, a journalist who commutes from Sydney's furthest northern suburbs to close by the scene of the siege, has joined others in printing a sticker bearing the slogan to mark herself out to those travelling by train who could potentially face abuse in the weeks to come.

She says: "It's a beautiful idea, and gives me hope we aren't just a nation of bigots and bogans."

It's difficult to say it, but well-done Aussies - I'm proud of you today (not you Abbott). If you could just sort out the little problem of the indigenous community and stop making nasty sheep jokes about your nearest neighbours, people might even begin to think you're growing up.