Has Dobbing Become a New Cultural Phenomenon in Australia?

August 8, 2021 Updated: August 10, 2021


An interesting side effect of COVID-19, which has largely been lost in the avalanche of information and disinformation surrounding the vaccine debate, is that, increasingly, more Australians are tipping off police about alleged breaches of public health orders.

There is no doubt that the pandemic has accelerated the trend of “dobbing-in” (also known as snitching) for alleged violations of COVID restrictions, lockdowns, and border closures that are being created and implemented by state political leaders on the advice of their chief medical officers.

One only needs to look at the spectacular increase in the number of complaints received by the authorities following recent protests against lockdowns in Sydney—New South Wales Police received over 20,000 tip-offs.

Of course, the phenomenon is not new.

On Dec. 9, 2002, the Sydney Morning Herald published a provocative piece called, “The New Culture of Dobbing.”

It noted that Australia had become “a dobber’s paradise” and that during the tail end of the 20th century, it would have been unthinkable and “positively unAustralian” to dob-in your neighbours. But nowadays, ordinary members of the public are “bombarded with offers to turn informant against fellow citizens.”

Since then, more stringent environmental management rules-driven partly by the global warming movement—has propelled people into dobbing-in those deemed to have violated these new standards and regulations.

In the process, it has become common for individuals to observe one another more closely, including for issues like throwing waste on footpaths, littering in the bush, wasting water, or dropping cigarette butts.

On Dec. 23, 2009, a Tasmanian newspaper, The Mercury, claimed Australia had become “a nation of dobbers” and “world-class informers” who dob in tax dodgers as well as “welfare rorters, criminals, litterbugs and water wasters.”

The trend has gained traction, with many institutions introducing hotlines for people to register complaints.

For example, the New South Wales Police website allows complaints to be made online. The Commonwealth Department of Health and organisations such as Ad Standards have also dedicated websites for people to complain about their neighbours.

In addition, many hotlines allow complaints to be made anonymously, with some offering sizeable financial rewards if a conviction can be obtained against a presumed miscreant.

Most people would probably have been the victim of snitching during their careers and lives.

Having worked at various universities for over 40 years, I know first-hand that, not infrequently, even distinguished professors have been dobbed in.

For example, junior colleagues have reported professors to university administrators for daring to deliver paid lectures at different universities without asking permission. Oftentimes, these complaints include “evidence” of the lecture obtained online.

Typically, such an incident would run foul of the university’s obtuse ethical rules of conduct and would invariably lead to a reprimand or further disciplinary actions.

The development of a dobbing-in culture is worrying for a variety of reasons. Hence, it is necessary to consider whether this culture is un-Australian. What is the effect of this development on Australia’s philosophy of “mateship?”

Australia inherited the verb “to dob” from the British. However, the word was rarely used prior to the 1950s, possibly because it was deemed un-Australian to dob-in your neighbour—a tradition stretching back to convict times.

Bruce Moore, in an informative article entitled “The Story of ‘Dob,’” explained that the phrase was used in English dialects in the 19th century and had several meanings, one of which was “to incriminate” or “to inform upon.”

It has long been a taboo in Australian society to dob on people, especially on one’s mates, but more generally on anybody. This probably has something to do with the fact that any such dobbing in is usually to an “authority,” and therefore runs counter to the strong streak of anti-authoritarianism in the Australian psyche. It also runs counter to the notion of mateship and the fair go.

Moore’s explanation of the British origins of dobbing may remind readers of Donald Horne’s iconic book “The Lucky Country,” published in 1964. Horne claimed controversially that, “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second rate people who share its luck.”

In 1976, in his follow-up “Death of the Lucky Country,” Horne explained that the phrase “The Lucky Country” came from the “luck of its historical origins” and that Australians “simply went along with some British habits.”

One really wonders what the motivation is of people who facilitate the development of the new dobbing-in culture. Is it jealousy of success, or is it the tall poppy syndrome that dismisses the right of a person to enjoy benefits not available to others?

Or is there a heightened sense of civic responsibility that propels people to inform on others who allegedly try to navigate around the ever-growing list of regulations?

Whatever the case clearly, the dob culture has become endemic, even to the extent that this kind of behaviour may well be regarded as un-Australian, clashing with the ideals of mateship and rugged individualism.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Gabriël Moens
Gabriël Moens
Professor Gabriël A. Moens AM is an emeritus professor of law at The University of Queensland, and served as pro vice-chancellor, dean, and professor of law at Murdoch University. He has published a novel about the origins of the COVID-19 disease, “A Twisted Choice,” and recently published a short story, “The Greedy Prospector,” in an Anthology of short stories, “The Outback” (Boolarong Press, 2021).