Melbourne, the club we secretly wish we could join
Like my fellow South Australians, I’m still upset about the poaching of Stephen Kernahan and John Platten, irritated about the theft of the Grand Prix and annoyed that the only body of water in Australia more fetid than the Yarra is the glorified drainpipe we call the Torrens.
Despite a lifetime of hard-wired antipathy towards the Vics, I’ve been kindly invited by Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper to fill its opinion page the next four Mondays. Rather than filing ad hoc pieces on issues of the day, I’ve decided to attempt a themed series about all things Victorian, through an outsider’s eyes.
My equally well-balanced Adelaideans who also have chips on both shoulders might disown me for not entitling the series Why Everyone Hates Victoria. Instead, I’ve stumped for What Australia Really Thinks About Victoria, with four pieces looking at Melbourne’s personality, the nation’s love-hate relationship with the AFL, why Melbourne has won in its rivalry with Sydney, and the 10 things which make Victoria what it is and which all Australians should know.
There is an entertaining game involving Australia’s six capital cities where you have to define them as American or European. Three are American and three European. It sounds tricky, but as you come up with the answers it makes sense.
The new money towns of Perth and Brisbane and flashy, trashy Sydney are our three American cities. Quaint little Hobart and stuffy, artsy Adelaide, are European. Melbourne, is the most European of all – a place which is sophisticated, stylish, sometimes to the point of being up itself, with its pretentious celebration of laneway bars and that hot new tapas place off Little Whatsit Street that you simply have to try, and its smug conviction that it’s the only true centre of sport and culture.
This tendency towards self-absorption is offset by three greater qualities. First, Melbourne might occasionally be a bit pleased with itself but it is rarely crass, save perhaps for the last race at Flemington on the first Tuesday in November.
Second, Melbourne is the least shouty of our cities, and has transcended much of the unpleasantness which passes for public discussion elsewhere, nowhere more so than in Sydney.
Third, Melbourne is a city which, for good or for ill, sticks together.
In other Australian cities, failures of public policy are met with the exasperated declaration that no-one should be surprised because everything is stuffed anyway. Melbourne in contrast oozes civic pride. In Brisbane and Perth people complain that infrastructure hasn’t matched growth. In Adelaide and Hobart people complain that things haven’t grown at all, and complain more when they threaten to grow. Sydney works on the expectation that the next disaster is just around the corner. Melbourne operates on the happy presumption that it’s doing pretty well for a big city; and when things go wrong, sets about to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Equally, when it comes to public people in Victoria, or beloved institutions such as the AFL which occasionally find themselves in strife, the inclination is to rally in solidarity for the greater good of Victoria’s reputation, even to the point of pulling back on deserved criticism.
There are two episodes which, to me, help explain the psychology of Victoria. One is from our pioneering past and is one of the greatest yet most tragic adventures on record. One is recent, from the business world, merely a footnote in our corporate history.
The first is the expedition of Burke and Wills, which to this day stands as the benchmark for Victorian boosterism, an expedition which was doomed from the start but hailed in its abject aftermath as a source of state pride, something bold and visionary, rather than a spectacular example of poor judgment. This very Victorian capacity to forgive endures to this day and can be seen in the treatment of Melbourne identities such as Richard Pratt, Steve Vizard or Rex Hunt, men who made serious lapses of judgment, deserved all the flak they got, possibly more, and who in a city such as Sydney would have been denied the rehabilitation they enjoyed in their decorous hometown. If Simon Overland had been Police Commissioner of NSW he would have been dragged down George St twelve months ago.
The second episode involves another ill-fated expedition, the journey made by Eddie McGuire to Sydney as CEO of the Nine Network in 2006. McGuire was appointed at an unenviable time when the station was impossible to manage – Kerry Packer had just died, it was lagging in the ratings, dozens of staff had been sacked and were leaking. McGuire was stranded in Australia’s least supportive city, without his support network. He failed to grasp that in that shambling convict town, when people see a fight in progress they don’t try to break it up, they either watch or join in. There was none of the clubbiness Melbourne afforded him, no old mates act to rely on, and he was gone within 16 months.
Other Victorians have struggled in Sydney in a way which is actually a credit to them. Steve Price never carved up the ratings with 2UE because he wasn’t rude enough for Sydney talkback. If the level-headed Neil Mitchell drove up the Hume he’d be laughed out of town as a ponse.
Recent politics gave us one of the best examples of the more genteel Victorian demeanour in Peter Costello’s fatal presumption that John Howard, one of the great junkyard brawlers of Australian history, would bow out of the prime ministership because the treasurer deserved his turn. Costello prided himself on his civility; Howard doubted Costello’s backbone and wouldn’t make way. Another pointer: the 2001 election ads featuring Howard saying “we will decide who comes here” were on high rotation in Sydney but not screened in Melbourne at all.
Next week’s instalment looks at AFL. It begins with an excellent speech given about Aussie Rules by the unlikely winner of the 1996 Federal Parliament footy tipping competition, John Howard himself, which said a lot about Victoria.
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