Trams might fly: Melbourne gets the jump on Sydney
This is the third and final piece by Penbo for the Herald Sun about what Australia really thinks of Victoria.
When Melbourne hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2006 its opening ceremony was hailed as delightfully whimsical in its hometown and ridiculed as laughably provincial elsewhere.
In our coverage in Sydney’s Daily Telegraph we ran a double-page spread of flying trams and Leunig ducks under the deliberately annoying headline “And the winner is…still Sydney”, an obvious reference to Juan Antonio Samaranch’s declaration of the 2000 Olympic host city and its much more majestic and ambitious opening ceremony.
The headline wasn’t annoying to Sydney people, of course. They laughed about it on radio the next day as they recalled that blissful year when, aside from poor Cathy Freeman almost spending the evening in a cauldron, we put on an event worthy of a world city which showcased our development as a nation.
The headline annoyed the hell out of Melbourne people who saw it, including Victorian mates working in Sydney and a couple down here at the Herald Sun. “This whole Sydney-Melbourne thing only exists in Sydney’s head,” a Herald Sun friend said tersely. “We don’t even think about Sydney here. We’ve moved on, it’s just that Sydney hasn’t.”
This third and final column about how the rest of Australia sees Victoria examines the Sydney-Melbourne tension. It’s a rivalry which, as a South Australian, I’ve always regarded with bemused detachment, and I’m generally too busy concentrating on the Adelaide-Yass rivalry to give it much thought.
But after living in Sydney myself for almost all of the past 15 years, during which I watched its worst features become more pronounced and its assets harder to access and enjoy, I now think there was more than a grain of truth in the critique of The Tele’s coverage by my Melbourne-loving Herald Sun mate.
On the face of it a headline declaring the winner is still Sydney reeks of civic pride bordering on arrogance.
If you look deeper it belies something else – a sense of insecurity on the part of Sydney, home to a seemingly increasing number of people who think it’s too costly, too congested, cursed by poor or corrupt planning, zoning and entertainment arrangements, and often seemingly run by crooks or incompetents, certainly since the capable Bob Carr did a runner as premier in 2005.
Melbourne’s opening ceremony might have been as hokey and quaint as the Moomba Festival but it spoke of a city contented with itself. I suspect that if you asked many Sydney residents to devise an ensemble theatrical performance which said something about their town, they’d be just as likely to choose a toll road sign as an image of the Harbour Bridge.
Attempts to make Sydney more liveable, more classy and more couth are regarded by many of its old guard as an affront to the city’s way of life. It says something about Sydney that when (Melbourne’s) Barry Humphries invented Sir Les Patterson in the 1960s and performed him as a warm-up act in Sydney Leagues Clubs and RSLs, the crowd assumed he was the local club president who’d been on the razz all day.
Fast forward to 2007 when the forward-thinking Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore flagged the introduction of Melbourne-style licensing laws to allow for the opening of small bars and restaurant alcohol service without meals. “We aren’t barbarians but we don’t want to sit in a hole and drink chardonnay and read a book,” grunted John Thorpe, the head of the NSW branch Australian Hotels Association. “People can sit down, talk about history, chew the fat and gaze into each others eyes and all this sort of baloney but it’s pie in the sky stuff,” he said. “That’s not what Sydney wants.”
Fuggenoath Thorpey. Let’s stick with the cavernous pokie-filled clubs where you can drink til you spew, and banish the ponses and existentialists to Fitzroy.
It’s not just that Sydney has stagnated or got worse over the past decade. It’s that at the same time Melbourne appears to have got better. The city feels planned. Unlike Sydney, there has generally been a good working relationship between the Victorian Government and the Melbourne City Council.
The Docklands is home to some of the best buildings in Australia. It might be a bit windswept and unpopulated at night, but during the day, coming over the Westgate bridge and towards South Bank the city looks like a vibrant reborn dock town, like Bilbao in the Basque region of Spain, which has also reinvented itself by enabling bold design.
Sydney is stuck in conversation about what it needs to fix, rather than what it needs to create. To a point it’s a victim of its own stunning geography – the crazy twists and turns of its waterways, from Palm Beach to Royal National Park, mean it has radiated out over the past couple of centuries in the most haphazard fashion.
It’s also a city that is often accused of complacency, with that complacency deriving from the one thing I just mentioned – its water. This is the one criticism of Sydney I can’t for the life of me understand. Australians and, particularly, Melburnians, who mutter that apart from the Harbour and the beaches, Sydney has got nothing going for it, should really get on a ferry and open their eyes.
It’s like saying that apart from a bloody big hole the Grand Canyon hasn’t got much to offer. To borrow Tim Flannery’s description of Uluru, Sydney Harbour is hallucinogenic in its grandeur. If you find yourself getting misty-eyed about the Yarra, you’ve been drinking from it.
Sydney is probably the most naturally beautiful city on earth, and there seems little point arguing that it’s not the most beautiful city in Australia. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good place to live. It’s a good place to live in theory, it’s just that it’s become so hard or time-consuming or annoying to get to a lot of the best bits that you might as well be somewhere else. Like Melbourne.
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