ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS: Is ‘The Harbour City’ really as good as she thinks she is?


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The EIU’s 2011 most and least expensive cities to live in…

In February this year, the Economist Intelligence Unit published the results of its 2011 Cost of Living survey, ranking Sydney the 7th most expensive city in the world to live in. When smh.com.au ran an online poll about the results, 76% of respondents believed Sydney was “overpriced for what you get”. Only a month earlier another research organisation, US-based Demographia, had claimed Sydney was the 3rd most expensive city in the world.

Meanwhile cities like London and New York clearly aren’t as expensive as they’re perceived to be, coz apparently neither of them even cracked the EIU’s top 20.

One commentator made numerous very great assumptions when he observed that if people wanted to live in such a fabulous city, they must expect to pay for the privilege. He obviously assumed that all 5 million residents of Greater Sydney define fabulousness in the same way; that all think Sydney is as fabulous as Team Sydney would have everyone believe it is; that the fabulousness is evenly distributed and accessible to all; and that all 5 million residents actually choose to live in fabulous Sydney in preference to other less fabulous places. There’s nothing quite like the sparing application of sweeping generalisations.

So having been told, for about the third or fourth time, that she was one of the most hideously expensive places in the world, Sydney then copped a double whammy by missing out on the most prestigious political event Australia could ever hope to witness! Watching the very Sydney-centric fallout from last week’s announcement that the 2014 G20 Summit would be hosted by Brisbane has been quite hilarious! Questions were asked, objections raised and the same pointless wankers who un-friended the EIU on Facebook in February once again jumped to the defence of poor down-trodden, overlooked, unloved and undervalued Sydney… and all I could do was wonder why.

Because all that breast-beating and navel-gazing, that’s just how Sydney rolls. According to Sydney and her loudest supporters, she is the central pivot on which Australia turns. Not only is she the capital city of the great state of New South Wales and our nation’s first city, she’s also a global city and the main reason overseas tourists flock to Australia in droves – never mind any of our other capitals and regional centres and all the wonderful stuff they have to offer, beaches and hinterlands, world-renowned wine regions, the beauty of the West, that big rock in the middle, the tropical wonderland at the top and all the history that comes with that little island off the bottom… it’s all about the Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, Manly and Bondi Beach. And, of course, the lingering memory of the greatest Olympics in the history of the modern Olympiad, which nobody on Team Sydney will ever let anyone forget. That’s why the tourist dollar comes to Australia. That’s why Australia’s popular. That’s why Sydney’s top dog. And besides, who’s even heard of Canberra anyway? Everyone overseas already thinks Sydney is the capital of Australia so there’s no point confusing the issue – and that’s the end of that!

And that may well be the end of that… if only Sydney and her vocal supporters weren’t so consistently arrogant in their presumption of Sydney’s greatness. Sure, from the perspective of the average overseas tourist it’s perfectly obvious why Sydney would figure so highly as a holiday destination of choice – who wouldn’t wanna come here? Iconic structures, endless blue sky and sunshine, kangaroos and koalas running up and down George St all day and night, even mains electricity and running water in some places… the tourist set are always so well-versed before they arrive! I jest, of course…

But what about for those of us who actually live here? Undeniably there are beautiful things all around us – as there are practically everywhere – but most of us don’t have the opportunity to spend our days leisurely admiring the breathtaking views, or wandering around sumptuous parks & gardens, or contemplating the unique architectural splendour of the Opera House.

Apparently there were two key reasons for Sydney not getting the Group of 20 gig. Firstly the small issue that there won’t be a big enough local venue available in 2014, thanks to the impending demolition and rebuilding of the Darling Harbour Convention Centre; secondly, as explained by Prime Minister JGill with her usual air of monotone serenity, Sydney only has one major airport so there wouldn’t be enough room to park all the G20 planes. Unsurprisingly, throughout yet another eloquent – aka extremely carefully worded – passage of discourse, the PM dedicated approximately zero seconds to debating exactly why such a fabulous global city should still only have one major airport. She also welcomed approximately no questions about why 30-40 years of bickering about where to put the second one has thus far resulted in nothing.

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Image credit: housingstressed.org.au

And that’s a convenient place to start looking at what it’s like for Sydney’s residents: why is it so endlessly difficult to get anything done? The city’s been sorely let down by one State Government after another that promises the earth, but delivers very little so, however you frame it, there’s no getting away from one harsh reality: however enticing it might look from the outside looking in, sometimes Sydney can be a very difficult place to live.

For one thing there’s the airport situation, as we’ve already established. Forty years of debating the pros and cons of where to put a second airport, yet we still only have the one. It’s been altered, added to, redesigned, rebuilt, bits of Botany Bay have been reclaimed for extra runways, new railway lines have been built underneath it and what’s the biggest impact on Sydney’s residents to date? Flightpaths have been changed so that previously unaffected areas now find themselves directly beneath several departing 747s each hour. Awesome!

Then there’s Sydney’s public transport. Our trains stop working when it’s too wet and when it’s too hot, neither of which are exactly ‘unexpected weather events’ in Sydney. Innumerable rail network enhancement projects have been downgraded, de-scoped, reversed or cancelled altogether time and again. Our buses are just as stuck in the quagmire of traffic jams as everyone else – so what did they do to help the situation a few years back? They put even more buses on the roads. And as for our ferrys, when they’re not running aground or crashing into other maritime craft, they’re knocked out every time a bit of fog rolls in over the harbour!

Our roads are so congested that even the shortest and simplest of journeys can take hours of stop-start frustration. As fabulous global cities go, our freeways and motorways are also sadly lacking – they’re too narrow, too expensive and there are too few of them. There’s a shameful over-emphasis on speeding and an over-reliance on speed cameras to control Sydney’s roads, when what’s really needed is for someone to take action to avoid the sheer volume of vehicles becoming completely unmanageable.

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The M5 – a fine example of Sydney’s wide, smooth flowing motorway network…
Image credit: The Daily Telegraph

And even once you finally manage to get moving on one of our less-than-fabulous networks of arterial roads, freeways or motorways, it’s still highly likely that you’re a long, long way from anywhere even remotely fabulous because, in case you didn’t already know, Greater Sydney covers an area of more than 12,000km²!

You can’t even walk anywhere with ease these days! There was a time when, by and large, people used footpaths as they would use the road, but nobody seems to know how to keep left any more. Try getting anywhere in Sydney’s CBD on foot and in a more-or-less straight line, be it on the way to work, from work, when running errands at lunchtime, whenever… it’s more like riding a dodgem car than walking a footpath! Watch how often you see two pedestrians doing the hot shoe shuffle, as they both struggle to outmaneuver each other and step around their pavement-pounding nemesis instead of walking into them! It’s hilariously silly. All it would take is a bit of common sense on the part of footpath users… yeah, I’ve heard the old saying about common sense too!

And then there’s the expense! Well that was clearly shown by the #7 ranking on the expensive cities list! A friend summed this one up for me just perfectly a few weeks ago, when spruiking of a fabulous loaf of bread he’d just found… for $6! $6 for a slab of dough?? “But it’s organic”, says he… hmmm, I’m not even close to being convinced. Sure, some things are expensive everywhere but, at least to an extent, some of the expense of Sydney has been imposed on all of us by the creation of this global city monster. It’s supply and demand and the outcome is inevitable – the more fabulous Sydney makes itself, the more people who want a piece of the action will come out to play, the more competition will increase, the more prices will rise, the more we’ll pay and so the cycle goes on.

Somewhat unavoidably though, some of our current expense is probably down to the strength of our dollar against the greenback; I truly feel for unsuspecting Americans who come to Sydney expecting that everywhere they go they’ll find an enormous meal and a smiling server for the equivalent of US$10 inclusive of tip. I can only imagine their abject horror when, after polishing off two average-quality lattes and a couple of baby friands, the ‘check’ for A$25 arrives on one of those silly silver plates, served upon the unsuspecting vacationers more like a court summons than a coffee bill, and without so much as a word let alone a smile. It’s that wonderful air of utter disinterest, bordering on disdain, that makes the service proposition in Sydney such a questionable one. I know, poor waitperson, I feel dreadfully sorry for you and yes I know we don’t have a tipping culture here, but then I also know you’re not being paid $3.25 an hour!

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The Grand Old Dame herself…
Image credit: Flickr

Yes she’s a grand old town, it’s undeniable – a truly beautiful city, full of hidden charms, a colourful (if brief) history, a personality all her own. If you’re ever lucky enough to find yourself bobbing about on the harbour, blue sky and sunshine above, glass of something lubricating in hand, it’s quite easy to wonder how anyone could ever possibly choose to live anywhere else. But then, that’s just it, isn’t it? For some, there is no choice and no likely means of making one any time soon – it’s ‘like it or lump it’ stuff. Meanwhile Old Lady Sydney has become lazy. She’s resting on her laurels, basking in the glory of self-professed fabulousness, idle in both her justification and her maintenance of that reputation. She doffs her oversized Kate Middleton-inspired hat to the wealthy and famous. She cordially invites tourists from all over the world to come to Sydney and spend their hard-earned money on the over-inflated prices she charges for practically everything. And all the while, what of her most loyal subjects – her residents, who can only sit back and watch it all happen? Or maybe they could just leave. I wonder what she’d think of that, Her Royal Highness the Princess Sydney? How would she feel if her subjects began deserting her? What happens when her people become so despondent that they actually start drifting away?

It’s one thing to bring in the tourist dollar and to welcome the rich and famous. It’s another to do those things on little more than a smug assumption of fabulousness, without even working for it. And it’s entirely another to do it all while the day-to-day problems of a city and the people who actually live and work in it, day in and day out, 365 days a year, continue to play second fiddle.

So when’s someone gonna jump to the defence of poor down-trodden, overlooked, unloved and undervalued Sydneysiders?

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