Sydney is the Elizabeth Taylor of Australian cities.
It is a little-appreciated fact that the ageing Hollywood glamazon was born just weeks before the grand opening ceremony for the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932. The city and the star have been making a living off their good looks ever since.
Taylor’s personal life has been the subject of much scandal and gossip, marrying eight times to seven men (twice to Richard Burton). Sydney, meanwhile, has been partnered with no less than 19 premiers in the past 79 years (including a second stint by Jack Lang). More recently under Labor, she has been swapping her bedfellows with increasing regularity.
But age has wearied them. Taylor now cuts an increasingly sad figure, suffering from congestive heart failure, a condition in which blood has trouble travelling to the extremities. Commuters on Sydney’s ailing transport system fight a similar battle every day.
But if Sydney is Elizabeth Taylor, then Melbourne is Helen Mirren. Far from faded glory, Mirren is using her later years to put in some of the best performances of her career. And boy can she rock a swimsuit!
In eight days, when NSW voters boot Labor out of power for the first time in 16 years, it will be less about the rejection of a few wayward politicians who demonstrate a desire to dance about in their underwear. It will be the rejection of what we see reflected in the mirror.
Sydney has changed. It is a sadder, meaner and angrier place to live. Sydney is a city under siege; from higher house prices, to mortgages, electricity prices, toll roads, congestion … you name it.
Research by Access Economics shows the proportion of people choosing to live in NSW as opposed to other Australian states has been shrinking since the Olympics. And yet the population continues to swell, putting more pressure on existing resources.
Neglect of fundamental economic issues such as infrastructure, land supply and public transport means Sydney has failed to keep up with the increasing demands on it. Every day brings another car on the roads, but no extra road. Every weekend brings another bidder at the auction, but hardly any extra homes. Sydney is a city collapsing in on itself. Not waving, but drowning.
Try as we might to resist, all this breeds a greater distrust and resentment towards one another. That guy who cut into your lane without waving thanks. The woman who took the last seat on the bus. The Joneses who have a nicer house, backyard, car, holiday home.
Burdened by supersized mortgages, we eat at home rather than venturing out. Frustrated by public transport we lock ourselves in our cars, listening not to the banter of fellow passengers but the irate rants of conservative radio hosts.
Sydney has always been a tribal city, split between the north shore, eastern suburbs and western suburbs. But those divisions are becoming ever more entrenched. Not only is it physically difficult to get from one enclave to the next, rising house prices in well-located areas are entrenching inequality across the generations.
Housing wealth is passed between parent and child in a previously unimaginable way, as parents are called upon to support their children financially into homes. Never before has it been more important how rich your parents are.
Bob Cummins, Australia’s leading happiness expert and lead researcher on the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, confirms Sydneysiders are the most miserable of all the state capital residents bar Perth, which is also dealing with rapid population growth and strain on resources.
“There are significant differences between the various states and Sydney and Perth are the two that have the lowest subjective wellbeing of the capital cities, and I think Sydney is probably just too big. It has very high density of people.
“Melbourne and Brisbane seem to be the two that do well. I think Melbourne hasn’t a lot of the problems that Sydney has. Density of living is lower. The traffic isn’t quite as awful.”
Professor Cummins says the happiest place to live in Australia is probably a regional centre, somewhere near the coast, with a population of about 20,000 to 30,000 people, meaning there is enough infrastructure to support them and they do not feel disconnected from the neighbours. “If you feel attached to your community, you tend to know the people around you and tend to trust them more, you tend to feel safer.”
Cracks are beginning to show. Parts of western Sydney have become hotbeds for discontent over federal immigration and asylum seeker policies. Perhaps one of the most enduringly strange images of the last federal election campaign was of Julia Gillard flanked by western Sydney MP David Bradbury as they patrolled for people smugglers off the coast of Darwin. But this hostility to higher migration is less a racial issue and more the product of too many people, not enough resources.
When accounts of NSW Labor’s years of power are written, the worst sins recorded will not be the things they did do – the personal scandals – but what they didn’t do: the reforms, the investments they were too busy playing politics to undertake. Neglect of this scale tears at the social fabric of a place.
Does Barry O’Farrell get it? Sydney doesn’t just need a leader, it needs a healer. Does O’Farrell understand the challenge ahead?
On behalf of every frustrated Sydneysider, it’s time to rage, rage against the dying of the light.