Urban Force

2 May 2019
Urban Force - Featured image

The growing vibrancy of Sydney and Melbourne will keep underwriting Australia’s growing prosperity well into the 21st century, provided bureaucrats don’t strangle our cities with red tape.

So says John Carroll, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at La Trobe University, and author of 11 books on Australian culture. His latest, Land of the Golden Cities: Australia’s Exceptional Prosperity & the Culture That Made It, was launched by the IPA’s executive director John Roskam in Brisbane.

Editor of the IPA Review Scott Hargreaves (SH) and Research Fellow Andrew Bushnell (AB) interviewed Carroll (JC) to delve deeper into his insights about Australia’s prosperity and cultural identity.

AB: The country that famously rode the sheep’s back now rises on its special talent for vibrant metropolitanism. Why have our cities become so important, and what brought you to write Land of the Golden Cities?

JC: I’ve lived most of my life in Australia, and I like the place. This is an act of gratitude and tribute through a reflection on what makes the place tick. I’ve spent my professional life as a sociologist thinking about how people find meaning in their lives, or don’t, and what holds societies together. That converged with my grand ambition to ask what makes Australian society work, what are its key ingredients?

The cue for the question has been the economic boom since 1990 … it’s an extraordinary achievement. It’s still going. Australia’s economic boom is unique in the developed world, in the OECD. Australia has had two economic booms before, but both were easy to understand. There’s the gold rush boom. If you find a natural resource on the scale Australia found gold, and then have massive immigration following it, you’re going to have a boom. Then there’s the post-war boom. Equally easy to understand, because the whole Western world went through it.

The last boom is very difficult to explain because it’s unique. It’s us alone. If we take the OECD average for growth in those 25 years, Australia beat it by 50 per cent. Now that’s big: 50 per cent bigger growth than the United States, the United Kingdom, Norway, Canada even, is on the average. We have the highest minimum wage in the OECD. We have the smallest gap between the average wage and the lowest wage. Inequality is the lowest in any OECD country, and it’s not increasing. Bill Shorten is completely wrong about this.

SH: Something unique happened in Australia and you’re looking for it in the cities. We’ve historically looked to the bush, but you’re looking much closer to home.

JC: Well, 90 per cent plus of Australia’s wealth is in about point two of one per cent of the country in terms of land area: the cities. Mining is important … but the engine room of growth in this country is in the cities, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney, and to a lesser degree Brisbane. The usual explanations for economic success are political and economic, but focusing only on economics and politics is like saying the light comes on because you flicked the light switch. It does not explain where the energy, the electricity actually comes from. It comes from the culture. The disposition of the people. The institutional habits. The orientation to everyday life, to work, the customs, the instincts of the people. What I’m trying to get at are the peculiar cultural characteristics of Australia that produced this extraordinary economic performance.

AB: Has something fundamentally changed about Australian culture that enabled this growth?

JC: A lot of basic Australian culture—our particular type of democracy, our respect for authority, our sceptical attitude to most things in life, our irreverence, our capacity for inclusiveness and a fair go, and assimilating people—probably hasn’t changed that much. One thing has changed, and that is hard work. Donald Horne, when in 1964 he wrote The Lucky Country—an enormously popular book I hate, because it’s basically wrong—was suggesting Australians are wealthy because they’ve got it lucky. Well, you’ve only to read Geoffrey Blainey on the mining industry to know how difficult mining is in this country. You’ve only got to talk to farmers about fighting mouse plagues, droughts and international banks to know their prosperity is not due to luck.

Today, Australians are extraordinarily hard working. The average male works 46 hours a week. That’s a lot. The average women works 43 hours a week. Statistics show they like this; this is not against their will.

There’s this Protestant work ethic of really incredible industriousness which has developed in this country.

That’s a minor supporting factor to the main part of my thesis, which is that the reason we’ve done so well is that for some strange reason, we are really good at contemporary cities. Those of us who have travelled to Britain and America can see the contrast. The British and the Americans are not particularly good at contemporary cities. We create ones people like to live in: the world’s most liveable cities. I do case studies of Sydney and Melbourne. The biggest chapter is on Melbourne, which is my city. If you go back to 1990, the central business district (CBD) was dead, no one lived there, there was a certain drabness and lifelessness to the central areas, including the inner city. Today, we’ve got this effervescent cosmopolitanism bubbling in cafés and bars and restaurants; 50,000 people live in the CBD. One of the biggest transformations in the life of this country, if not the biggest, is the change we’ve seen in all our cities—and Melbourne is a case in point—to becoming a lot more urban and cosmopolitan.

AB: You quote (American urban studies professor) Richard Florida and others saying that the buzz and fizz of the city is also
what drives entrepreneurship activity and economic growth.

JC: And attracts the creative class Richard Florida talks about. Absolutely. Entrepreneurs make a city and make the vitality. I live in Fitzroy, and I’m always just amazed when I look at Gertrude Street. A place closes down and the shop’s empty, and then suddenly something quite different and quite new appears. And I think, who is this, who has the confidence, the ambition, the capacity to raise capital—because that’s important—and often the flair. A lot of these places have a high aesthetic value. That is typical of the vitality of the city, which spreads as a broadening effect.

AB: Can it last? Suburbs are spreading out, but also going up. Where will kids play sport? Melbourne is projected to be nine million by 2050. Is the Australian culture you talk about, this vibrancy, in danger of being undermined?

JC: That’s possible, of course. Sociologists are very bad predictors of anything, but I’d be surprised if that happens. Australia’s favourite open space is the beach. Melbourne—like other Australian cities—has very close at hand endless beaches where people withdraw, especially in summer. That’s not going to change. Kids playing sport, yes, but schools are there with playgrounds and sports grounds. Australians are very resilient and adaptable, and if this does become a real problem, there’ll be adaptation. The AFL’s Auskick is doing extremely well … attracting more and more kids. Girls are now playing football.

My optimism is based on the long-term sense of how well, by and large, not always, we have done in good times and bad times. Melbourne in 1990 was in danger of turning into what’s happened to Detroit; a rust-bucket city. Car industry in major decline because of reducing tariffs, state banks gone broke, big building society in Geelong’s gone broke. Melbourne is face-to-face with rapid economic stagnation. Doesn’t happen, partly because we’ve got a broad economy. Doesn’t happen, partly because broad multicultural immigration brought so many people from different cultural backgrounds with a sort of energy and enthusiasm and vitality, like all the Greeks who have done well in this city. If we could take 1990 in our stride, which we did, the sort of thing you’re alluding to is much less of a threat.

America, there are big differences. California is bankrupt and doing very badly. Texas is booming, and that has got a lot to do with low regulation, low taxes, and freedom from red tape. One of our threats is over-bureaucratisation. We see it everywhere in this country. That worries me.

AB: On one hand, you’ve got a kind of Michael Oakeshott/FA Hayek story, about the organic emergence of institutions, people coming together to build meaningful lives for themselves. A spontaneous order kind of story. But there’s also an almost nationalist story, about the things government can do to make cities better, to make our culture stronger, and that top-down direction. You talk about the development of northern Australia …

JC: Development of Darwin into our third or fourth big city could only happen with Canberra bankrolling it and driving it, and basically doing it. The Melbourne story is a balance between very very adept civic leadership, this is the top-down. This has been vital to the Melbourne story. Rob Adams at the Melbourne City Council doing Postcode 3000. Empty buildings which were office space opened up to become apartments. The changing of licensing laws: again, it’s government. The opening up of footpaths to cafés and dining, and drinking. All of that depends on civic leadership.

The Kennett government played a huge role. It orchestrated, allowed Crown Casino to develop the south bank of the river, which was very important in the regeneration of Melbourne in the 1990s. But you don’t want to overdo this. The French overdo this. Paris is a beautiful city, but it’s a dead city … too regulated, too organised. It’s a very delicate balance, letting the entrepreneurial juices flow without regulating them too much, but in terms of the city itself you do need outstanding civic leadership.

AB: For all of the Australian larrikin spirit, there’s always a deep-seated respect for rightful authority. This sort of playfulness that Australians are known for actually comes within this framework, and almost an embrace of the role authority plays in creating order.

JC: Yes, it’s one of the keys to the success of this country, and the success of our cities is exactly that. Is there a more stable political system in the world than the one Australia has developed? Governments change and Prime Ministers are changing very very rapidly these days. But in terms of people’s belief in the institutional framework … even the most trivial referenda usually get knocked back. People like the constitution. They don’t want a republic. The Queen is an anachronism, but it works well. It’s risky to change it.

AB: Your book argues Australia has been very successful in sport because we go into sport with a kind of double think. We know it’s deathly serious and want to win, but Australians have always been able to retain a sense of the absurdity of the endeavour. But I wonder if Australia is perhaps tipped over too far in that direction of recognition of absurdity. Irreverence is a very unstable foundation for a country.

We think we are being clever, when we tear down the people who have put themselves forward as leaders. In the last
10 years a number of these people needed to
be torn down but overall, it is not a particularly healthy attitude to look at authority and
have your first instinct be this kind of
nihilism masking as irreverence.

JC: I don’t think the electorate likes this turning over of leaders. The sort of irresponsibility and the political elites we
have got in the last decade is partly a function of poor leaders. If you have got a strong
leader, no one throws him or her out. If you have weak leader after weak leader, you are going to have the sort of instability we have
had for the last 10 years.

Sport is one of my litmus tests. The Australian Olympic Committee has started to say, “It doesn’t matter if we don’t win gold medals. It’s just important to turn up and do something.” The people will check them. They are not going to get anywhere with
that philosophy. Societies change, but there
are very powerful antibodies in any society. This society is extremely resilient, and will correct itself.

SH: You have a long and eloquent section about the Anzac myth, and you mention that it was about the time when Robert Hughes was writing The Fatal Shore—telling the story of Australia as just a dumping ground, a virtual Gulag rather than an outpost of Western Civilisation—that the Anzac myth re-emerged from the collective unconscious, more powerful than ever. You make the point it’s Homeric and Greek in its echoes. This has a strength that will last. Do you still feel it will last, and be part of the bedrock of our culture?

JC: Anzac Day? There’s no sign of it flagging. Certainly no sociologist would have predicted this revitalisation of Anzac Day. Just as the last Diggers died, suddenly, from a dying tradition which the left had been doing everything to bury, and Robert Hughes writes The Fatal Shore… that book at least is honest in its content. It shows Australia was a good place for the convicts to come to. The title belies the content of that book. But yes, the Anzac is an example of how culture—real culture, deep cultures—is mythic, and how it wells up from the people in a completely unpredictable way. And is extraordinarily powerful. A number of people among the left intelligentsia are beside themselves with rage that Anzac Day keeps getting stronger and stronger.

AB: I was quite taken by your references to the Peter Weir film, Picnic at Hanging Rock. One way of thinking about that film is it expresses a colonial era fear that if we wander too far into the inner of this continent, it will swallow us whole, and civilisation will disappear. Of course, that’s not the way the inhabitants of this land for 50,000 years or more have thought about the land. Is there a way we can enchant the land that will bring everyone who lives on it together? A common Australian Dreaming?

JC: That happens slowly … through the stories, through the poems, through the paintings. Picnic at Hanging Rock is archetypal for Europeans in Australia, isn’t it? Because its deep ambivalence, this fear of the vast interior, and how it can just gobble you up, and it’s got these strange mysterious forces, and has a sort of deep admiration for those aspects of indigenous culture. They are somehow in tune with those really powerful forces, whereas in some ways, we just prefer the beach. But Australians love their country. We don’t have the coercive brashness of America. Here, nature puts you on your back foot. It warns you, don’t get ahead of yourself. We’ll look after you, and this is a very comfortable and beautiful place to live in, but take care.

I am optimistic. I think the way our relationship to the land is going to unfold is developing that ambivalence.

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