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December 31st 2017 print

Peter Murphy

The Triumph of Australia’s Golden Cities

Low-cost, high-quality schools, hospitals, houses and energy are the life-blood of cities. Left to its own devices, the urban organism is good at delivering these. Governments are not. They are good at law, order, safety-nets and public infrastructure, yet very few politicians can stop there

Land of the Golden Cities: Australia’s Exceptional Prosperity and the Culture that Made It
by John Carroll
Connor Court, 2017, 195 pages, $29.95
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oz citiesIf you read only one book of non-fiction this year, read this one. It is the best book ever written on the spirit of Australia. It is also among the most pleasurable to read. John Carroll is a great literary stylist. His prose is vigorous, supple, lucid and filled with purpose. In this case the purpose is to explain Australia to itself. The result is a new peak of national self-reflection.

Land of the Golden Cities is reminiscent of the last great period of national self-examination that produced Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend (1958), Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness (1960) and Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country (1964). Carroll’s book is more economically literate and sociologically realistic than these. His insights are also more deeply anchored in cultural, mythological, psychological and historical profundities. Even so he treats all of these aspects with a light touch. Like the quintessential Australian, he addresses his readers in a manner that is direct, stark and straight. His language is unvarnished. He writes in a way that Australians wish their politicians would speak.

Land of the Golden Cities begins with a puzzle about Australia’s recent remarkable economic exceptionalism. Carroll asks: What explains the long economic boom between 1990 and 2010? This boom was “a singular and extraordinary world achievement”. By the middle of 2017, Australia had pulled off “the longest period of economic growth ever recorded anywhere in the world”. No recession occurred during this time. Between 1991 and 2009 GDP per capita grew every year. What caused this?

Carroll observes that prosperity is the last great social science mystery. This is astute. Adam Smith offered the first great explanation of prosperity in The Wealth of Nations (1776) six years after James Cook mapped the east coast of Australia. It is surprising that, since Smith, there have been remarkably few systematic accounts of prosperity. As Carroll notes, we know a lot about modernisation, industrialisation, secularisation and rationalisation. Yet prosperity largely remains a puzzle. The modern economics profession doesn’t help. It long ago lost interest in explaining big-picture social phenomena. Yet prosperity is anchored in large-scale social mechanics. It is a function of one or more or all of the following: markets, industries, cities and publics. How these work, and in what combination, and animated by what kinds of social and cultural forces, remains unclear.

What is evident though is that growing GDP per capita every year, as Australia did for eighteen years straight, is beyond most countries. Between 1945 and 1973 a long boom occurred across the Western world. This was not repeated. No country in the world has matched the recent long run of Australian prosperity. Japan’s was the great post-1945 miracle economy. Yet it stalled after 1990. So how do we account for Australia’s economic exceptionalism?

Carroll’s explanation is Australia’s cities. From its birth Australia was one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Today it is the fourth most urbanised country in the OECD. For decades Australia’s historic economy rode on the sheep’s back. But the more recent story of Australia’s success has focused not on its golden fleece but its golden cities. These cities are all dotted along its coastal rim. Australia is not alone in this. The world’s major wealth creators are thalassic or riverine cities or often both. Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore in East Asia are good examples. Not all cities, though, are equal in their capacity to create prosperity. A handful do better than most. In the past three decades Australia has done better than even that handful.

Naturally there are exceptions to the rule. Adelaide has experienced long-term entropy. But the Gold Coast–Brisbane–Sunshine Coast mega-metropolis has experienced the reverse. So for the most part Australia’s big cities are golden. This means they work splendidly. They generate high levels of satisfaction, liveability, wealth, real incomes, employment and cultural enjoyment. What got them to this point? Carroll provides vivid pen-portraits of Melbourne and Sydney. Both residents and visitors to these cities will readily recognise the two cities. Carroll’s depictions are like a tapestry. They are rich in detail but tell an over-arching story. The point of the story is to explain what has made these cities so successful.

In the case of Melbourne, Carroll suggests the following factors. By OECD standards Australia is a low-regulation, low-tax economy. In addition Melbourne has a diversified economy. When one industry declines, another expands. Melbourne has also benefited from immigration. It has attracted large numbers of ambitious, hard-working newcomers, who have complemented established generations of Anglo-Australians. This kind of complementarity is also echoed in the city’s topography and its meld of inner-city and suburban life.

Sydney is Australia’s panoramic harbour city. It has aspects that Melbourne, pivotally a river city, does not have. Sydney is an iconic city. The Harbour Bridge, the Opera House, and the beautiful Circular Quay–Harbour–Manly–Bondi Beach ensemble are instantly recognisable around the world. As Carroll remarks, Sydney is Australia’s only global city. It is pre-eminent in attracting international tourists and corporate headquarters. Melbourne is Australia’s design capital, Sydney is its media capital.

Sydney is also Australia’s most political city, mainly because it is geographically close to Canberra. That raises an interesting question, though. How much does the power of governments or big organisations affect the workings of cities? Carroll is ambivalent on this point. He admires good civic leadership. Jeff Kennett’s Victorian government in the 1990s is a prime example. It set a tone that helped revitalise what had become a stodgy, lifeless CBD in Melbourne. Yet while power plays a role in cities it is not decisive. Another factor counts for more. Let’s call this X-factor self-organisation. That’s a fancy sociological term for DIY, doing-it-yourself.

Cities, along with their markets, industries and publics, provide Australia’s DIY heft. Governments, corporations, universities, churches, charities, associations and unions make up the countervailing organisational thump. Establishing the right relation between the institutional and independent sectors is difficult. Land of the Golden Cities is a rhapsodic yet entirely realistic account of Australian urban life that principally runs on DIY pattern-order rather than top-down organisational power. The most successful modern societies have large-scale self-organising social systems and limited government.

Carroll has done for Australia what Roger Scruton did for his country in 2006 in England: An Elegy. Both created memorable and profoundly revealing depictions of their home society. Carroll’s portrait though is anything but elegiac. The contrast with Britain is telling. The sway of Britain, Australia’s parent culture, has ebbed with time. Australia’s tide has risen. Tellingly, while the Australian foundation is British, the Australian mythos is not.

Two key things came from Australia’s foundation. First, the country inherited robust political and legal institutions from Britain. Second, Australia proved to be the late bloom of the rich lingering twilight of English neoclassical culture. The representative figure of this neoclassical coda was Jane Austen. She was thirteen when the First Fleet arrived at Botany Bay. Her major novels were written between 1810 and 1817, almost identical with Lachlan Macquarie’s governorship of New South Wales between 1810 and 1821.

Austen’s balanced sentences hint at a world of symmetry and reciprocity. This echoes in contemporary Australia. From the microscopic to the macroscopic, the nation is ambidextrous. Australia happily mixes exotics and natives in its gardens as it does snug archipelago-like coastal towns and vast urbanities, big seaboard capital cities and their smaller satellites.

Macquarie was Australia’s most important institutional founder. Australians, Carroll notes, admire institutions and respect their authority. They dislike chaos and adore order. Macquarie’s official job was to restore order after the Rum Rebellion. But much of his time in office was spent laying the groundwork for the colony’s prosperity and its civic beauty. For all that, Australia is not a nation crafted by town-planners. This is because the second, less visible, metaphysical thread of England’s sunset neoclassical culture eventually proved to be the more important. The tone of this culture was sceptical and satirical. Over time Australia’s love of order proved to be more metaphysical than governmental.

Australia and America developed from the British parent culture. Yet they developed differently. America was a fragment spun off from the early English seventeenth century. Australia was a spin-off from the last late decades of England’s neoclassical era. As Carroll points out, Australia never had an oedipal struggle with its parent. That means it never had a Lockean revolution. Instead it developed a distinctive and formidable culture of scepticism. Australia may well be the world’s first skeptocracy.

The Australian genius, as Carroll sees it, is its big DIY cities. These cities have their share of political power and corporate organisations, rules and bureaucracies. The latter are driven by the decisions of a relative handful of people. The DIY city in contrast is created by billions of decisions of millions of people locating, relocating, buying, selling, inventing, designing, producing and exchanging.

Why are Australians good at the big DIY city? Because, as Carroll shows, Australians are a sceptical people. The word scepticism does not mean rationalist doubt in the style of the French philosopher René Descartes. Rather it derives from the ancient Greek philosopher Pyrrho (360–270 BC). The root-word of scepticism in Greek is *spek-. It means “to consider”. The word is related to sképtomai, to observe, and skopós, the watcher or lookout. The title of the great journal of English neoclassical culture, the Spectator (1711), tells the story. But what exactly does a spectator observe? Truths, plural.

The sceptic is one who observes a number of different truths. Scepticism is not relativism. Rather it is a balance of truths. Scepticism is a moderate, tolerant and thoughtful view of the world. Its moderation is based on trade-offs. Its makes one truth conditional on another truth. This is echoed in America’s constitutional balance of powers. But Australia did something that the Americans did not do. Whereas American power and authority resides in “the people”, Australia’s is anchored in a sceptical people. Australia is a society of observances. It “observes” traditions rather than “follows” them.

The ethos of the observer—the person who balances truths—subtly wafts through Land of the Golden Cities. Carroll has a fairly conventional list of what makes the big Australian cities work well. There’s economic diversification, migration, topography, cosmopolitanism, localism, iconicity, and so on. But as the layers of his book are peeled back, we find something repeated at all levels of the Australian city. Carroll calls it “fusion”.

Successful societies have a common characteristic. They are rooted in paradox. These are societies that are good at melding one truth with an antithetical truth. Australia, with its sceptical people, is skilled at doing this. Take the example of migration. As Carroll notes, Australia has welcomed waves of migration. But this is conditional. Australians have clear expectations of migrant groups. First, that they do not bring extremism or violence with them or come to Australia illegally. Second, that they work hard, contribute skills and not be a burden on public services. Australia has a sceptical “yes, but” culture. It is friendly to newcomers but also expects them to fit in.

Fitting in means dispersing themselves widely in the suburbs and joining in what is a congenial stranger society. Tribalism is frowned on. Australia is a society of strangers. As Carroll describes, its denizens daily commute big distances to work or entertainment and yet interact with familiarity and informality. Millions of people who have never met before paradoxically get along as if they are neighbours. This is how Australia’s self-organising cities work. They are anonymous yet intimate.

Carroll observes the parallel of this in the national myth. Unlike America, Australia does not mythologise its political leaders. Rather its instinct is to satirise them. It has no venerable generation of political founders. Nor does the Federation era play much role in its national dreaming. Australia’s national story is the Anzac myth.

Myth does not mean something untrue. Rather it is a double-headed fusion of truths. Gallipoli, from the Greek Kallipolis or Beautiful City, was a military defeat that became the symbol of Australian achievement. It’s the mythological national event that took place 15,000 kilometres from Australia. The treacherous Dardanelles landing occurred within spitting distance of the ancient city of Troy, echoing ancient battles. Yet the resulting Australian story had virtually no conventional heroes, certainly no Achilles. Rather the hero of the story and all its retellings was the anonymous Australian character-type. It is distinguished by firmness, grit and endurance. Its key trait is to carry things through no matter the difficulty. This is a stoic character type. It was forged on the battlefield by confronting anonymous fate and hanging on for dear life.

The root of this character, Carroll suggests, is Australia’s natural environment, which is harsh. Floods, fires, droughts and cyclones are commonplace. They are often sudden, savage and even catastrophic. A comic, fatalistic, good-tempered stoicism developed to cope with them. The outlook was immortalised in the stories of Arthur Davis (“Steele Rudd”). Most, though, experienced it only second-hand. For Australians are dwellers on the threshold. From the first, Anglo-Australians settled mainly in the seaboard cities. They avoided the harsh interior when they could. Using machines, they developed highly efficient forms of agriculture. That pattern persisted and deepened. But not without irony. The Anzac soldiers came disproportionately from rural Australia. The paradox of Australia’s urban society is that its ethos is anchored in the stoicism of country Australia that grew to maturity in a faraway land where Australian farm boys were thrown into a devastating losing battle.

What makes this all work is irony. Australia embraces its contradictions. It has its share of bureaucratic rationalists and social engineers, yet most Australians favour Carroll’s fusions. They avoid following a single truth to its logical destructive end. Rather they creatively meld truths into congenial mash-ups. This is the result of millions of people acting anonymously. Australia’s big cities work because they tacitly link opposites together ingeniously, creating porous relations between them.

Looking at Melbourne, Carroll observes how the city’s CBD fuses huge sports arenas with cultural art centres. Likewise Greater Melbourne melds the cosmopolitanism of its inner city with the localism of its suburbs. The majority live in the suburbs with their local schools and grocery shopping but frequently come into the inner city for work, business, entertainment, fashion, art and design. Linking this via an efficient transport system is a challenge. Governments play a role in that. But government is secondary to metaphysics. In a city that works, home-truths and away-truths are permeable. The city quietly combines epic and domestic aspects. In this it faintly echoes the Homeric hero who travels to distant shores yet returns home in the end.

Carroll describes a Melbourne that is riddled with fusions: its athletic religion, its bent sheltered laneways and wide exposed grid-style CBD streets, the use of sidewalks for dining and the street-like shopping arcades, the large female attendance at male football codes, and the ethnic incomers who marry-out into the wider community. Melbourne mingles dense locales and big boulevards, its golf courses’ wild and cultivated landscape design, its Botanic Gardens’ sweeping panoramas and hidden pathways. There is the vast ocean to the south of the city and a huge landmass to the north. Sydney, a city of dramatic landscape, is located between beaches and mountains, a sheltered harbour and an unpredictable ocean.

Such antitheses work well in combination because they are rooted in an ironic culture. Australians are a humorous people. The essence of wit is to turn things on their head. Australia is filled with witty people. They mercilessly satirise the pretentious behaviour of organisations. Political parties, government ministers, big corporations and administered associations all get a good rollicking. In the past fifty years membership of sporting leagues, trade unions and political parties has declined sharply as their bureaucracies have grown. American social science puts on a stern face and decries falling “participation”. But in Australia, Carroll notes, what has happened is that participation has shifted to self-organising society. Wit and banter are the binding agents of this organic society. Its acts through DIY creation.

A sceptical culture does what humour does and what creativity does. They merge oppositions. Donald Horne called Australia “lucky” because he thought the country had prospered despite its culture not being “original”. Carroll disagrees. Australia is prosperous, he argues, because it is a sceptical, humorous place. It has an economy of laughter. Like all great humour its undercurrent is serious. The procession of formidable Australian wits from Barry Humphries and Clive James to Bill Leak and Rob Sitch suggests a national talent for seeing one thing in another and bridging between night and day. The national taste for pattern order, evident in its tidy towns, is the flip-side of a taste for melding contrasts, the great driver of innovation both industrial and artistic. City-dwelling artists like Fred Williams immortalised the bush. Such uncanniness replicates the larger Australian society of observances where, as Carroll depicts, order is the condition of innovation, and persistence is the condition of change.

When Donald Horne lamented that Australia lacked “originality”, he meant that Australia is a “happy” society. The imagination of this conspicuously happy band of people is rooted not in “horror and tragedy” as intellectuals typically prefer but in a cheerful reckoning with fate. As Carroll describes, Australians respond to trauma or drama with an innate sense of destiny and necessity. Big events, they assume, can be adapted to. But they cannot be commanded or controlled. Accordingly Australia’s real originality is its clockwork-like, hidden-hand social systems. These operate quietly on a large scale with cheerful results. This Australia is an automatic society of millions who circumspectly adapt to changing circumstances with prudence and ingenuity. In this context the proper role of government is to provide commonsense laws and good roads. The modest everyday entrepreneurship of a sceptical hard-working property-owning negatively-gearing stoic people does the rest.

Irony is one side of the culture. The other side is rationalism. It is easy to pick the rationalists. They are the humourless ones or the ones whose humour is deprecating rather than self-deprecating. The rationalists prefer organisation to organism. They favour pretentious top-down reform to discreet bottom-up adaptation. These are the bureaucratic centralists. They like to be in control. Yet, as Carroll observes, the record of organisations in Australia is mixed. The undertaking of the 2000 Sydney Olympics went well but the operation of the NBN has been terrible. Today we see fewer good organisations than we did fifty years ago. The good ones are the quiet achievers. The bad ones are the noisy virtue-signallers. The sceptic’s ideal psychological state is ataraxia or imperturbability. In contrast the virtue-signallers are neurasthenics. They are fuelled by self-righteous anxiety rather than silent equanimity. They hide second-rate performance behind a smokescreen of chest-beating self-importance.

Rather than skeptocracy, Australian organisations have become dominated increasingly by a smugocracy. Australia’s universities are among the worst examples of this. Captured by self-righteous, platitudinous, levelling bureaucracies, the universities in the past forty years have become infested by humourlessness, intellectual conformism, and a fatal lack of curiosity. Having done its most to expel wryness and its twin, invention, Australia’s tertiary education sector today is obsessed with overbearing administrative processes and their appalling anodyne language. The result? Australian universities are unable to match high-achieving East Asian or American universities.

The irony of this is that Australians are hard working. The background Anzac ethic encourages them to “see things through”. Overseas, they are valued employees. At home however they are not always the most efficient workers. This is not for lack of trying. They work long hours, as Carroll notes. Yet many work in low-productivity taxpayer-funded sectors or in over-regulated industries like housing. Their delivery models are badly designed. They waste time and energy. During Australia’s long boom, median wages increased. During the same period in the United States they flatlined. However, most of the wage gain in Australia was lost to the rising real cost of housing due to low housing industry productivity and high government taxes, fees and charges.

Carroll’s book begins with the long boom running from 1990 to today. Like everything good in life, he acknowledges, at some time it will eventually come to an end. It is worth then reflecting on what most likely will kill the boom. Economic growth is a function of productivity. High productivity resists recessions. Low productivity will drive any future downturn. The low-productivity segments of the Australian economy today are education, health and housing. There is no sign that any major political party in the country wants to seriously address the problems of these sectors. Energy is another problem. A decade ago Australia had reliable, cheap energy. Governments destroyed that by subsidising high-cost unreliable green energy. They turned energy companies into rent-seekers.

Low-cost, high-quality schools, hospitals, houses and energy are the life-blood of cities. Left to its own devices, the city organism is good at delivering these. Governments are not. They are good at law, order, safety-nets and public infrastructure. Yet very few politicians can stop there. Instead they want to fund bulging volumes of inefficient low-productivity institutions, and tax housing to pay for them. Land of the Golden Cities reminds us that the best governments govern least, and that the best cities are the ones that largely are left to their own devices. They use pattern-order to adapt gracefully, over time, to need and circumstance.

Like Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country, John Carroll’s remarkable book should be in every library in the country. It also should be included on school curricula. Take a copy of it to the beach this summer. You won’t be disappointed. If there is such a thing as a national catechism, Land of the Golden Cities is it. Every Australian should read it.

Peter Murphy is the author of Civic Justice: From Greek Antiquity to the Modern World and Auto-Industrialism: DIY Capitalism and the Rise of the Auto-Industrial Society.