Everybody fantasises at one time or another about possessing super-human powers. Most are predictable: invisibility, the power of flight, becoming Prime Minister despite a complete absence of political skill, and so on.
The greatest real-life super-human power, of course, is the simple ability to read market indicators and be one step ahead of them. This will make you rich. Tragically, it’s a power I don’t possess, which is why my retirement plans involve a shipping container, milk crates and lots of rabbit traps.
A Melbourne mate, however, does possess this ability, which he discovered by accident some decades ago after buying a small house in one of his city’s then-unfashionable western suburbs. A few years later, because his family expanded and he needed a larger place, my friend decided to sell.
To his great surprise, despite having not even repaired the joint, let alone renovated it—there were holes in the floor, for God’s sake—the place sold for massively more than he’d paid. Because he’d been so busy working and helping raise his kids, he hadn’t noticed his suburb quickly becoming gentrified. A key sign: the local burger-and-chips takeaway had given way to a nice Thai restaurant.
So now my mate had enough cash to buy a better house plus an additional investment property. He began hunting through even less fashionable suburbs, this time searching for evidence of Thai restaurant outbreaks. The moment one emerged, he’d buy, then go hunting for further bargains. This was during the early 1990s, before Thai restaurants became a by-word for gentrification. My friend was, as they say, ahead of the curve.
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Obviously, he does have to live with a lifelong awareness of terrible Thai restaurant naming puns (“Thai Tanic”, “Live and Let Thai”, “Thai Beerius”, “Suit & Thai”, and, for all I know, “Thai Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”) but that’s more than compensated for by his lucrative, early-retirement-enabling property empire.
Positive real estate market indicators are easier to pick elsewhere in Australia. In New South Wales, for example, it’s basically a matter of finding some place with a postcode beginning with two, provided you’ve also got a bank balance ending with six zeroes. At some places on the northern New South Wales coast old fibro shacks are now selling for upwards of a million. My future shipping container dwelling might be less affordable than I’d hoped.
Restaurants can also provide broader economic information. Anyone wishing to gauge the financial health of the southern US need not bother chewing through reams of data from Tennessee, Alabama, Louisiana and the like. A simple check of Shoney’s will do.
Shoney’s is a Dixiefied version of Denny’s or any number of US diner chains. How southern is it? Well, the menu features—along with your standard array of burgers and steaks—such tasty fare as catfish and shrimp ’n’ grits. I can vouch for the quality, but moreover can vouch for Shoney’s status as an economic bellwether.
When times are good down south, Shoney’s thrives. In 1998 the chain ran more than 1000 stores throughout thirty-four US states. Two years later Shoney’s filed for bankruptcy before being refinanced by new ownership. That didn’t help much, with outlets shrinking to just 282 by 2007. At around that time, notes began appearing on Shoney’s menus pleading for patrons to take it easy at the all-you-can-eat salad bar.
Customers did as they were asked, because southerners are affectionate towards their local businesses and understood just how close Shoney’s was running to the margins. “Breakfast at Shoney’s at $2.99,” sang alt-rockers Ween on their one-off 1996 country album, 12 Golden Country Greats. “Saved me some money and eased up my mind.” Happily, matters have lately eased up for Shoney’s, currently operating in sixteen states and again looking to grow. When next you’re in the US, look for a Shoney’s and experience a southern revival.
The trick with economic indicators is to look beyond immediate impressions. During the same period the south was in a slump, the US capital of Washington DC was building up and becoming wealthier by the day. Superficially, these were positive signs. It’s always good when a city is generating thousands of high-paying jobs, right?
DC’s growth was driven by the expansion of government under President Barack Obama, who in just eight years managed to double the US debt to more than $20 trillion. In other words, Obama’s administration took a mere two terms to double the debt accumulated by the US during the previous 240 years—and DC’s sudden spurt in riches was a by-product of that reckless, destructive spending.
Judging the economic fortunes of the US by examining DC’s wealth would be like calculating North Korea’s financial health by checking Kim Jong-un’s bank account.
A similar situation emerged in Canberra during Labor’s ruinous years in power. As Australia sank further into debt, Canberra lived large. “Employment in the ACT’s public sector has exploded by 30 per cent in six years, far outstripping the other states and territories,” the Canberra Times reported in 2013. “The territory government wages bill has grown by $685 million in the same period, blowing out by $110 million each year. New Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show the ACT’s public sector grew by more than three times the combined national average for state governments and local councils.” At one stage Labor’s Climate Change Department—housed in Canberra’s fancy new Nishi building—was sucking down $218 million per year. Economic strength in the public sector is often matched by economic weakness in other areas. Spending all of our money will tend to do that.
Still, Thai restaurants remain a symbol of progress, a talisman for hope. The late, great Bill Leak’s happiest years were his last, spent in the company of his adored wife Goong. He’d fallen in love with her the first time they met—in her Thai restaurant.
LOOKING BACK, it might have been one of the first great delusional protest movements of the current era. It was conceived in bitterness, based on error, and sought to sow panic where no panic need be sown.
Tellingly, and as a sign of things to come, the fact that the outcome utterly refuted the protest’s premise had no impact whatsoever on the protesters or their approach to various subsequent causes. They simply shifted to new issues, using identical tone and strategies.
In the mid-1990s, Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett had commenced a plan to rebuild his state, which had been broken by years of increasingly hidebound and ideological Labor governments. One element of this plan was to load the calendar with at least one major event per month as tourism lures.
A gap existed in that calendar between the Australian Open tennis championships and the first round of the AFL season. Kennett and his team filled the gap with the Australian Formula One Grand Prix, audaciously stolen from Adelaide, where it had been run every year since 1985.
This should have been a moment for Melbourne to rejoice. Very few cities on earth are granted hosting rights for such a massive show. Instead, leftist elements rose up in fury. The race would destroy its public park venue, they claimed. It would cause nearby houses to crumble to the ground. It would lead to deaths on our roads as young men emulated their racing heroes.
Melbourne’s Fairfax broadsheet, the Age, led the opposition. On reflection, this may have been an early indicator of Fairfax’s eventual pathway to oblivion, to be achieved any time now through closure, disassembly or sale.
The hysteria surrounding the prospective Grand Prix was impressive, even by the shrieking standards of Melbourne’s always-anxious Marx-and-macchiato community. Preparations for the race involved removing some scrubby old elms, so protesters actually held a funeral for them. People wept. A movement called Save Albert Park—chiefly run by local residents who enjoyed using the place as their personal dog-walking venue—won extensive coverage from the Age and the ABC.
It was all very apocalyptic. And then, in 1996, the first Grand Prix was held. And nothing bad happened at all.
In fact, the event was a brilliant triumph. Hundreds of thousands of people enjoyed the weekend, which was blessed by sunny skies and close racing. As for saving Albert Park, that was accomplished too, with the construction of new parkland buildings available for use all year round.
Just about every anti-progress campaign of the last twenty years in Australia has followed the Albert Park template. Climate change, fracking, mining, controlling our borders—protests against all of them feature the same dishonesty and misinformation as seen in Melbourne back in the 1990s.
One difference is that, unlike Kennett, current state and federal governments pay attention to and accommodate their enemies. They should take a lesson from recent history by reviewing the great Albert Park panic and considering how matters concluded.
When certain types insist something will go disastrously wrong, it invariably turns out just fine.