Melbourne and Sydney

One of the less attractive qualities of Melbourne is its inferiority complex vis a vis Sydney. I know that to my parents’ generation they’re very different cities, but I’ve always been skeptical that they’re that different. But there are clearly differences.

It may be a clich© that Sydney is much brasher with more ‘new money’ whist Melbourne is more focused on its establishment. My three years at the Business Council with the odd trip to the Melbourne Club led me to believe that Australia’s growth rate might have been a tad higher if the BCA and its companies were based in Sydney. In Melbourne the question ‘what school did you go to’ has an intensity of meaning and social placement that I’ve never encountered before. Having spent many years in Canberra it took me a while to realise it wasn’t just a quaint way to search for common things to talk about.

Be that as it may there have been a few things that have highlighted cultural differences for me recently. The least compelling of the three Sydney shock jocks I know of Stan Stan Zemanek had a stint in Melbourne and didn’t make it. People didn’t know what it was all about and he didn’t make the ratings. His main strategy is to abuse listeners to generate a bit of excitement. We have irritating radio announcers, but no-one as odious as the Sydney trio (actually I don’t mind Lawsy too much he’s quite charismatic and enjoyable to listen to even if I don’t agree with him much.)

Secondly I gave a talk yesterday to CEDA based on the paper I wrote for them (pdf) on where to focus tax cuts to maximise growth. After it went quite well I asked if they were interested in doing it in Sydney and the answer was that no-one would turn up well not enough to make it viable.

I was also at the Cranlana Foundation today – an outpost of the Myer family’s philanthropic endeavours. Their ‘colloquium’ is a one week seminar in which participants usually about half from business and a quarter from the public and academic sector and rest a collection of artists and others who are generally shouted their place at the table. When I was involved in it, I expected it to be rather wet. The reading was a few pages of about twenty great political thinkers down through the ages.

As someone who reckons that the only education he ever got was in history, I was appalled at the idea that this was a useful use of one’s time, because one can’t really get the hang of what such people are on about by reading a few pages in an anthology one needs to immerse oneself a little more. But it was highly successful, not because we learned much about the great texts, but because they were simply the conversation starters in a week of asking the question ‘what is the good life’. Even that too sounds a bit effete for my taste.

I thought it was marvelous because the people involved were mostly pretty lively, thoughtful types from a range of different backgrounds and so the one week intensive was a marvelous experience where, like characters in a novel we talked about things that were important. The great social conspiracy which says that it’s impolite and overly heavy to speak about important things – at least without a lot of introduction and circumspection was simply thrown out the window. It was a great way to meet and come to know to some extent 15 odd interesting people. Then various people came and gave speeches which were thoroughly compelling. And we had a string quartet play for us one evening.

Anyway, talking to Cranlana today about an upcoming function of theirs conversation turned briefly to other cities in which they held colloquiums. So far only Perth. Sydney, they told me is a very hard market to crack. Perhaps it is because others are already there the St Johns ethics centre (which was funded largely by HIH woops!) and Gerard Henderson’s Sydney Institute. But perhaps it’s also because the Cranlana colloquium style of function isn’t very attractive to businesses who pay for it when they send along one of their executives to a colloquium. It’s hard to justify on the bottom line but Melbourne firms are sending their execs along in increasing numbers.


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Cameron Riley
15 years ago

In Melbourne the question ‘what school did you go to’ has an intensity of meaning and social placement that I’ve never encountered before.

One of the cool things about American business culture is the can-do attitude. Australia tends to be parochial and conservative from my experiences. Probably because the tertiary instutions are small enough in number that it can be incentuous outside of them.

The business culture in the US is a case of; if you say you can do it, do it, if you fail, it is your head.

The important thing is, if you stick you hand up and say you can take the project to completion, you are given every oppurtunity to succeed or fail. Succeed and it is more money and responsibility. Fail and you get fired. Which I think is fair.

A mate of mine in Australia who works in defence commented once that he enjoyed when the US managers would come in on a project. They had similar attitudes. Whereas if he said, “I can do it”, the Australian managers would ask what are your qualifications, who did you study with, what papers have you done …. etc etc.

I expect some of those entrenched attitudes will change, the diaspora is all over the place and pretty turgid. They will bring back their experiences.

Globalisation means more Australians are working in international teams too, and discovering what works etc and what doesnt. As an example a relo of mine was managing a team that included Australian, American and French teams working toward one project. I am sure all of them came away with new ideas.

Rafe Champion
Rafe Champion
15 years ago

The most obvious difference between Sydney and Melbourne used to be the degree of interest in football. In the southern Aussie rules states practically everyone from the office boy to the CEO lived and breathed VFL (and the local comp if you were not in Melbourne). It may have been a bit male biased – there are plenty of female followers but for males it was near enough to universal. You could have an animated and usually informed conversation with anyone in the building on the topic.

In Sydney by contrast the local rugby comps did not inspire anything like universal interest from the male population, in some jobs it was a battle to find one or two people for a decent talk on Monday morning.

John Docker explored the differences at the intellectual level and he noted the influence of John Anderson in Sydney, generating a strong freethinking strand among the writers and talkers, compared with the Melbourne ethos of advocacy for sectarian views whether Catholics or the left.

15 years ago

A Brisbane friend once summed up the difference (at least as he saw it in the late 1980s) this way: Sydney bands write songs about f

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

The CIS do a fair amount of this sort of stuff & they’re Sydney-based, too

15 years ago

There’s a big culture difference, far removed from either the private school or AFL sets, that may have a lot to do with the presence of such fantastic beaches in Sydney.

Melbourne has much better bars, live music, etc and that’s why I love it. But I’m not so one-eyed to miss one possible reason for this- that Melbournians need entertaining as they sit around moping while the drizzle descends, while Sydneysiders are all eyeing each other off on some fantastic beach or wandering along the streets in nothing but a pair of shorts and a versace tan.

Francis X Holden
15 years ago

In general colder climes have an emphasis on indoor recreation which might involve reading, card games, quizes, sitting around the fire, argueing, telling stories in the home. Melbourne has been influenced by the Irish and Jewish cultures too. Indoors. Melbourne music has also been more roots based.

I should open up a Molly O’Cohen’s theme rock n roll pub with the Yid Viscious Bar – no grog, kosher menu, with no sport on TV and Matisyahu cover bands.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish(@ken-parish)
15 years ago

mmm and that other warming pastime – eating – The Red Rock Acland St, a plate of mixed grill that would feed a small town.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
15 years ago

“In Melbourne the question ‘what school did you go to’ has an intensity of meaning and social placement that I’ve never encountered before.”

It was also a polite way of asking about religion. But now that class is a more sensitive topic than religion, it would probably be better to ask directly about relgion.

Incidentally, the question doesn’t seem to be asked much in the Melbourne circles I move in (and I have lived here 31 of my 40 years).

Rafe’s right, the football is the single most important difference.

The latest property bubble has probably signed their death warrant, but Melbourne’s inner city has more quirky shops and social diversity than Sydney’s equivalent (I’ve lived in and love both cities; and always regularly visit the one I am not living in). The Housing Commission high rise towers will probably preserve some of the latter, but high rents will squeeze out shops without high turnover and low-income people who aren’t eligible for public housing. Even in the six years I have been in my current place in Carlton the number of uni students living in the area has dropped to zero.

15 years ago

I suspect the rivalry is highly stratified. The business minded and the arty set seem to obsess about Melbourne and Sydney rivalry. Is suspect the average Joe spends no time at all on the topic.

It is hardly ever a topic of discussion with my friends and acqaintances. Most of us have more interesting things to talk and think about than whether Lygon St is better than Kings Cross (if they are equivalent, I don’t know, nor care)

Apart from that, everyone accepts that Sydney’s weather is much better. For me, no amount of good cafes (as if Sydney doesn’t have enough) and comedy stores could overcome that for me, but that hardly qualifies as a treatise on the relative merits of Sydney versus Melbourne.

But I do think they are culturally different, I’ve just never read anything that describes it for me. You can’t get a more superficial comparison than the cliche of Sydney as ‘flashy’ and Melbourne as ‘establishment’, but that seems to be the depths of analysis on the subject.