Friday, June 12, 2009

Sydney is a disfunctional city; NSW a failed state

Richard Ackland lays it out starkly in today's SMH:

"Sydney is not a lovely place in winter. The CBD is a biting wind tunnel, Frank Sartor's granite footpaths are stained with the grease from spilled milkshakes, the sun is thin, the faces chapped and there's a pervading pong of rotten cooking oil and urine.

You've more chance of being crippled for life by a wild-eyed skateboarder than you have of finding a delicious and inexpensive meal after 2.30 in the afternoon..."

Playwright Louis Nowra brilliantly spelled out the whole incredibly sad story in the May 30-31 Weekend Australian Magazine.

Highlights on the link below:

In the outer suburbs there is little transport infrastructure, health services are stretched and cultural amenities are virtually non-existent. These suburbs are awash with drugs, domestic violence and family breakdown. The underclass has been herded into isolated Housing Commission estates and forgotten. The so-called "hard-luck suburbs" were created by politicians who didn't care...

Sydney's rail system is a disaster. "We have not built the infrastructure that will be needed in the future," a frustrated Ron Christie, former coordinator general of rail and author of the 2001 Christie Report, said last month. His report had predicted that, unless the network were extended, Sydney would be "doomed to a future under which more than half the urbanised metropolitan area ... will not be served by the rail system"...

In the year to April 2008 Sydney ferry crews reported 13 collisions with their own or other vessels; the year before there was a collision between a ferry and a boat that killed four people. The average age of Sydney ferries is 17 years and all the government spokesmen can say is that they might talk about a "replacement strategy" later in the year...

Even an attempt to emulate the small-bar culture of Melbourne has been ineptly handled, not helped by the Australian Hotels Association, which fought against it. This powerful lobby would prefer you to drink in beer barns and spend your money on the pokies. The idea that some people would like to sit in a small, comfortable venue, drink wine and not play the pokies is anathema to them...

Politicians have allowed bikers free rein, whether it be dealing in drugs or using my Kings Cross as a nocturnal battleground. One of the results of this refusal to combat the problem is that a brutal fight broke out in Sydney airport in March. Anthony Zervas, a Hells Angels associate, was beaten to death in front of ordinary citizens and a CCTV system that didn't work. Only then, when, as Premier Rees said, "the violence had spilled over into the public domain", did the Government decide to do something. But it was too late. The bikers had become so powerful that Rees now has extra bodyguards to protect him.

Even the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, a symbol of Sydney's tolerance, has found itself tainted by violence. At this year's event, police barely held their own as drunken troublemakers went on a rampage in Hyde Park, destroying the atmosphere of the world-famous party.

And don't get any Sydneysider talking about the health system. Not so long ago I was rushed to hospital in an ambulance. It took the paramedics three attempts over several hours to find me a hospital with a spare bed. During my stay I saw overworked, stressed nurses and doctors trying to function in a system collapsing around them.

All this reminds me of the two years I spent in Melbourne during the early'90s, when Joan Kirner was premier. She was the last of a long line of Labor leaders who had avoided dealing with longstanding problems with the city's infrastructure. The result was disorganised government and a city reeking of failure and lassitude. It took Jeff Kennett, the Liberal premier, to finally restore a sense of pride to Melburnians. He may have acted the dill too many times but he had the energy and ferocity of a cattle dog plus a burning conviction that his beloved city could be revitalised.

Broken cities can be fixed. Take New York. During the'70s and'80s it was crime-ridden, dispirited and close to bankruptcy. It took energetic and enthusiastic men and women to turn it around, and they did. Now New York is again one of the great cities of the world.

The trouble with Sydney is that it has outgrown the imagination of its politicians. A city is a complex web of economic, social and cultural factors and a great city needs good public transport, health services and energy supplies, but it's more than that. It needs a sense of pride, of youthful enthusiasm, an architectural landscape that thrills its inhabitants and visitors, a cultural exuberance and social diversity that creates a melting pot of ideas and a sense of purpose, which in turn creates optimism and happiness. At the moment it's wallowing in a malaise of apathy and cynicism.

As I was putting the final touches to this story my computer went blank and the fan overhead slowed and stopped. It was the third blackout in a couple of weeks. Rees now says that blackouts will continue for some months yet. It was another sign, if any more were needed, that Sydney is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Photo: baddogwhiskas@ Flickr