Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
The end of the great Australian dream can’t come soon enough
ELIZABETH FARRELLY. Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architecture, planning and aesthetic issues for the Herald.
The 2006 State of the Environment report notes that billions were lavished on new freeways for Sydney and Melbourne while public transport expenditure remained piddling at best. Furthermore, it says, sprawl only perpetuates this pattern, separating “service-rich” inner cities from “service-poor” ‘burbland. The report also notes that housing affordability pushes the poor out beyond the job line, where public transport is as convincing as Christmas snow. And yet, it says, “the condition of most human settlements continues to be generally good”.
A question, then. Who’s cleaning house in Woollahra, and how are they getting to work? Smelly panel vans is the answer, their particulate pollution hanging east until after the morning tennis, when the sea breeze shunts it, and its childhood-asthma levels, back home to the ‘burbs.
We’re fatter than ever, metaphorically as well as physically. Cars are newer, houses bigger and overseas trips more frequent. And yet the so-called housing affordability crisis hogs centre stage, uniting right and left, developers and governments in the call for more, faster land release. Supply, demand, supply.
But will it help? Or will more land releases just make everything worse?
Sydney, it seems, is the worst offender on the affordability front; so expensive our children will never be able to live here and will have to move to New Zealand or somewhere equally likely to survive the coming planetary crisis. Then again, if the aspirationals keep droving off to Perth and Queensland at current rates, Sydney could find itself a seriously affordable ghost town quite soon.
Still, “anybody who is being honest”, says the Democrats’ deputy leader, Andrew Bartlett, acknowledges the housing crisis. As do quite a few who are not.
The crisis is not that there’s nowhere to live: it’s that there’s nothing to buy. Nothing to buy cheaply and speculate on. Many see this as the end of the great Australian dream. But is it true? If so, why? And is it such a bad thing?
It is lately fashionable, among academics who should know better, to champion sprawl and deride its critics as elitist. Of course, sprawl doesn’t necessarily imply ownership, or vice versa. But we tend to equate the two because house and garden so neatly symbolises the property-owning Thatcherite dream.
People want it. And so, goes the fashionable argument, they should have it. But this is just the old baby-boomer confusion between needs and wants; the assumption that anything we want is a “right”. And in a democracy rights, of course, are universal. So if it’s not universally available, someone – else – is to blame. And this is where the entire dream comes unstuck. For everyone.
Even economically – counting land, building material and infrastructure – suburbia was always the least affordable living pattern in the catalogue. When you add environmental costs – arable land, water run-off, air pollution and energy use – it’s clear the Australian dream was probably never more than that, a dream.
Not that there’s anything especially Australian about mortgage-belt suburbia. The idea came to us from England via California, and although we’ve stamped it with the Hills hoist and the brick bungalow, this by itself doesn’t quite cut it in the “great dream” stakes, Australian or otherwise.
And there’s this. Is ownership, of house or flat, really necessary? Other countries, mainly European, have far lower ownership rates than ours. In Germany it’s 43 per cent. There, people rent, often for their whole lives, producing immense spin-off benefits for the creative economy. Such a regime requires two hugely civilising influences: cities and apartments designed to make habitation a joy, and statutory rent control. Neither has been made to work in Australia.
Why not? Mostly, what’s Australian about the great Australian dream is not so much the right to own, but the right to speculate on that ownership. The right to gamble. The will-to-own marches hand in glove with the will-to-profit. It’s a sort of mining mentality, really. We gasp at a town like Kalgoorlie, that’ll dig up its own neighbourhoods for the next big ore strike, but our insistent home speculation shows the same exploitative mindset. And it gives us all a direct conflict of interest. We demand cheaper houses for our kids. But if our own house value drops we think our throat is cut.
Governments could discourage our speculation habit. But it’s the last thing they’ll do. Ownership pacifies. So governments encourage it by making own-home speculation the only tax-free investment in town. And this, mixed with building-industry time lag, produces that familiar boom/bust cycle.
Perhaps, underneath this talk of affordability in crisis, what has changed is as much perception as fact. What used to qualify as “house”, back in the ’50s when the dream really took off, is seen as chook shack now. The real chook shacks stack the inner cities, masquerading as sophisticated apartments. Gen Y’s problem could be solved with some fabulous apartment design (think Rome), amenity-rich city centres, reliable rent control and targeted tax tweaks. End of the Australian dream? Bring it on.