The PM Club from Sydney

The PM Club from Sydney. By David Penberthy.

With trademark swagger, Paul Keating declared if you’re not living in Sydney “you’re camping out”. To borrow a line from Jaws, we’re going to need a bigger tent, as there’s 20 million of us who either don’t live in Sydney or did so for long enough to leave, knowing life is more civilised and affordable elsewhere.

Yet the prime ministership of this country has in the past 10 years become a rotating role shared between Sydney men whose frame of reference and policy instincts are inordinately influenced by their home town.

To the rest of us, these people often seem spectacularly unrelatable.

Tony Abbott

Malcolm Turnbull November 2015

This decade of Sydney rule started with a northern beaches action figure who when not running the country could be found parading along The Corso wearing what looked like a pair of red jocks. He was followed by an eastern suburbs dandy whose idea of taking the pulse of the people was to spend Saturday afternoon kayaking on Rose Bay. Next up, a goofy guy from Cronulla …

Now we have the King of King St, Anthony Albanese, the living embodiment of inner west Gen X culture whose ideal night involves a few schooners of Reschs at The Erko and catching the Scientists gig at the Enmore before heading to Kirribilli to see who’s programming Rage, and whether they’re doing as good a job as he did.

These four locales — the northern beaches, the eastern suburbs, the Shire and the inner west — may as well be foreign countries to the rest of Australia. They serve as cloistered protectorates within Sydney, too, given the refusal of everyone to stray from their spot.

Tony Abbott’s home turf is so self-contained it’s known locally as “The Insular Peninsula”. A friend of mine who lives in Mona Vale once told me an elderly neighbour said he couldn’t remember the last time he had been over the Bridge. “The Harbour Bridge?” my mate asked. “No, Narrabeen Bridge.”

A story like that is redolent with meaning in Sydney and would elicit a laugh from our past four PMs, but leave the other 20 million of us completely confused.

Our most recent PMs have at times been defined by Sydney to their political detriment. I have no doubt one of the key reasons small-l Liberal Australia is now coloured teal is because Scott Morrison often sounded like an extra from The Adventures of Barry McKenzie. …

In his matey moments with knockabout Sydney media types such as Ben Fordham and Karl Stefanovic, Morrison would often yuck it up in the local patois. He would use terms such as “gibberer” (fool), “turn it up” (come off it), “pull-through” (dressing down), “blow up deluxe” (become angry) – specific Sydney words and phrases which require a translator in Adelaide, Perth and Hobart. …

Why it matters:

These observations go to superficialities, albeit ones which influence our views on whether our leaders really get us or not. It is in the policy sense where the nation’s Sydney bias becomes real, as so much political effort is devoted to duchessing voters in the dozen-odd Sydney swing seats which make and break governments. …

Public money spent in western Sydney is regarded as the valid dispersement of cash to help people dealing with the cost of living and urban sprawl. In the rest of the country, it’s a handout for bludgers.

And before that:

Julia Gillard’s national outlook was broader than her successors, informed by an Adelaide childhood, a work life in Melbourne, and frequent and extended stays in Sydney. But our last truly federalist PM was John Howard, who demonstrated that being from Sydney need not translate into a Sydney-centric view.

Howard had two qualities which made him a true national leader. The first was his passion for Australian history. The second was that, despite his affability as a man, he was in a party-political sense a bare-knuckle brawler who played a key role in every internal battle the Liberals had for more than three decades. As such, he amassed forensic knowledge of every composite part that made his party tick. … Howard had a fondness for arcane provincial stories which meant little to the rest of Australia.