I remember the very first time I saw Sydney. I can remember the exact words out of my mouth: Now this is a city I can like. I loved moving there a few years later, spending my formative youth on Sydney’s beaches and in its clubs. Of all the teenagers on the planet at that time, surely I was the winner of some sort of global geographical lotto. Ah, to be young in Sydney. It was a lovely life, a zenith of carefree intemperance. Then came the Olympics. In 2000, the winner really was Sydney.
But that isn’t true anymore. Like a lost civilisation, its highest forms of evolution and sophistication were also its downfall. Now it resembles a city eating itself, on that journey to inevitable decline. Its residents demand blood-sacrifice, hoping to appease the gods and end these troubled times. Strangled by its own greatness, now the darker aspects of Sydney’s personality dominate. Mr Hyde runs the city: terrible traffic, random alcohol-related violent crime in bars, dense and increasing population, an organised crime gang-war with constant drive-bys and arson, all the noise, disorganised crime, terrible pollution. People aren’t safe walking the streets or catching the trains. Literally. And soon, you will be drinking your own filth. The tension is ratcheted up daily. Sydney has become like the ‘State of Nature’ written of by Thomas Hobbes, a life of “every man against every man”, a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Anarchy is a good word for it. No-one can stop it, or even control it. That horrendous incident in Kings Cross last month. Nearly every day is a drive-by or an arson in the bikie war. It is only a matter of time until innocents are killed in the crossfire. The wrong house strafed, the wrong building torched. And now, bikies use children to do drive-bys. Sydney is not just gripped in a bikie war, there are scooter wars too. Most NSW crimes are on the increase, especially shootings and abductions. Disregarding for a minute the crimewave from organised crime, Sydney residents are still faced with the disorganised crimewave. Some lunatic firing weapons at a Sydney bus (have services really become that poor under Barry O’Farrell? He has only been there for a year!) Neighbours are violently turning on each other with increasing frequency. More opportunistic crime by child gangs on international students riding public transport. But these are not recent phenomena. I am reminded of all the international students being robbed in Kingsford when I was at UNSW in the mid-2000s, or the 2009 violence against Indian students.
As the anarchy spreads and the tension builds, NSW takes on the feel of a failed state: losing control of its territory and its legitimate authority, increasingly undermined by morons and criminals, unable to provide public services or solve its problems or stop the rot. And if you thought the last state government was dodgy or corrupt, this sex scandal instance, or this undeclared donations instance, and this ministerial advisor instance should demonstrate that you didn’t elect angels last March. And then there’s this Orica one, this Star City one, this falsified statutory declaration one, this sanctioned workplace harassment one, this one on falsified carbon tax data… all since March 2011. The internal collapse of law and order, political corruption, the incapacity to provide poor residents with basic services such as health, education, transport – all are characteristic of a ‘failed state’. All that is missing are pirates (unless you count the politicians).
So what do you do? The only thing you can. Retreat into your homes, your sanctuaries. Fortress Sydney. But owning a home, one of the surest forms of security, is slipping further and further out of reach (and may actually have become unviable for most renters several years ago). In 2012, the 8th Annual Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey has calculated that house price to income ratios for Sydney are 9.2 (take an average Sydney income and multiply it by 9.2 and according to Demographia, that is the average Sydney house price). On the other side of the ratio debate is the Commonwealth Bank, purveyor of crushing debt, which in December 2010 attempted to seriously argue that the Sydney ratio was really only 4.3 at the time. But whatever the ratio may be (and I have something on this later), with current interest rates you will pay a bank $1.1m over 30 years to buy a home today for $500K. Crazy, right?
As Sydney descends into the anarchy of terrible crime, overcrowding, and horrendous house prices, millions of people cry out to the heavens for someone to help them (some sort of Jesus-Premier, perhaps?). What do I do? I bask in the warm glow of my own genius and luck at having moved from Dulwich Hill to Canberra just as the music stopped and the party stopped being fun. Perhaps it was when an old man broke into a Dulwich Hill house at 3am to assault a 6-year-old boy. This was very near my home where my little boy slept. Or perhaps it was when police-commandos nabbed 3 armed robbers in Dulwich Hill. Also very near my home. Or perhaps it was when a woman was sexually assaulted in Dulwich Hill as she walked on a footpath. Again, close to my home, on a footpath my wife and I often walked on. Or perhaps it was when a dozen afore-mentioned police-commandos grabbed a crim at my local Dulwich Hill petrol station at 5pm on a weekday, right in front of me. When a bland, nondescript, innocuous little suburb like Dulwich Hill turns noxious, the canary in the cage is definitely dead. But perhaps it was not the crime at all. Maybe it was that the road I commuted to work on five days a week on my way to Gladesville, Victoria Road, was consistently rated as Sydney’s slowest road. Or maybe it was the crushing realisation that I would rent forever, moving like a nomad every time the landlord decided to jack the rent up. With neither safety nor stability, I left. My home.
I could not save my friends though. They still love Sydney. The [packed] beaches, the [crowded] clubs, the [most expensive] life! Sydney now resembles 4 million miserable people huddled around a drain. I admit that the drain is picturesque. I used to live in Watson’s Bay, way back when it was quiet (now you understand my earlier comment re: global geographical lotto). But most people only ever glimpse the Harbour as they cross the Bridge on their mega-commutes, so sticking with Sydney just because of a view snuck out of a window does not appear rational. If you have read any behavioural economics, or even any columns by Ross Gittins, Economics Editor for the Sydney Morning Herald, you know that humans are funny creatures, often doing things detrimental to their interests because of emotional factors. What we think will make us happy often doesn’t. Our paths to happiness are often counter-intuitive.
But like a bad partner in a bad relationship, there comes a time when you must gather the courage and say ‘enough, I’m leaving you!’ Don’t be scared. I am here to tell you that hope lives, and it lives just over three hours away to Sydney’s south-west, in Our Nation’s Capital, Canberra.
Canberra is lovely. It is quiet, safe, easy, and spacious. Using this city radius map tool, I calculated that I live 11.3km from the CBD. This morning it took me 15 minutes to drive during peakhour. Can someone living in Sans Souci, Hurstville, Kingsgrove, West Ryde, French’s Forest or Allambie Heights say that? And the job market is great. During the GFC for instance, the national unemployment rate was 5.7% but the Canberra’s was 2.9%. Much more recently, in April 2012, the NSW rate was 4.9% but the ACT rate was 3.3% (also the lowest in Australia).
Then take into account ABS AWOTE data (average wage figures for people who work full time in ordinary jobs) in Canberra compared to other cities. Of all the AWOTE figures, the best sub-category for my situation is column H: Earnings; Persons; Full Time; Adult; Ordinary time earnings. This is because I do not own an investment property to rent it out to someone, I do not derive incomes from other ventures like shares or a small business, and I rarely have to work overtime. I am just a guy, working fulltime and raising my kids with an ideal work/life balance thanks to a great job in a great public service. The national AWOTE figure is around $1330 (giving a salary of just under $70K). The NSW AWOTE is $1332.30 (still just under $70K) but the ACT AWOTE is $1543 (over $80K). All things being equal, an average Canberra fulltime office-worker earns a higher wage here than a Sydney worker. A rare example of when it is good to be average.
Then there is the superannuation difference if you work in the Sydney economy which is dominated by the private sector or the public-sector dominated economy of Canberra. Even when the new super laws come into effect and boost the super rate from 9% to 12% for private sector employees, public servants will still be more than 25% better off (we already earn 15.4% super), just as a proportion of wages being siphoned into super.
When you plug-in the AWOTE numbers to extrapolate super contributions, largely private sector Sydney workers on current AWOTE wages will have nearly $8,400 put into super per year (under the impending 12% rate), but Canberra public servants, with their 15.4% super rate and their higher average wages, have $12,351 (which is 50% greater). Add to that the magical powers of compound interest (and using a quick-and-dirty calculation which does not include wage rises) and across a working life of 40 years (with a conservative annual rate of return of 5%) the Sydney private sector employee is $529K poorer for not choosing a Canberra public service career, just in super funds: $1,124,590 versus $1,653,549. Also remember that this quick and dirty calculation does not take into account CPI wage increases or public service HR processes and promotions, which are vastly better in the public service than the stingy private sector, squeezing its employees with specious arguments about ‘productivity’.
So if you live in Canberra, you earn more money, you have much more super and if you do lose your job, the unemployment rate shows that you will find another one quickly. But wait, there’s so much more.
According to April 2012 house price data from RP Data, the average house price in Canberra is $572,500. Sydney is $572K. OK, so houses are about equal. Or are they? Block size data from 2010 shows that within 10km of the Canberra CBD, blocks average 798m2; in Sydney it is 443m2. For blocks more than 10km from the CBD, the Sydney size ‘balloons’ out to 690m2 and the Canberra size shrinks to 773m2. And getting to your home involves commuting through Sydney traffic for the 4 million Sydney-siders, compared to the 350,000 Canberrans. What about apartments close to the city? Table 1c of the RP Data report shows that Canberra flats are $52K cheaper than Sydney ones.
So when you combine the AWOTE figures with what you’re likely to spend most of it on (rent or mortgage), Canberrans can buy a house for the same price as one in Sydney, or they can buy a Canberra apartment for 11% less than a Sydney apartment, but they earn 15% more as an average wage than if they worked in Sydney. With much higher wages, Canberrans can pay off the mortgage faster than a Sydney-sider, so they pay the bank less interest over the life of the mortgage, which means more money for themselves. Canberrans can grow their equity faster and then enjoy the benefits by getting a second property (look at the Canberra rental yields on table 1d of the RP Data report) or enjoying their lives with frequent travel or whatever they choose to fill their quiet suburban lives with.
To return to the ‘house price to income ratio’ issue for a minute, Demographia said the ratio was 9.2 for Sydney, and the Commonwealth Bank said it was 4.3. Given that RP Data estimated the average Sydney house price at $572K, this would mean that the average wage using Demographia’s ratio is $62K, but the CBA’s figure would be $140K. Compare these to the ABS AWOTE figure, and a question arises: which bank is hopelessly out of touch with the average Australian? If your wage is closer to the Demographia figure than the CBA figure, it is time to move.
There are more costs involved in living than just rent or a mortgage. Which is where Mercer’s 2011 Cost of Living Survey comes in handy. Canberra is cheaper than Sydney, Melbourne, Perth and Brisbane. So, 15% higher wages, lower unemployment, $529K more super for a public service career, 11% cheaper flats, much smaller mortgage debt, lower overall cost of living, faster equity, less traffic. Surely, the crime rate is bad? Well, no. Canberra is much safer than Sydney (and every other jurisdiction in nearly every comparison). Even Queanbeyan (beside the ACT but inside NSW) has much lower crime than NSW generally. Queanbeyan is literally beside the ACT, and is 12km from the Canberra CBD.
Be not afraid or doubtful. Do not regard me as a mythological Siren, luring you with my enchanting facts to shipwreck yourselves on the rocky coast of our nation’s capital territory. And pay no attention to Guy Pearce bagging Canberra. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He was born in England for starters, he spends alot of time in LA, and he barracks for Geelong. Fatal character defects, all, not redeemed by being married to a psychologist wife with one of the coolest tattoos in history.
We all know people who evangelise something that they found helpful: this diet will change your life just as it changed mine; The Wire is the greatest TV series ever so don’t waste your time watching anything else; let God into your life and we can explain away all your failure and mediocrity by dressing it up in ridiculous arguments about ‘grace’ and ‘His plan’. But this is not that. I am not evangelising. Well, maybe a little. But look at my numbers, read my sources, and test my argument. Then ask yourself: what is more important? The life behind, or the life ahead?
Now, I will admit, under certain conditions Canberra (and Queanbeyan) is boring. If you are 22 and work in a part-time job like hospitality or retail, there is nothing to do here. No beaches, few clubs. But that’s about the only differences there are. There are galleries, museums, national parks, malls, pubs, clubs, sport, all of the social and cultural infrastructure of a major city like Sydney, but with far fewer people clogging them up. There is an extremely rich cultural life, and it is not only for the effete elite. Summernats is in Canberra, as are many music festivals like Foreshore, the National Folk Festival, Stonefest, and the Canberra International Music Festival. There is the Royal Canberra Show and Floriade. The ski slopes are an hour away. There are four universities here. Almost everyone in Canberra is a member of an amateur sporting team, and ACT resident participation in sport is the highest of all states and territories. This place is blessed. Some things are strikingly ideal, others quirkily less-so; Canberra is a little bit Stepford and a little bit Steptoe. And if you get homesick, Sydney is only a 3-hour drive.
There are two serious drawbacks though. The drivers are terrible. They cannot merge and they drive 50 in a 60 zone and 80 in a 100 zone. I am seriously ready to snap. And city traffic planners have not heard of this thing called a straight line. So, on occasion, I have called this place ‘Our Nation’s Crapital’. But how is Sydney life better than here? What do Sydney-siders spend their weekends doing now? What did I do once my son was born? What all parents do: chores. I finished my Master’s degree whilst working fulltime. I washed, I cleaned, I shopped, I worked, I drove, I packed, I earned, I paid. And if these are the things that must be done, then why not do them in a place where the wages are higher, the debts are smaller, the crime is negligible, the air is clean, the people are happy, the traffic is a joke (but so is the local standard of driving) and the career is much more fulfilling?
Working as a public servant is great. Instead of working for some profit-driven firm selling some product for some purpose to some guy, or growing someone else’s wealth, I help plan, build and maintain the society which sustains all of us. It is just like working in the rewarding NGO and social services sectors, but with much better pay and with actual prospects of making a difference. The work is thrilling. I am not interested in making a fortune; just making a life and making a difference.
Humans cling to memories, to what was special. And that is important. What we have done defines who we are. But it is more important to recognise that sometimes our old loyalties are stopping us from living up to our new ones. Sometimes we need to stop focussing on what we did and focus on what we need to do next. Stop clinging to the memories of the friends and beaches and nightclubs. Those days are gone. If you’ve had kids, all your childless friends have likely dropped off the radar anyway, you’re too neurotic to let your kid go anywhere near a beach with its hazards of skin-cancer/drowning/hypodermic needle/shark attack/sand, and you can’t go clubbing because you’re asleep by 10pm, even on weekends. So if you’re living in Sydney, raising kids, clinging to a life already lost, it’s time to let go of it and embrace the next stage. And in Canberra, what a wonderful life it is.