CITY DEBATE: Why high-profile Victorians are saying post-COVID Melbourne sucks . . . but Sydney got it right

Headshot of Sarah Blake
Sarah Blake
The Nightly
8 Min Read
Some say Sydney is the Hollywood movie, while Melbourne is the book.
Some say Sydney is the Hollywood movie, while Melbourne is the book. Credit: The Nightly

It was an airport conversation that revealed so much about the widening gulf between Sydney and Melbourne.

A high-profile businessman, born and bred in Victoria and with deep roots in the Melbourne establishment, now divides his time between his home city and Sydney.

And he’s had a gutful of what he sees as Melbourne’s bad attitude.

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The people there are “too scared, too angry and ready to complain about the slightest thing”, he said.

So much so, he added, that no, he wouldn’t be willing to go on record for this story, given he needs to keep doing business down south.

There’s nothing new in the tussle between Sydney and Melbourne to take the title as our best city and Australian Bureau of Statistics figures this week revealed the southern capital has outstripped its northern rival to become our biggest city, with 5.1m urban dwellers to 5.04m.

Due mainly to migration, Melbourne’s population is now the fastest growing in the country with 167,500 moving there between 2022 and 2023. Sydney was next with 146,700 new residents.

Some high-profile Melburnians, fed up with the new shape their city has taken, are asking just what on earth is going on.

With its world-famous beaches and harbour, Sydney’s the movie, some say, while Melbourne is the book. Sin City is the one you’d date, while you’d take Victoria’s capital home to meet your mum.

Even if the rivalry can seem a little one-sided, given most Sydneysiders rarely give Australia’s other cities a second thought, it’s been a genuine dance since Federation.

But when NSW Premier Chris Minns, fired up about the GST carve-up, recently slammed the “welfare state” over the Murray and Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas labelled him a “tool ... but not the sharpest tool in the shed”, it was another reminder that the differences have rarely seemed so stark as they currently do.

It’s something high-profile former radio host Jon Faine, who was born in Sydney and has spent most of his life in Melbourne, says is well illustrated in the push by brash radio hosts Kyle and Jackie O into the southern capital.

While admitting he wasn’t overly familiar with the Sydney duo’s material on their KIIS 1065FM show, he said previous such attempts to import “shock jocks” and opinionated NSW talent have been “unequivocal failures” because Melburnians didn’t want to be told how to think.

“Their kind of brashness and that bogan arrogance, I don’t think it will work here,” he said.

“There’s a market for it but it’s tiny.

“In Sydney, it’s the zeitgeist but it’s not the zeitgeist here.

“So, I hope they fail because it willl restore my confidence in the sensibilities of the city where I live.

“If Melbourne embraces them I’ll have to wonder, maybe I don’t understand my city the way I think I do.”

Their Melbourne debut, set for late April, has been met with dismay and alarm by some quarters, but Sandilands says the pair have tailored their show for a national audience and is emphatic the pair can top the ratings.

“I don’t think it’ll be straight away, it’ll take a few surveys to crack them realistically so I don’t think it’ll be immediate, but by the end of the year yes,’’ Sandilands said to local media this month.

“It’s a complete new show, the whole show in its entirety is different for Melbourne. When we had a national show we rated our arse off in Melbourne and we’ll have those listeners in there and a whole new group of listeners that will find their home with us.”

For veteran media figure Steve Price, there are two Melbournes, and he’s so fed up with the new version he’s considered moving to Sydney.

A man shelters from the rain under an umbrella as he walks along the Yarra River in Melbourne.
A man shelters from the rain under an umbrella as he walks along the Yarra River in Melbourne. Credit: Scott Barbour/Getty Images

“There’s a pre-COVID and post-COVID Melbourne and compared to Sydney it used to be a very liveable city,” the columnist and TV host told The Nightly.

What’s changed in his opinion are sweeping new rules, fines around every corner and a lingering pandemic hangover down to the State’s $126 billion debt.

“The city itself seemed to be full of life but COVID came along and really smashed Melbourne in particular, much harder than that hit Sydney,” he said.

“The mood in Sydney was different than Melbourne. It was less oppressive... and that’s carried on.”

Price said the reality was “disguised largely for interstaters who look at Melbourne”.

“It’s disguised by the clever programming of major events. So if you’re living in Sydney or Brisbane or Adelaide or anywhere else, you look at Melbourne you go to Melbourne is a great place to look at,” he said.

“But if you are a Melbournian living here, and outside of those major events, it’s become a very sad place because the Labor Government has been in there for 10 years and has run up an incredible debt.

“I think that aside from major events they’ve taken a lot of the joy out of living in Melbourne,” he said.

“And when you go to Sydney, by comparison, and you walk through the brand new Central Station development, you walk down to Barangaroo, and when you compare Barangaroo, with (Melbourne’s) Docklands, Docklands is dead, no one wants to go there.

“So Sydney has just blossomed post COVID and for whatever reason...Melbourne has just not bounced back like the rest of Australia has.”

Faine, who is no stranger to critiquing Sydney and found himself copping flak for an early pandemic newspaper column that labelled NSW smug and disputed that Melbourne was taking its sweet time recovering from the city’s 262 days of lockdowns.

“There are always short-term problems and COVID was one of them,” he said.

Young swimmers jump into the water at Marrinawi Cove in Sydney.
Young swimmers jump into the water at Marrinawi Cove in Sydney. Credit: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

“People get impatient and I share that impatience. But don’t confuse it with the longer-term issues. Yes, Melbourne went into COVID harder, stayed longer in lockdown, and was slower to come out of it.

“Those are little blips on the line. They’re not things that people should dwell on. They’re annoying. They’re costly. But they’re not long-term.

“I grew up in Sydney, I love it. It’s a tart of a town and a great place if you’ve got lots of money. But it’s less enjoyable if you’re budget-constrained. Melbourne is much more egalitarian in that sense.”

Sydney-based media commentator Jason Morrison said Sydney’s recovery was down to the city’s constant desire to buck the rules.

“Sydney people are perhaps a little less compliant with a government’s rules, a little more likely to be a bit defiant, and that was clear all the way through COVID,” he said.

“And it didn’t seem to matter how hard they tried, people found a way through to do what they wanted to do. And so when society freed up again Sydney got back to back to business, probably a little bit quicker. It also helped that at the time, our premier, Dominic Perrottet, who was running the State thought that everything his predecessor had put in was a bit over the top anyway. “

But while Sydney may be ahead of Melbourne, he said there were pockets of the city with “real problems”.

“Sydney has a lot of problems,” he said.

Melbourne can never compete with the beauty that is Sydney Harbour and the Bridge and the Opera House. We don’t have that level of beauty. But what we have in exchange is world-class events.

“Everyone tends to look at the city in the CBD and use that as an example. I mean, that is in critical condition. But when you go further out into the suburbs there are pockets where things are booming, but there’s also a lot of businesses that they’ve just never realised the strength again, that they had. And I actually think it is, it’s the unspoken, you no hangover of COVID is that it has really hurt a lot of smaller businesses.”

Another big Melbourne name willing to go on the record about what he calls the decline of his city is controversial former AFL commentator Sam Newman, who remains frustrated at the impact of the lockdowns there.

“Sport is the only thing that keeps this state afloat now,” he said.

“I don’t run a business, I don’t employ people but I look around at all the businesses that were shut down and the city a ghost town.

“It’s a very sad reflection of what used to be a great state and I can’t see how it ever gets fixed unless we can ever pay off the debt we’ve run up with this government.”

He said it had been disheartening to see how “absurdly” the city’s residents had complied with strict rules.

“We have been tethered to within an inch of our lives to their regulations, it’s been nonsense and more than any other State in the country,” he said.

It’s not just small businesses struggling down south, according to Business Sydney’s Paul Nicolaou, who pointed to the Victorian Government’s decision to raise port fees by 15 per cent for spurring the departure of cruise lines Cunard and Princess Cruises from next year.

“They increased their fees and no doubt ships will be questioning whether Melbourne is a place to visit because of that,” he said.

“Companies will be looking at the viability of the city.”

He said NSW had stormed out of the lockdowns with fewer restrictions and a focus on the night-time economy, which the NSW Government this week revealed had seen a doubling of live music venues.

“There’s been a massive turnaround from government and local councils,” he said.

“A lot have taken a proactive approach in reducing red tape to things like outdoor seating. Look at The Rocks. It used to be a place where you bought Ugg boots and souvenirs. Now there are high-end bars and restaurants everywhere.”

Rather than highlighting the rivalry between the cities, Victorian Chamber of Commerce head Paul Guerra said they should be celebrated.

“Melbourne can never compete with the beauty that is Sydney Harbour and the Bridge and the Opera House. We don’t have that level of beauty. But what we have in exchange is world-class events. Our sporting facilities are so close to the CBD, our liveability on any international score is higher than what Sydney’s is.”

He said the city’s food, arts, events and offerings such as racing were global leaders.

“We changed as a result of COVID and that’s what we’re going through at the moment,” he said.

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