Issue 9, December 2008 | David Ritter

Capital in the West

The geographic loneliness of Perth is so complete that it can feel as though the gates are closed.  Our far-flung littleness can be good and bad: at best, cosseting and familiar; the reassuring myth of the city which W.E.H. Stanner described more than fifty years ago as an atmosphere of ‘genial intimacy.’  At worst though, the capital of the western state can feel like a stuffy lounge-room, tense with intimates souring in a shared resignation. Now too, the apocalyptic logic of climate change underlines the isolation as new heat obtains. The capital of Western Australia is becoming increasingly marginal: the deserts march in and the seas are advancing. Tim Flannery has speculated that Perth as ‘the most isolated city on the planet’ could become ‘the first metropolitan ghost town’ of the new century.’ The flesh and blood of Western Australians in the streets of their capital are made spectral by the prediction.  In their freshly pressed pride and folly, the new state government wants others to do something first, while all turns to dust and memory around them. 

The mythology of the city’s past clasps at the rosier dimension of familiarity from days before we knew about greenhouse gasses. Some older residents lament the end of what they remember as Perth’s innocence, the passing of ‘the days when you could leave your doors unlocked’, now replaced by dead-bolts and window-catches and the arrival of an edgy feel.  Householders worry about neighbors they don’t know and start at the outrage of guard-dogs and squealing late night tires. Commercial media, when not sated on crime-stories, gorges on broken innocence in the form of the idiot grin of the State’s once premier football hero, fallen from the exalted pedestal of top marketable commodity, swept to his fate by a downward zephyr fanned by the implosion of brittle celebrity. Perth being Perth, everyone has their own inside story of the young man’s descent toward ruin. The untimely death of a young movie star, one of the sunny western state’s shiniest sons now nearing his first year in the grave, brought more of the same.   

Yes, Perth is on an edge now that wasn’t there thirty years ago, but still, ours is no sin city.  In public, citizens are largely still polite and decent to each other. Most nights of the week, in the majority of locations, the city remains hushed. Indeed, some believe the quiet is too great; sparking what is passed off as a civic debate about the fairness of the tag ‘Dullsville.’ There is little real content in this false argument about a slogan, which usually functions as nothing more than a rhetorical way of legitimizing some scheme or other, which, it is invariably claimed, will make the capital renowned. Perth, it is foretold, can become a centre of global society through the addition of a convention centre, some shops or a new tower. One wag suggests a new monument to bring in the tourists, namely the construction of a giant f-ckwit, and we all laugh. Like a despairing adolescent applying a treatment of cheap fake tan, the novel and genuine charms of Perth have often been sacrificed in an impossible rush to try and look like the latest imagined and unobtainable ideal. In the minds of some Western Australians, Perth is too often conceived in terms of inadequacies measured against the distorted shadows of other places.  Parts of our city have been broken in ill-advised attempts at recasting.

Just lately, Perth’s times have been very good indeed and locals, motivated variously by easy contentment, smugness or irony, are increasingly prone to dub the place ‘Boomtown.’ The city on the rim is largely paid for by what is dug out of the interior or drilled offshore and lately the excavation has been going at a feverish rate. Earlier rushes, booms and frenzies have been surpassed by the Western Australian economic thunder that is following the sheet lightning growth of the Chinese industrial megalith. The rich of Perth grow richer, while the middle class expands, doing the work of mining the Western Australian soil that has become China’s regional quarry. The relationship between WA and China is a curious thing: the two jurisdictions are so deeply culturally and politically dissimilar, yet the economic links are tight and direct. Perth’s coffee and property prices have sailed skyward on the winds of China’s industrial expansion. Revisiting a geo-political adage, if ever China sneezes, one might imagine Western Australia seizing with pneumonia. Now, Perth shivers as the nostrils of the Chinese economy sense the dust of the global financial debacle. We wait and wonder; while all of us, Chinese, West Australian and all humanity alike, are pulled in the fast train of growth towards the implacable wall of planetary ecological limits. 

Perth’s engagement with terrific prosperity is a show of light and shadow. Avarice and conspicuous consumerism are the nasty cousins of generous plenty. One plot in the drama of this best of times has been the spectacle played out on the stage of Western Australia’s Crime and Corruption Commission. Much of the fascination has focused on a small group of fallen politicians from an earlier era. The men in question have all clearly been very effective operators for lengthy periods, commanding filial networks of obligation and gratuity that have proven extensive and durable. Yet to imagine that their effectiveness was predicated on evil genius is to evoke caricature rather than provide explanation. The Penguin, the Riddler and the Joker may have been up to no good, but the maturation of their accomplishments owes much to certain features of the structure of contemporary Western Australian society. Identifying broader considerations is not to exculpate the conduct of individuals, of course, but simply to isolate the conditions which permitted them to flourish. 

Federal division of powers ensures that government approvals processes in relation to development and mining tend not to be dealt with in Canberra, but in the girded streets of Perth, where everyone knows everyone. What has occurred is the transposition of the personalized politics of an oversized village, trading graces and favours with a smile or a warning frown, on to a financial and political complex with big corporate agendas, in the midst of a minerals boom. The informality of personal acquaintance, charming when a matter of rural intimacies and folk practices, ceases to be endearing in the capitalist city: the quaint becomes menacing; personal largesse drifts to corruption and who you know is no longer a system of relational geniality, but a slippery path to trafficking in power. Out of the affable little capital emerges the new metropolis. In their sleek glass and pale concrete pyjamas, towers now stay up past their old bed-times, blinking in uncertain twilight at strange offerings of sugary sweets.  

Western Australia is a mining state. Having a political economy predicated on an industry that is essentially speculative means that in Perth luck is truly a fortune. The idiom of the business is machismo and real men don’t mind a punt. Mining is a big man’s job in a big state, with all the hardware, vocabulary and paraphernalia for easy macho credentialing, albeit somewhat softened by the legislatively mandated gender sensibilities of the new millennium. Sneering, though, is cheap and the minerals industry is an uncompromising enterprise. There is genius and tenacity in the work. The basis of mining is educated double guess-work at the location of resource bodies and the economic trends that determine profitability. A good find can be wrecked by a swing in currency exchange; but the best of trade terms and commodity prices are of little use if the ore grades are inadequate. Given the dimensions that are beyond control, miners crave autonomy over as much as possible, seeking, in a perfect world, to have the complete independence to decide where, what and when to dig.   

Mining can be an easy target for progressives, but the reality is that unless one is prepared to forego community wealth and the delectations of modernity, the industry must be fostered and encouraged. So taking a vibrant mining industry as being in the public good as given, the crucial contest is over how the enterprise should be regulated. Neo-liberals will favour radical deregulation, creating an environment in which self-maximising individuals can take the opportunity to grasp full advantage of all economic opportunities. Yet an ideology that lionizes self-interest nurtures a culture of rule-bending. The logic of the uninhibited market fuels the creation of a corrosive ethical atmosphere in which approvals are seen as simply another commodity to be used and traded in the quest for personal advancement and that rules by definition, must have been foolishly made and so are there to be broken. Neo-liberal acid eats away at the public good and gnaws persistently on private senses of moderation and propriety. After all, in the absence of restraining principles, why the hell not…? The long hot summers provide an environment conducive for geckoes and other reptiles. Yet what lies beneath the dry earth is our common wealth.         

Physical isolation is intractable, but on the periphery of their world, Western Australians can turn away from the brink. Neither the city nor the state need be ruled by money over all. Rules exhorted and respected can restrain markets from consuming the societies. Other breezes contest the gusts of self and excess; stubborn civility, domesticity, community, traditions of social democratic regard and tenacious conservationism. The CCC does its work; some old growth forests still stand and are protected, while behind the State’s Parliament House, the trees of Solidarity Park, constructed in the great wave of industrial action that marked Richard Court’s premiership in the nineties, continue to thrive. Every weekend, struggling green fields fill with children together, minded by parents in willing community. Despite the pressures of dollars and distance, a robust decency lingers in shared public memory of collective good. In the late afternoons, Perth is cooled by the Fremantle Doctor, beloved of her parched people. In the airy evenings, though the months are short, long night-times of talk and rest remind us that there are alternatives.  

David Ritter is The New Critic's London based Editor-at-Large.