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Mar 23, 2012

The Shire: like West Berlin, with more bibles and more suspicion

The Sutherland Shire’s isolation has created a uniquely self-referential culture that is deeply suspicious of outsiders and actively tries to keep them out. The sort of conflict Channel Ten wants to feed off.

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It’s a very strange experience, telling people that you’ve just been to the Shire. They reel back in horror.

“The Shire! Why would you want to go there?” It’s as if you said you had travelled to Mars, via Mount Everest. “But it’s only 20 minutes south of the airport,” you tell your friends, who shake their heads sadly. “I’ve never been there,” they say.

The Sutherland Shire’s biggest problem, apart from its public image, is geographical isolation. Tightly enclosed by the Georges River to the north, and the Royal National Park to the south, you don’t often drive through the Shire to go somewhere else. Its most famous suburb, Cronulla, is a bit like pre-’89 West Berlin (without the galleries) — you have to really want to go there. This kind of isolation has created a uniquely self-referential culture that is deeply suspicious of outsiders and actively tries to keep them out.

Ask a local where they are from and they will puff their chests out and snort, “The Shire!”, daring you to make a judgment. It’s not just a municipality, it’s a mentality.

When the Ten Network leaked the news this week that it was making a drama/reality television show about it, we all knew what that meant: Aussie beach culture, xenophobia, misogyny, boorish lower-middle class aspirations. I’ve never seen Jersey Shore, but I know the genre — create a few stereotypes, amp up the “satire” and then leak it to the media, who will find plenty of locals to express their outrage. Ten have followed this to the letter.

What we do know about the Shire, according to the last census (2006), is that the locals are mainly Anglo-Celts, live in conventional family structures and have an above-average median household income. With three-quarters of the residents declaring a religious faith, it is also Sydney’s second-largest Bible belt. Locals also have an above-average rate of home ownership — according to Property Observer, Cronulla’s median house price for the year to January 2012 was $1.25 million; units, $480,000.

These good, God-fearing types vote Liberal and Scott Morrison, the member for Cook, knows how to keep them happy. As the Shadow Minister for Immigration, he regularly makes statements about border protection and keeping out asylum seekers.

In 2011, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, he made comments in shadow cabinet suggesting the Coalition should take advantage of the electorate’s growing concerns of “Muslim immigration”, “Muslims in Australia” and the “inability” of Muslim migrants to integrate. We got the message — yet another Shire resident who doesn’t like outsiders.

For the rest of us who don’t live in Godzone Country, there are two cultural reference points for the Shire. These are the 1992 reality television show Sylvania Waters and the December 2005 Cronulla riots, when violent clashes between the locals and gangs of Lebanese men dominated the headlines for days. It came to a head on Australia Day when groups of Shire men, many of them brandishing Australian flags, fought the outsiders as if it was Custer’s Last Stand. To this day, I carry an image of Shire residents with Southern Cross tattoos, walking around with banners saying “We Grew Here, You Flew Here”. Sometimes misspelt.

Cronulla is famous for its glorious beach, a magnificent strip of white sand that stretches right up to Kurnell, the site of Captain Cook’s first landing in 1770. It is the only well-known Sydney beach that is also on a train line; Manly, Bondi and all the northern suburbs are hard to get to on public transport, which dissuades visitors. But Cronulla’s railway station, a pleasant five-minute stroll to the beach, could not be more convenient. Maybe a bit too convenient.

Right next to the Shire is a large group of suburbs that lack many of the advantages of their closest neighbour. South-west Sydney, much poorer and more multicultural, is the heartland of Sydney’s Muslim community, much of it Lebanese.  On the weekends they pack the Cronulla trains, dubbed by comedian Vince Colosimo the “Middle-Eastern Distributor”.

Combine sun, sand and stubbies with a few ethnic tensions and you get the Cronulla riots, and a faint siege mentality. But on a sunny weekday, with only lifesavers and toddlers on the sand, the beach is a spectacular Australian landmark.

I won’t be watching The Shire, because life is too short to watch reality TV, which I think sucks up your brain cells. But I do hope it contains the Shire’s best joke, from Oliver Phommavanh:

“Our suburb celebrated Australia Day with a riot. I caught up with guys I haven’t seen since high school.”

Margot Saville —

Margot Saville

Crikey Sydney reporter

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26 comments

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26 thoughts on “The Shire: like West Berlin, with more bibles and more suspicion

  1. Mahum Asmi Ahum

    ”Dear Margot,

    How sad that you have such a prejudiced view of the Shire even though I neither ‘grew there, nor ‘flew there’. In fact, I live several hours away. However, I have friends who live there. They seem to be highly atypical of Shire folk you describe. Yes, the riots happened and yes there are tribal type clashes. These are not happening with the majority of the people there, but a minority.. I am wondering who the ‘people’ are that you told you were visiting? It sounds to me like these people may benefit from some social inclusion education. Perhaps you would also?

    It occurs to me that Anglo Celts who primarily follow Christian religions do, after all, have as much right to their beliefs and lifestyle as Indigenous Australian, Lebanese, Greek, Indian, Phillipino, Middle Eastern, Italian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, or any other group. I am curious. Where do you fit? Are you an embaressed Anglo Celt? A blue eyed fair skinned person who has recently recognised their ‘invader’status and are embaressed by your advantages? Or are you a disgruntled Christian who is still angry with the God by guilt philosophy? Or are you a ‘wog’ like me?

    Whatever your reasons, pointing at Anglo Celts who may or may not care, know, or participate in these matters. will not help. All that is important is what will you do about it? I suggest that writing such an article is likely to do more harm than good. Social action by writing can be helpful, provided it is underpinned with a genuine respect for all groups of people.

    I am sorry to be so blunt, but clearly you have sufficient education to write your article in an entertaining style, yet your sentiments are repugnant. I am baffled by your lack of self reflection and tendency to do precisely what I think you are resisting. Everyone , all lifestyles and communities have positive, neutral, odd , beautiful and negative aspects.

    If their shadow explodes outward, sometimes, that does not mean it underpins the entire values and ways of being within that community. It may be that they simply more moved to express what most groups experience. in various degrees. There are always insiders and outsiders. Some groups don’t have the passion or courage (albeit, in this case, extremely misguided expressions of courage) to do anything with it. Since you can write, it may be more beneficial for social change to highlight the values of any group of people, the good, the bad and the ugly rather than to focus on the issues alone or to use them as a subject for invalidation.

  2. Bee Lori

    Margot did you intend your work to be a piece of fiction? Have you ever heard of researching a piece?
    1. Vince Colosimo is an actor. You may be referring to Vince Sorrenti, the comedian?
    2. Sutherland Shire’s closest neighbour is the St George area, which is not referred to as south west Sydney. You do not even refer to Alfords Point, which is the exit point from the Shire for travelling to the south west of Sydney: Bankstown, Punchbowl as well as Hurstville
    3. The Cronulla riots were largely populated by people who travelled to the area to be involved in what started as a peaceful protest by locals to increase Police presence in the area, which had diminished due to a downsize of officers at Cronulla Police station, so at night a primary response may come from Miranda. Your mental image of a Shire person “fighting the outsider” may well be a White Australia party member whose home is far from Cronulla.
    4. You don’t drive through the Shire to go somewhere else? Sutherland Shire hosts the major arterial road to the South Coast, and is the start of the Grand Pacific Drive, a scenic route which takes in the coastline from Royal National Park to the Shoalhaven area very popular for days trips and caravanners.
    5. The Australia Day” riot ” you referred to occured 11 months prior to the Cronulla riot and was not racially focussed and unrelated to the Dec 2005 incident.
    5. You say you have never seen Jersey Shores but you “know the genre”
    Did you do any research at all or simply misquote comedians and piece together unrelated non factual text?
    6. You seem to hold an awful prejudice against an area of Sydney which is based on presumption rather than fact – is that not the basis of most acts of racism and prejudice?

    I would be quite ashamed to put my name to a piece as flawed and prejudiced as this.

  3. Damien

    As long as people like Margot smugly offer ill-informed, fatuous and hypocritical judgements about the Sutherland Shire, the less we Shire residents will have to endure their status-obsessed pretentions and insecurities in person.

    In my view, Margot and her fellow travellers should continue to believe the world ends at Lewisham and that they’ll never have to leave their congested diesal-fouled streets – except to drive their kids to exclusive private schools – because cultural diversity is great but not for their kids, especially when the local school is full of poor CALD kids.

    “Cronulla, is a bit like pre-‘89 West Berlin (without the galleries)”. What a nonsensical statement. Unlike Margot, I won’t pretend to know much of pre-1989 East Berlin but I’m pretty sure it didn’t have beaches, parks, restaurants and miles of sandy beaches even if it, too, had galleries.

    “This kind of isolation has created a uniquely self-referential culture that is deeply suspicious of outsiders and actively tries to keep them out.” More nonsense. In fact, if the author’s statements, and those, reportedly, of her friends are anything to go by, the opposite is true. And that’s alright with me.

    I wonder if there’s any real difference between the Shire and, say, the northern beaches? I also suspect there are even some “boorish lower-middle class aspirations” in Summer Hill, Beecroft or Ryde.

    Also, don’t associate all Shire residents with Scott Morrison’s views on immigration. His predecessor (for years) was Bruce Baird, one of the three coalition MPs to cross the floor on the Nauaru concentration camps.

    Another thing, one can no more ‘snort’ the Shire” than one can ‘sneeze’ Stanmore.

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