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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.

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.”

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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. Scott

    What a patronising little piece. Studying the allegedly rich white Christian folk like they are hobbits.

    Not sure your kind of journalism is really suited to Crikey.com Margot…maybe give the Daily Tele a call and see if they have any vacancies in their ‘headlines with no story’ department.

  2. Scott

    Agree with my namesake…

    Also I think you mean Vince Sorrenti (the comedian), not Vince Colosimo (the actor).

  3. Dajopa

    Dialled up the snobbery on this piece. I know an isolated place in Sydney, where the people are equally closed minded and suspicious of outsiders (Cruise ship passengers!? On our peninsula! Not having it). It’s called Balmain.

  4. Frank Campbell

    Sociology cuts both ways. I’ve never seen a critique of inner suburban Australia from the Left . In fact critique of any kind is rare from the Left.

    Or the Right- they deal in stereotypes exclusively. Boltisms like “elites”, “latte-sipping” etc. Let’s call them hypocronyms- Bolt is in fact a low-postcode upper middle class cafe lizard. So is his brother, who runs the Vic. Dept of Primary Industry.

    The two “sides” are remarkably similar. Two sides of the same street. Real sociology would be quite subversive….

    Simons’ matronising piece is as light as thistledown…just a wave of the partisan hand.

    Why not give us the benefit of your profound understanding of climate science, Margaret? Like you did once before. This time check out the sociology of science beforehand. Then comment on A. Crabb’s thesis on the University of East Bumcrack. AKA East Anglia…

  5. 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.

  6. Frank Campbell

    sorry…should be Saville not simons…Sloppy. Will teach me to distinguish between clones…

  7. Keeno Modercut

    (Combine sun, sand and stubbies with a few ethnic tensions and you get the Cronulla riots)

    Nope, wrong again. Combine a together a collection of agent-provocateurs who are testing the power of social media to bring down the house and there you have it….Cronulla riots.

    Please continue with your bad hair-day.

  8. CliffG

    I won’t be watching the Shire, but since when do adult Australians need a huddle of Coalition cronies to protect them from a television programme? What hyprocritical defenders of private initiative and enterprise! God protect us from Scott Morrison!

  9. marcfranc

    At the risk of letting the facts get in the way of a good story:

    ‘… you don’t often drive through the Shire to go somewhere else’ — unless you happen heading for Wollongong and the South Coast of NSW.

    ‘Manly, Bondi and all the northern suburbs are hard to get to on public transport’ — what about the Manly ferry not to mention heaps of bus services to these beaches?

  10. CML

    @ DAMIEN – My, touchy aren’t we! A MAJORITY of your fellow residents elected that sleaze Scott Morrison, and you are all defined by the Cronulla riots. ‘Nuff said!
    Couldn’t think of anywhere worse in this great country to live. Hope you all enjoy your zenophobia!!!!!!!!
    Onya! Margot. Some people couldn’t recognise their racism if they fell over it. Thankfully, I live a long way from Sydney, and NSW!