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."