Panorama by AirPano

There are plenty of city pairs across the world with intense rivalries, but until Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution linked to this story I hadn’t suspected the long-standing competition between Sydney and Melbourne is of an order that attracts attention from beyond our shores.

It goes back at least to the late nineteenth century and the battle for the location of the new Federation’s national Parliament. Even in 1835 the first whites to settle Melbourne (from Van Diemen’s Land) chafed at the restrictions imposed on them by the colonial government in Sydney.

Maybe the rivalry is because the hierarchy of cities by size in Australia doesn’t follow the rank-order distribution common in many other countries. Sydney is bigger than Melbourne on most metrics, but it’s nowhere near twice the size as the rule requires.

Antagonism is probably inevitable when you’ve got two contestants close to each other in size. The challenger was once top dog and is prone to think the gap is smaller than it actually is.

And there is serious stuff at stake. During the 80s and 90s Melbourne bled finance jobs as Sydney assumed the dominant national role in this industry.

That all seems like ancient history yet every six months or so for as long as I can remember, another story pops up in the press suggesting one is better than the other.

There’s even a book on the subject – somewhere in my library I have a substantial paperback titled something like The Sydney-Melbourne Book, published in the mid 1980s (Google’s no help unfortunately).

Of course there are differences, most obviously in climate, topography and the cost of housing. If you can’t live without beaches or you work in the upper echelons of finance, insurance or the media, you’ll probably think Sydney is a better place to live.

If you work in the arts or medical research, love grunge, or your life revolves around AFL footy, you’ll probably prefer living in Melbourne. Housing’s cheaper, traffic congestion’s lower, and you get to see your city in a lot of TV dramas (a small delight that deserves more recognition!).

Right now Melbourne’s in a good place. It seems to have found a way to enjoy the advantages of size and density – especially in the city centre – without pricing out the sorts of activities that appeal to a hip demographic.

But whatever it is about a city that appeals to us, it’s ultimately subjective. It depends on a range of factors, like our tastes, interests, age, socio-economic status, and more.

One city will suit one person better than another. That congruence might even change with each new stage of life.

However I don’t buy the clichés like one city can’t produce good coffee or the people of one are friendlier than those of the other.

I reject the coffee claim out of hand. Sydney and Melbourne are big, diverse cities and they both have plenty of discerning customers demanding quality beverages.

Making good coffee isn’t that hard – if it were, elite baristas would be paid more than their customers! In the absence of hard evidence, it’s far more plausible the coffee is as good on average in Melbourne as it is in Sydney.

And people who claim as fact that one city is friendlier than the other are invariably extrapolating from subjective experiences. They don’t have objective and universal evidence; it’s just what happened to them.

I’ve lived in both cities for substantial periods. While there are differences, I agree with Anthony Sharwood’s (light-hearted) take that the similarities far outweigh the differences.

Despite variations in local geography, Australian cities are generally remarkably similar (that’s not true in some other countries). That’s the reason so many of them rank in the top ten on ‘world’s most liveable city’ indexes.

We’re apt to magnify the differences, but Australian cities are very much alike on critical variables such as education, health and personal security. And a job in Bunnings is a job in Bunnings no matter what big city you’re in.

They all have vibrant inner cities with cafes, pubs and music venues. They all have extensive tracts of suburbia (much of it interchangeable) for the 80%-90% who prefer something else. They all have the same TV channels.

It’s no surprise we tend to put a lot of weight on the marginal differences. The “best” city, though, is the one that suits each individual’s peculiar circumstances.

If you value an attribute in which one city excels, you’ll trade it off against those in which it does poorly.

Melbourne isn’t better than Sydney or vice versa, they’re just “different”. But they are more alike than they are different.


It’s time to book your next dose of Crikey.

Through the week, news comes at you fast. Every day there’s a new disaster, depressing numbers or a scandal to doom-scroll to. It’s exhausting, and not good for your health.

Book your next dose of Crikey to get on top of it all. Subscribe now and get your first 12 weeks for $12. And you’ll help us too, because every dollar we get helps us dig even deeper.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.