There are plenty of city pairs across the world with intense rivalries, but until Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution linked to this GeoCurrents 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 19th 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 1980s 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 each of us is personal. 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.

But 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.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW