MELBOURNE AUSTRALIA 14 December 2006 – We have gone from one of the world’s least livable cities to one of its most livable ones. Melbourne Australia is 11 hours from Bombay, by air – but it seems like a different planet. Bombay is what is known in economics literature as a ‘third world hellhole.’ Melbourne, on the other hand, could be any city in America – if any city in America were this clean, safe, and modern. Founded in 1835, Melbourne’s fortunes were made by the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s.
“The difference between Australians and Americans,” said colleague Dan Denning, living in Melbourne for the last year, “is a consequence of geography. As Americans made their way from the coastal settlements into the interior they found rich farmland almost wherever they went. They could just go west…and things got better and better.
“But the first Westerners in Australia got dumped out at Sydney Harbor…they almost starved…and then they discovered that they lived on the edge of a huge desert. They explored the country, but found that most of it was uninhabitable. Over every hill was another disappointment.
“In America, the rough, individualistic frontier spirit paid off. A man could hack out his own ground and make his own way in the world. But Down Under, the climate and the earth were less yielding. They had to stick together; and lower their expectations.”
Asked to define what it meant to be an Australian last week, the Prime Minister, John Howard, said it meant ‘mateship’ and ‘having a go.’
“Australians seem more fatalistic… more resigned to accept what comes their way,” said Dan.
What has been coming their way in the ‘lucky country‘ has been almost all good lately. There has been no recession here for more than 15 years. Real estate prices have soared. Even where they seem to be backing off from recent highs, there has been no financial trouble. Just when the property boom seemed to come to an end a huge boom in commodities took over.
Perth – the center of mining activity in Western Australia – is still a boom town. Property prices there have gone up more than 40% in the last 12 months. Perth must be an extraordinary place. It is far from everything – the most remote major city in the world.
We’ve never been to Perth, but Melbourne has a familiar feel. It reminds us of Vancouver, with which it vies for the title of the ‘world’s most livable city.’ Both cities are tidy, mostly low-crime, attractive, and easy to get around. Both cities have solid, old-money, sober and respectable British-style administrations with large groups of dynamic new-money immigrants. Both cities are quiet, orderly, civilized, and modern – everything that Bombay is not.
“It’s all based on credit, just like in America,” said one of our readers last night. We held a cocktail reception for Melbourne-based DR sufferers…more turned up than we expected. “It will have to end sometime, but you can go broke waiting for a downturn in Australia. And then, when you give up waiting, it will hit hard.”
“Yes, look at the big buildings downtown,” said another reader. “They’re almost all big banks. The banks made a fortune lending to consumers…and then to the natural resource industry. One boom after another, it really is a lucky country…except of course that there’s no water and it’s on fire.”
Firefighters have been battling a huge blaze not too far from Melbourne for several weeks. Forest fires in other parts of Australia too are burning up houses…and sending a pall of smoke all over Southeast Asia. Yesterday, the papers reported that two big fires had come together to produce an immense blaze. Thousands of firefighters, bulldozers, and fire trucks are doing what they can to contain it. But it looks at though it will just have to burn itself out.
“Yes, the whole country has always been dry, but now it’s drier than ever,” our guest continued. “The only solution I can see is desalinization on a massive scale. We’ve got plenty of sea-water…I mean, we live on an island…”