17 Jan 2008

Attack of the Spivs

By Andrew West
Australian cities have been taken over by people who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing”, writes Andrew West

Not so long ago, along Hickson Road near Sydney's Darling Harbour, a sign appeared on the fence surrounding the wharf. "This is a working port," it declared. It went on to advise that there would be noise - the clanking and clunking of cargo vessels docking and cranes unloading - 24 hours a day. "This will not stop," it warned the prospective buyers of the new apartments in the smart new blocks opposite.

But it did stop, of course, and the once busy Sydney Harbour port is set to become ‘Barangaroo', a new residential enclave on the waterfront for yet more of Sydney's rich. The ships, and the people who work on them, are being banished to Botany Bay.

Paul Keating called the new name "Aboriginal kitsch", referring as it does to the wife of Bennelong, the indigenous leader "adopted" by Sydney's early European settlers. One of the alternative names for the precinct was ‘The Hungry Mile'. That's how desperate wharfies described it, as they scrounged for work along the waterside strip during the Great Depression.

‘The Hungry Mile' would have accurately reflected the hard-scrabble history of the site, but as Elizabeth Anne Macgregor, the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art (and, along with Keating, a member of the naming panel), told the Sydney Morning Herald, "Would you want to live somewhere called the Hungry Mile?" The subtext of Macgregor's comment was obvious: imagine what it would do to the property values.

In the end, the whole Barangaroo saga - with its erasure of an unfashionable part of our urban history and its replacement with politically correct tokenism - was a victory for the spivs.

The term "spiv" once referred to a minor criminal, a race-track huckster who used crude charm to defraud the gullible or trade on the post-war black market. These days, it has become an apt description for many of our business leaders and politicians who practise their own confidence tricks.

They no longer sport pencil-line moustaches and porkpie hats, but their tell-tale signs give them away - their faux Italian pointy-toe shoes and the hairstyles sculpted into those absurd little tufts.

The highlight of their repertoire is economic rationalism, the phenomenon by which every good and service is rationalised down to its pure market value, regardless of its social importance. To deploy my favourite quote from Oscar Wilde - perhaps my favourite quote of all time - they "know the price of everything and the value of nothing".

So, in the case of "Barangaroo", the contemporary spiv sees only the skyrocketing land values of waterfront property and cries "Eureka!" The spiv disregards the social benefits of keeping Sydney Harbour as a working port, where cargo ships ply their trade, preferring instead to hand over the picturesque waterway to the plutocrats and their pleasure-craft. Very soon, with the connivance of the NSW "Labor" Treasurer, Michael Costa, they will be salivating over the privatisation of the publicly owned ferry fleet.

Twenty years ago, as a young reporter on the Herald, I used to attend North Sydney Council meetings. At one meeting, Robyn Read, a councillor and urban planner who later became the independent NSW State MP for North Shore, warned her colleagues that when they approved planning ordinances that drove all light industries, such as shipwrights' workshops, out of their municipality, they also drove out the last of the low- and even medium-income workers.

I went back to my original, faded news clipping to recall Read's exact words. "Blue-collar industry keeps people on low incomes close to the city," she said. "I'm not prepared to support the wiping out of all industry in the area, because it may be of greater benefit to the people than yuppie development."

Within a decade, Read's prophecy had come to pass. Working-class families have been squeezed out of North Sydney and most other accessible inner urban centres across Australia, as useful amenities such as delicatessens became cafes, and hardware stores become cafes, and even second-hand bookshops become, well, cafes.

The spivvy cult of lifestyle has replaced genuine quality of life, in which people were able to maintain a sense of community living close to their workplaces.

For the market spivs who influence economic policy, a home is not a place of comfort and community in which to nurture family, welcome friends and occasionally strangers, not a place reflecting one's personality and passions. Rather, it is an "appreciating residential asset".

The spivs have increasingly infected governments and public services with their corporate ethos. Even the subtle changes are insidious.

Browse the Commonwealth Government website and you soon spot the pattern: Tourism Australia, Snowy Hydro Ltd, FarmBi$, Education.au Limited, Business Club Australia, Work Solutions, Austroads Inc. The State Governments are at it too: Energy Australia, Sydney Water, RailCorp, City West Housing, Treasury Corporation, Transgrid, WSN Environmental Solutions and Queensland Transport (with its Brisbane Broncos sponsorship logo).

Whatever happened to the Metropolitan Water, Sewerage and Drainage Board, the Electricity Commission, the Department of Public Hygiene and the Department of Main Roads?

They sounded too stodgy, too bureaucratic, too public service for today's corporatised world. Politicians engaged a team of management and image consultants and paid them generous fees to refashion these organisations into agencies with snappy corporate names and half million dollar salaries for their "chief executives" and "general managers". The public went from being citizens with a right to decent taxpayer-funded services to "customers" and "clients", and along the way we hailed the architects of such corporatisation as "reformers".

Where they could, the spivs inflicted public-private partnerships, or wholesale privatisations, on an unwilling citizenry. As if the loss of our national bank and airline were not enough, the spivs extended the scam to wring a profit from everything they touched. When Macquarie Bank took over Sydney Airport, it started gouging travellers for the use of luggage trolleys.

Both Liberal and Labor politicians have been bedazzled by the modern corporate spivs and, on retirement, many join their ranks, selling the skills and contacts they acquired in their taxpayer-funded careers to the highest bidder.

And yet spiv culture is at odds with public sentiment. Opinion polls tell us repeatedly that the public is increasingly hostile to the greed and self interest of big corporations and the pirates who run them. I suspect the days are numbered for those who seek to skim as much as they can off the nation's collective wealth.

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Chris Emery
Posted Thursday, January 17, 2008 - 13:55

What happened to "Postmaster General's Department"? What a wonderful name. I still get nostalgic when I see PMG on a manhole cover.

Posted Friday, January 18, 2008 - 12:33

Mmm. I can't resist this story, that regularly circulates on the 'net:


A shepherd was herding his flock in a remote pasture when suddenly a brand-new BMW advanced out of a dust cloud towards him. The driver, a young man in a Broni suit, Gucci shoes, Ray Ban sunglasses and YSL tie, leans out the window and asks the shepherd, "If I tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock, will you give me one?" The shepherd looks at the man, obviously a yuppie, then looks at his peacefully grazing flock and calmly answers, "Sure. Why not?"

The yuppie parks his car, whips out his Dell notebook computer, connects it to his AT&T cell phone, surfs to a NASA page on the internet, where he calls up a GPS satellite navigation system to get an exact fix on his location which he then feeds to another NASA satellite that scans the area in an ultra-high-resolution photo. Then young man then opens the digital photo in Adobe Photoshop and exports it to an image processing facility in Hamburg, Germany.

Within seconds, he receives an email on his Palm Pilot that the image has been processed and the data stored. He then accesses a MS-SQL database through an ODBC connected Excel spreadsheet with hundreds of complex formulas. He uploads all of this data via an email on his Blackberry and, after a few minutes, receives a response. Finally, he prints out a full-color, 150-page report on his hi-tech, miniaturized HP LaserJet printer and finally turns to the shepherd and says, "You have exactly 1586 sheep."

"That's right. Well, I guess you can take one of my sheep." says the shepherd. He watches the young man select one of the animals and looks on amused as the young man stuffs it into the trunk of his car. Then the shepherd says to the young man, "Hey, if I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me back my sheep?"

The young man thinks about it for a second and then says, "Okay, why not?" "You're a consultant." says the shepherd. "Wow! That's correct," says the yuppie, "but how did you guess that?"

"No guessing required." answered the shepherd. "You showed up here even though nobody called you; you want to get paid for an answer I already knew; to a question I never asked; and you don't know anything about my business.

... Now give me back my bloody dog."

Posted Saturday, January 19, 2008 - 23:09

Modern corporations and government, in concert, have refined the subtle art of screwing the entire population - but then, occassionally, some people figure out how to avoid being screwed by the system.

Instead of concentrating on how skewed our society looks after being screwed it may be an idea to work on helping us all figure out exactly HOW they screw the Australian public so that we can all start changing the monetary systems and targeting the proper culprits instead of launching vindictive attacks on those fortunate few who have learnt to survive in this parasitic environment without falling victim to it.

I'm willing to bet most Australians dont know the REAL motivations behind privatisation, property price increases, excessive broad money supply growth, CPI rates lower than the rises in personal living costs etc - perhaps that is where we should spend our energies instead of criticising people's shoes or their hairstyles or their moustaches.

George Vickers

Posted Monday, January 21, 2008 - 13:00

Hooray, someone else who remembers the Department of Main Roads. You knew what it was for. What the hell is CentreLink?
Totally agree with the article. We need quality of life, plain speaking and plain English.

Posted Monday, January 21, 2008 - 15:11

Appropriate that axkman uses a story about sheep. All these things have happened while we citizens have done precious little to stop it. Some people care, but the majority are all too happy to line our pockets.

Posted Wednesday, January 23, 2008 - 16:31

Good one Andrew. The weird thing is that the Spivs are attracted to the trace elements of working industry and grunge bohemia, but do their level best to obliterate it once they have a chance. The worst place is probably Balmain, which reminds me of how Double Bay used to be.

Posted Wednesday, January 30, 2008 - 12:26

Andrew, you call them "spivs" while for years I have called them "cheats", but, like a rose, they both smell. The question is: "Why do we let cheats win? Even when we know we shouldn't let them?"

Posted Thursday, October 9, 2008 - 12:26

Andrew has nailed it, Dingbat too. Look at your politician's shoes.
Advocate for SA-born J.P.McGowan, a Pioneer of Silent Cinema