Attack of the Spivs


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.

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.

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.

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".

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.

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

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."

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.

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.

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".

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

the Commonwealth Government website and you soon spot the pattern: Tourism
Australia, Snowy Hydro Ltd, FarmBi$, 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).

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

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".

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.

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.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.