Last week Tyler Brûlé, Editor-in-Chief at Monocle, claimed that Australia is ‘on the verge of becoming the world’s dumbest nation’ because of excessive regulations. In particular, Sydney’s ‘lock out’ laws and ‘airport curfews’ drew his ire, along with not being able to carry a glass of wine out onto a pavement. According to Brûlé “If you want to be globally attractive you need to have bars open until whatever hours of the day”.

While his comments caused the inevitable brouhaha, there is still a question about what being ‘globally attractive’ really means. Do we need to offer the facilities and amenities of all other cities to be seen as global? Is each ‘global’ city much the same as another? How do we begin to test our cities for these qualities?

Well why not look to Monocle’s own city ranking system, the liveable cities index. It preferences cities that are ‘safe’ with good quality services, international connections, good infrastructure, high quality education and good business climate. Monocle also considers culture, electric car charging points, and in 2014 a new factor ‘libertarian paradise or stickler for rules’. In Monocle’s 2014 list Sydney came in at 11 – not too shabby. Melbourne was ranked at 3 and Copenhagen won the top spot.

But are liveable cities ‘globally attractive’? Last week an article in the Economist decried ‘liveable cities’ as ‘boring’, claiming that the nicer cities try to be, the less interesting they become. It claimed that only ‘anodyne’ cities rate well in Quality of Living Indices. According to the author, Vancouver, which frequently tops these lists (but ranks at 15 on the Monocle list) , is boring. New York is increasingly boring as it becomes ‘nicer’ and safer.

This doesn’t seem consistent with Monocle’s aim. Since its creation as an urban design, city living, style-oriented magazine it has championed distinctive places.

I can’t imagine Tyler Brûlé arguing that Spain should amend its meal times. Eating at 10pm at night can feel odd but it’s also authentic to the culture. Spanish shops also close up mid-afternoon for lunch, opening again in the early evening. Is this ‘globally attractive’?

Scandinavian cities start their evening meal at around 6pm and most restaurants shut early. Can they aspire to be globally attractive cities? They rate well on the Monocle index.

Many people have pointed out that Canadian cities, US states and even London and the UK have liquor licensing laws that close bars and hotels in the early hours of the morning or provide a ‘lock-in’ option.

The point is that Sydney is not an orphan. Its attempt to prevent drunk people flowing into the intense and seedy Kings Cross strip in the early hours is protective both of the vulnerable and the potentially aggressive. People can continue to drink if they’re already inside a venue, where behaviour can be controlled. They just can’t get in to a venue after a specific time. It’s an attempt to control some part of the night economy and recognise it’s also a residential area, without creating an ‘anodyne’ place. It also appears to be effective, reducing violent crime by 40% .

At the same time, while not on par with Melbourne in terms of any ‘cool’ factor, Sydney has a distinctive and interesting retail offer. It is a beautiful city. It has a personality.

Yes, Australia may well be ‘on the verge of becoming the world’s dumbest nation’. But it’s not for the reasons of lockout laws, airport curfews or being prevented from carrying a glass of wine over a pavement.

It’s for other reasons, to do with federal policy and a lack of city thinking. Just a few examples:

  • There is lack of good public transport in almost every major city apart from Melbourne. There’s not even any vision for transport beyond investing in roads, though I’m assured by friends in Sydney that things are improving there.
  • Major Australian cities lack any strategic capacity because they lack the right sort of governance. London would not be doing as well as it is without the Greater London Authority operating at the right scale and its role to develop strategy, align transport, policing, planning and economic development.
  • Economic policies have incentivised a ‘dig up and export’ or a ‘grow and export’ culture rather than value-adding here.
  • The enormous influence accorded to the Murdoch News Corporation has created a fearful political class.
  • The federal government has undone any international role Australia may have had in relation to climate change – and ironically quarantined us from many of the economic opportunities around renewables and ‘green’ innovation. States have been doing better on this.
  • We’re behind almost every developed nation in terms of support for gay marriage
  • There’s a lack of real debate and ideas exchange with very few independent think tanks. There’s no sophisticated national conversation about where we are going and what we want to be.

So perhaps Taylor Brûlé has a point. We may be ‘on the verge of becoming one of the world’s dumbest nations’. But not for the reasons he described.

2 thoughts on “Is Australia on the verge of becoming one of the world’s dumbest nations?

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