How Sydney became Shitney, a story about Pokies and Light Rail

Sydney Harbour is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Those sweeping, white waves of the Opera House juxtaposed with bright skies and the bluest water you have ever seen. The Sydney Harbour Bridge is the crown of the harbour, sitting proudly atop passages of expensive yachts and cruise liners, and linking one city centre to another. Yet Sydney Harbour is an iconic site reserved for tourists, hospitality workers and the rich and famous. It is a cunning disguise to divert attention from the shit fight Sydney has become with its multitude of social problems and forever haemorrhaging main roads. The question begs, how has Sydney become Shitney?

Shitney is a name first coined by the Singapore Airline stewardesses, who jokingly refer to Sydney as such because the Singapore to Sydney flight is notorious for being the worst route to work. Ask any stewardess and they will tell you how much they dread it. Always full of loud and drunken Australians, the majority of economy class will typically get sloshed within the first two hours of the flight. Economy class quickly runs out of booze and so the stewardesses need to hit up Business and First Class to keep up with the demands of passengers. They also need to constantly remind passengers that alcohol served is for consumption on the flight only and not for takeaway. As a precaution, they follow the strict rule of opening the bottle and removing the cap on all beverages served. By the end of the flight, those poor stewardesses are left feeling exhausted.

Beautiful Singapore Airline stewardesses hate working the Sydney route

There is also something to be said for how Sydney has evolved this past decade and I believe the SQL girls have cottoned on to something with their clever pun of Shitney. 

I grew up in Sydney but left almost 10 years ago to live abroad. I visit Sydney at least once every two years, and each time I grow increasingly sure I could never live there again. Australia is a young and quickly growing country with such possibilities, yet Sydney has failed to establish itself as a true hub within Asia Pacific thereby limiting the countries longer term growth outlook as well as professional development opportunities for individuals. But worse than that, Sydney is a cesspit of social issues. From widespread gambling and drug addiction, to housing the most aggressive drunks in the world. To top it off, their public transport system and roads are a complete mess. Average commutes in Sydney longer than anywhere else in Australia, taxi fares are exorbitant and the state of the roads is not looking good as the population continues to grow.

Failure to become an International City

Sydney’s biggest failure in the last quarter of a century is its inability to establish itself as the main hub of Asia Pacific. Despite its geolocation, Sydney had a good shot at the title due to being an English-speaking country. There are six key cities in Asia Pacific which multinationals consider for a regional headquarters (in order of desirability): Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sydney, Tokyo and Beijing. Key considerations for multinationals setting up include taxation, operating costs, immigration, local and corporate politics, access to talent and market opportunities. Less significant factors that can also influence decision making are lifestyle, environment, technology, ease of doing business, health & safety, and transportation. 

Australia has a sophisticated economy that is free from political corruption. The population in the cities are well educated and skilled, and middle managers possess a business mindset comparable to Europe and the US where most global firms tend to be headquartered. Sydney was a choice entry point to Asia Pacific for many years due to this ease of doing business and access to talent. However it has fallen out of favour in recent times.

Sydney must evolve to maintain its competitiveness

One barrier is high operating costs. Real estate and labour costs aside, Australia has one of the highest tax regimes in the world with a myriad of heavy-hitting taxes from GST to Fringe Benefits and very high income and corporation tax. Not only is it expensive for companies to operate, it is less appealing to foreign talent. Why would the world’s top professionals want to work in Sydney only to lose half their earnings on tax… just for the good beaches? 

The immigration system is another such barrier. Whilst the system’s emphasis on skills shortages in Australia is a positive, it is difficult to migrate to Australia and expensive for companies to relocate staff. The Australian immigration system is unique in that high earners gain no particular advantage. There can be situations where senior high-value talent who can transfer knowledge and expertise to local employees are denied a visa simply because their role is not on the list of skills determined as needed in Australia at the time of application. 

Technology is another issue. Technology penetration in Asia is incredibly high compared to the rest of the world. Even beggars on the streets of China have gone cashless, utilising Q Code and mobile apps to receive alms. In China and Japan there is a sharp rise in Artificial Intelligence. High speed internet has been rolled out across the Asia region. Whilst Australia is a strong adopter of new technologies, it still grapples with the scale of infrastructure needed to run new digital industries. According to the 2017 International Institute for Management Development (IMD), Australia ranks 15 out of 63 nations when it comes to digital competitiveness with a noticeable lack of long term commitment to growing its technological capabilities. Internet speeds in Australia are notoriously slow, and it receives low global rankings for broadband internet, communications technology and cybersecurity. 

Australian politicians are more interested in their mistresses than advancing the country

The Australian Business Advisor suggests Australia’s biggest issue is its complacency.  If you want to be a global player, you need to do a lot more than just renovate the convention centre. Honed strategy, government policy and long term commitment to growth is required. 

Singapore by comparison has been edging for the title of capital of Asia Pacific for years and has successfully put into place a number of measures to gain the upper hand including enforcing English as the only official business language, offering low taxation and significant tax breaks to entrepreneurs and global businesses, committing to long term investment in technology, and maintaining relaxed immigration policies. 

Asia Pacific is forecast to increase its share of global GDP from 31% in 2015 to 36% in 2030. Sydney it is time to pull up your socks!

More Addicts than America

One of the unique things about Sydney is that it has more gambling machines per square metre and in ratio to the population than Las Vegas. Since the 1990s the number of gambling machines has increased significantly. Pokies machines (aka as slot machines) started to make their way into pubs around the early 2000s at the same time indoor smoking was being phased out. At the time, pubs would have a separate ‘pokies rooms’ which would be the only indoor room you could smoke in. People smoking in the pokies room were asked not to loiter and to play the pokies machines if they were going to smoke there. With this approach, the smokers became addicted to gaming machines within a relatively short time. 

Row after row of pokies machines in a local RSL club in Sydney

Nowadays smoking is completely banned indoors, and the size of the original pokies rooms in pubs has expanded significantly. The gambling section will not just have pokies but other gaming machines such as roulette and card games, and the area has both indoor and outdoor sections to ensure the biggest captive audience (i.e. smokers and non-smokers). You can barely walk 4 blocks in Sydney without passing a gaming establishment. Pubs simply cannot afford to operate any longer without the revenue of pokies machines. As a result we have a situation where 1 out of every 3 people in NSW are directly impacted by gambling addiction. 

This is not just a problem of the cities, but also of the suburbs. In suburban NSW each area has an RSL club, which offer cheap meals and drinks for pensioners and ex-service men and women. Over time, these RSL clubs have become filled with hundreds of pokies machines. Lower income pensioners are throwing away their lifetime savings and weekly pension money on gambling. And the government and commerce are more than happy to act as parasites to these social addictions. Even worse, the average Australian barely cares and there has not been a single protest or demonstration in Sydney about the chronic gambling issues. 

Pokies, smoking and elderly folk are notions that go hand-in-hand in Sydney

In a bid to pretend to care about the population, the government has always maintained that each state can have only one casino in order to contain the spread of gambling addiction. Yet lo and behold, a second casino is currently being built in Sydney under the excuse that it will be reserved just for high rollers with high minimum stakes. 

For almost a decade, Australia has consistently ranked number one globally for gambling abuse. In December 2017, the BBC reported that 200,000 Australians have high-level gambling addictions and as a country it has the highest losses in the world. Australians on average spend AUS$1,300 per capita a year on gambling. The next highest spend is in Singapore, at around AUS$600 per capita. With all the money the Australian and local state governments must surely be raking in from the pokies and casinos, it is puzzling as to why taxes are so high and what is actually being done with all the money? 

Adverts about gambling addiction are commonly seen in Sydney public toilets

Gambling is not the only addiction to wreak havoc on Sydney. The youth are more likely experiment in designer drugs than steal a beer from daddy’s fridge. Visit any Sydney nightclub such as Arq, Stonewall, Home or Establishment and you will see first-hand that bottled water is the biggest selling item at the bar and all the customers have weird anime-looking eyes. Whilst ecstasy and speed are relatively harmless, a big portion of the youth are getting hooked on methamphetamine, which is highly addictive and continuous use leads to self-mutilation, depression and crime. Chronic meth users have an aged appearance and rotting teeth, not too dissimilar from heroin users, and I see more and more unpleasant faces on the streets of Sydney each time I visit. 

The youth of Sydney love nightclubbing and ecstasy pills

For the older generations, alcohol is still the poison of choice. Unfortunately the extent of troublesome drinking has reached its height in Sydney with the institution of lock-out laws. These are laws restricting opening hours of pubs and bars along with rules for the service of alcohol in Sydney’s city centre. Australians in this day and age can no longer be trusted to drink out of real glasses. Under these laws, after 12 midnight pubs can only serve beverages in plastic cups to prevent people throwing glass at each other. New customers cannot enter bars after 1.30am and alcohol cannot be served after 3am. Despite such measures, it is still possible to participate in drunken brawls in Sydney. If this is of interest to you, I’d recommend visiting Newtown any night of the week.

Public Transport down the Toilet

This rant ends with an observation of the public transport system. In most countries, as years go by commuting times reduce due to advances in technology and clever city planning. Sydney is one of the few cities to defy convention. Commuting times are actually increasing here as the years go by!

Firstly, let’s take a look at the buses. Australia is still very much a car society and families require a car to be able to live in and navigate Sydney. As the population increases, so do the number of cars who share the road with buses. At the same time, the number of bus passengers and therefore buses on the road is also increasing. Traffic has become horrendous and a few additional bus lanes in the city centre have not been able to prevent increased commuting times. Traffic has also been worsened by main road closures in the city centre that have been on-going for a number of years. In a huge blow to commuters, in February 2018 it was announced that inner west Sydney buses would become privatised. It can be expected that the number of buses will decrease and average journey times increase in a bid to make these bus routes more profitable. 

Protesters in Sydney urge the government to fix public transport

Let’s move on to the trains. The majority of Sydney suburbs are not covered by the train network. Nonetheless, it offers a faster method of commuting than traditional buses (in theory) for those who can access it. Most spectators point out that the train network is of particular importance to suburban commuters in the west and south, where lower income families who cannot afford to travel by car to the CBD have traditionally lived, and where an increasing number of middle income workers are moving as they are priced out of other areas. However trains are not as fast as you would expect. It currently takes over one hour by train to get from Penrith to Central station, which is more than 20 minutes longer than a car journey in off-peak traffic and is 30 minutes longer than the exact same train journey 30 years ago. 

As Sydney grows and more people need to live further from the city centre, it will be necessary to develop fast speed rail capable of transporting masses of commuters from east to west and north to south. Japan, Taiwan, China and several European countries have high speed commuter services known as bullet trains, which are trains that run above 250kmph and have been successfully operating for many years. In China, their bullet train network extends over 27,000km which demonstrates this well established technology has the potential to link Sydney with other Australian capital cities such as Melbourne or Brisbane as well, thus reducing the need for costly interstate travel by plane.

Instead, NSW policy makers have decided a tram system servicing inner west, central and the inner east of Sydney would be a better solution. Sydney once had one of the largest tram networks in the world, which was dismantled in the 1950s and 1960s. Sydney’s busiest main road, George Street has been closed for over 4 years whilst these tram lines are reinstated. Sydney has to be the only country in the world that would accept its main road being closed down for years on end. However, put that fact aside and let’s do the maths.

Sydney City Planners cannot think bigger than the humble tram

A single tram has a maximum capacity for 300-400 passengers depending on which source you read. The tram network covers less than 10 square kilometres. The current population of Sydney is 5 million spread over more than 12,000 square kilometres. Sydney needs to think bigger and follow the suit of other major cities to cater for mass migration across greater distances. Until then, Sydney will continue to score number one in Australia for longest commuting times and will remain severely disadvantaged comparative to other Asia Pacific hubs.

There is no disputing that Sydney is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. But what else can Sydney offer a young and ambitious person? I hope it is not too late for Shitney to evolve and become the Asia Pacific hub once again.

4 replies on “How Sydney became Shitney, a story about Pokies and Light Rail”

Wow, I’m kinda surprised to read this. Sydney has always been a place I wanted to visit and even live. It looks so beautiful but I guess you do not know the reality until you live there.

I didn’t know that flight attendants dread that route! I actually do admire Sydney, although my view of Sydney has always been influenced by media, television and friends who have been there. I didn’t know there was so much more behind what’s usually shown to us. Also, interesting that even people on China’s streets have gone cashless! That’s something that just shocked me.

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