Arch-rival Melbourne on the up as Sydneysiders make escape plans

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 March, 2008, 12:00am


When Sydneysiders are not discussing their mortgages, lack of child care or the city's collapsing infrastructure, talk turns to escape. Whether it's a brief sojourn in a French farmhouse or a permanent move to Tasmania, everyone seems to nurse an escape plan.

The phenomenon is so well known that the escapees now have their own names - those heading to a quiet coastal location are known as 'sea changers', those who head inland (or to the wilds of Tasmania) are called 'tree changers'.

During the 1990s, the exodus - fuelled by baby boomers wanting to cash in on escalating property prices in Sydney - spawned a popular Australian television programme, SeaChange, set in the mythical New South Wales town of Peal Bay.

SeaChange was always a fantasy, full of comic personalities and improbably storylines, but a new survey suggests that one in five Sydneysiders is now so unhappy with their lot they would consider moving elsewhere - even Melbourne, usually derided because of its poor climate, dour inhabitants and lack of beaches.

The Sydney Morning Herald-Nielsen poll found that a staggering 21 per cent were thinking of leaving the harbour city, citing the high cost of living, traffic congestion and better job opportunities elsewhere as their main reasons.

'In 2005 and 2006 we saw a lot of people moving out of Sydney to Brisbane and also to Perth,' Brian Redican, a senior economist at Macquarie Bank, said.

'Certainly the combination of high house prices as well as high interest rates and high petrol prices are putting considerable strain on household balance sheets.'

Equally worrying is a Centre of International Economics study that found Sydney is haemorrhaging its creative and cultural talent to other Australian cities or overseas. The study also found that employment growth in New South Wales is lagging behind the rest of Australia.

Kerry Barwise, a director at the independent consultancy, says the loss of people in IT, advertising, media and design is worrying because they represent a barometer of the city's future health.

'Cultural and creative activity shapes ideas about what's Australian, and it's often at the leading edge of what happens next in the real economy,' she said.

Unlike the earlier generation of sea changers and tree changers, it seems these new migrants are not searching for rural bliss, but are trying to secure their economic future in a more livable city, such as Perth, Brisbane or Melbourne.

Losing people to Perth and Brisbane (now known as 'BrisVegas' because of its new-found wealth) is one thing. Most people are aware that both Western Australia and Queensland have booming economies, but losing out to Melbourne is something that Sydneysiders find hard to swallow.

The rivalry between the two cities was further exacerbated by a predication this week that Melbourne will overtake Sydney as Australia's biggest city by 2028.

According to the Victoria government, the southern capital is attracting 1,500 new residents a week - a dramatic change from the 1980s when there was a one-way exodus to Sydney.

Bernard Salt, a respected social analyst, says that it is inevitable that Melbourne will once again hold centre stage for the first time since the 1850s. 'Perhaps Sydney is in a post-Olympic depression,' he says. 'Whatever it is, Melbourne is busy closing the population gap on Australia's glamour city.'