June 2012

Arts & Letters

The Shire versus Australia

By Nick Bryant
How a new show is creating drama

From the lounge room of her luxury waterfront home, Mayor Carol Provan looks out through her bi-fold doors on to one of the prettiest views suburban Australia has to offer. On the horizon are the paperbarks and eucalypts of Royal National Park – the world’s second-oldest national park after Yellowstone, the locals will proudly tell you. Lapping at the foreshore are the waters of Burraneer Bay, an inlet scattered with expensive motor cruisers and yachts. In the yard below is an astroturf putting green that Provan intends to replace with real grass. Just a 7-minute drive away is Cronulla Beach, with sands that Miles Franklin likened to “gold-tinted snow”. Donald Horne, who used to spend his Christmas holidays at Cronulla, said that stretch of coastline “bore witness to a truth that was self-evident to us every day of the year: that the most important part of human destiny was to have a good time.” Over coffee and biscuits, I compliment Provan on living in such a lovely spot. “God’s Country,” she replies with a winning smile.

Her bailiwick, the famed Sutherland Shire, is a kingdom of the mind, both for those who could never imagine living anywhere else and those who think it reflects the worst of Australia. ‘Vulgar’, ‘petit-bourgeois’, ‘white-bread’ and ‘redneck’ are just a few of the words that have attached themselves, limpet-like, to this area. Channel Ten has commissioned a new reality drama, The Shire, precisely because it lends itself to such easy caricature – a homemade version of Jersey Shore and The Only Way is Essex.

A promo uploaded on to YouTube is a real video nasty. “I want to become a porn star,” says a fame-hungry twenty-something, with raven-black hair, whose on-camera boast is that she once broke her boyfriend’s nose. “I think fake boobs are amazing,” says one of the blokes, showing that he, too, is already close to mastering the medium. These are “charismatic and controversial characters”, according to the Channel Ten media release announcing the “dramality” series, a “distinctive group” of people who provide “a glimpse … into the heart of Australia”. The promo’s voiceover trumpets the show as “the reality event of 2012 everybody will be talking about”, a boast that residents of the Shire have interpreted as a declaration of war.

“People are coming up to me on the beach,” says Provan. “‘Keep fighting,’ they say. ‘Don’t let them come in.’ The emails were incredible. At one point, we were thinking of putting someone on just to answer emails.” A member of the local ambulance service has offered, semi-seriously one suspects, to hold exercises to interrupt filming. The fire crew reckoned it could create a racket, as well. The local evangelical mega-church, Shirelive, has launched a petition, while the council is even considering holding a concert hosted by the comedian Adam Hills, who grew up in the Shire and singled out the program makers at the Logie Awards in March. “Can we stop celebrating idiots on television?” he pleaded. “I grew up with some really talented people in the Shire but they’re not going to be on that show; it’s going to be some moron called Darren …”

“None of us knew Adam was from the Shire,” says Provan, with almost maternal pride. Now he is a local hero.

That the mayor finds herself in the thick of the fight is precisely as it should be, for she claims to personify the real story of the Shire. Her parents were battlers from Bankstown, who leased a kiosk at Cronulla Beach. There, working at weekends, she met her first husband, a member of the Cronulla Surf Club. A talented footballer, Peter Provan became a rugby league star with St George Dragons, the Balmain Tigers and the Australian Kangaroos. Carol became a model, appearing briefly, lounging by a pool, in the 1975 Australian martial arts movie The Man from Hong Kong, starring George Lazenby. Carol and Peter married in 1966, bought a plot of land near the water, built their own house and had two children. It’s as neat an encapsulation of the Shire dream as you could hope to find. In an area that produced Elle MacPherson and Lara Bingle, and which is also proudly home to cricket stars like Glenn McGrath, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke, the Provans were the picture-perfect couple: a sports legend and a cover girl. Back in the 1980s, she even used to appear on Channel Ten herself, advertising hair-removal products on Good Morning Australia.

When Provan took her fight to the headquarters of the network in March, the meeting started with Channel Ten chief executive James Warburton mounting a personal attack. “He was so aggro to us. Really, really cranky,” she tells me. The state member for Cronulla, Mark Speakman, agrees that Channel Ten was “surprisingly aggressive”. According to Warburton’s written account of the meeting, the mayor had been “destructive with her comments having done a myriad of media interviews for her own purposes”. One remark had particularly nettled him: her throwaway threat to put a boom gate across Tom Uglys Bridge, one of only four linking the Shire to the rest of Sydney.

As the 90-minute meeting progressed, tempers cooled. It ended with Channel Ten giving four assurances to the Sutherland delegation, which included Speakman and the federal member for Cook and Shadow Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison. The Shire would have a PG rating; Channel Ten would never release an “uncut version”; it would comply with the broadcasting code of practice that prohibits vilification “by reason of place of residence”; and, crucially, it would include no news footage from the 2005 Cronulla riot. Channel Ten refused to give way, however, to what Provan and Morrison, a former head of Tourism Australia, had wanted above all else: a change in the title from The Shire to something more generic, like ‘Surf Side Story’.

Afterwards, Provan gave a lively account of the meeting to the Sydney Confidential gossip column in the Daily Telegraph, which reported that she “almost came to blows” with the TV executive. “[Warburton] said that I claimed to ‘have him by the balls’,” Provan told the Telegraph. “But I would never use that terminology.” In response, Channel Ten announced all bets were off. “The Mayor has continued her antagonistic and aggressive campaign,” wrote Warburton in a huffy letter to Mark Speakman. “On that basis I am not prepared to discuss, or in fact provide, any of the assurances you are seeking.”

As a rule, the Shire prides itself on being a television-friendly municipality. In the past 12 months it has welcomed film crews from The Farmer Wants a Wife, Top Gear Australia, Hot Property, Selling Houses Australia, Celebrity Apprentice, MasterChef and Please Marry My Boy. It was also happy to serve as a backdrop in advertisements for the American restaurant chain Outback Steakhouse. What makes locals especially fearful of The Shire, however, is that the cameras have peered through their net curtains before. Sylvania Waters was an early incarnation of the fly-on-the-wall ‘soapumentary’. Aired in 1992, it featured Noeline Donaher, a self-satirising blonde harridan, and her henpecked family. When casting the show, the British producer immediately latched on to them after discovering they owned a motor cruiser called Blasé.

The viewer response in Britain to “Mr and Mrs Australia”, as the Donahers were dubbed, was so sneering that the Sun set up a hotline for readers to ring in and insult them. “Meet Noeline,” it crowed. “By tonight you’ll hate her, too.” Watching on the ABC here, however, Australians sensed they were seeing ‘Mr and Mrs Shire’. Twenty years on, the suburb’s reputation has not fully recovered. “I used to live in Sylvania Waters,” says Mark Speakman, “and the program made it harder [financially] when I wanted to move to Cronulla.” Local residents were hit where it hurt: property prices slumped. They had become the rich white trash of Australian suburbia.

*

The story of the Shire is really a study in geohistory – a genre with which commercial television generally struggles. A rarity in a country of rolling suburbs and blurred municipalities, nature has delineated its borders with unusual precision. Rivers, bays, the ocean and acres of thick bushland mark out its boundaries. This geographic isolation and the natural beauty that comes with it help make sense both of its favoured moniker, ‘God’s Country’, and its derisive nickname, ‘the insular peninsula’. The names of its most famous suburbs also refer to the landscape. ‘Sylvania Waters’ stems from its sylvan appearance. ‘Cronulla’, or kurranulla, in the local Aboriginal language, means ‘place of pink shells’.

The Shire considers itself “the birthplace of modern Australia”. It was on a rocky outcrop on the shores of what is now called the Kurnell Peninsula that James Cook and his crew first alighted on 29 April 1770. Cook’s portrait doubles as the council’s logo and locals fiercely opposed a move in the 1990s to replace the signage on some council-owned buildings with dolphins. The Shire’s flag also pays homage to Cook. It features the cross of St George, a laurel wreath and the globe, the ocean and two golden polar stars, which are taken from the arms of the British explorer.

After Cook’s discovery of the Shire, Sydneysiders took more than a century to take much notice of it. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, such was its isolation and anonymity that it provided the perfect redoubt for lowlifes from the Sydney underworld. The Shire was “out of sight, out of mind and neglected”, according to historian Paul Ashton. Not until the construction of the Illawarra railway in 1884 was the Sutherland village put on the map, leading to its proclamation as a shire in 1906. Even then, most Sydneysiders looked upon the region as a place to have fun rather than to live. By 1939, its population was just 19,600, and as late as the 1950s it did not have mains sewerage.

Its rapid expansion came about after World War II, with the availability of cheap land. This was especially a draw for aspirational working-class Sydney residents, many of them tradesmen, who could not afford waterside homes in the eastern suburbs or on the northern beaches. Between 1951 and 1961, its population more than doubled from 50,000 to 112,000. Almost 20% of its population were from overseas, mainly immigrants from Britain, who were followed by the Dutch, the Germans, then the Italians. “It was very white and Anglo-Saxon until quite late in the piece,” says Ashton. “It is one of the whitest areas of the country.” Although one in six households speaks a non-English language, Mark Speakman, the state MP, accepts that “by Sydney standards, it’s not very multicultural”.

 “Toney” had been the word used at the turn of the nineteenth century to describe the local sense of refinement, which is probably when the idea first took hold that it was possible to quarantine the Shire. Determined that “respectable Cronulla” should remain just that, local residents tried to resist the encroachment of Sydney’s hedonistic beach culture and also the arrival of jazz bands. With the influx after World War II, however, its character began to change. The area was seen as nouveau riche, says Amanda Wise of Macquarie University, who grew up in Sylvania Waters: the new residents were seen as “working-class people who’ve made a bit of money and don’t know how to behave properly”. What Robin Boyd identified in The Australian Ugliness as the Shire’s pretension came from being populated by so many social climbers.

The veneration of ‘The Shire’, however, is a much newer phenomenon. “When I was a kid nobody thought of it as a unique area,” says Speakman, who grew up there in the 1970s. “Nobody talked about ‘The Shire’.” Amanda Wise can’t recall hearing it as a child in the 1980s, either. “We’d refer to ‘The Shire’ as a description of a locality,” she says, “rather than an identity.”

Perversely, the publication in 1979 of Puberty Blues, a novel intended by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey to be a strongly feminist tract, ended up heightening the level of Shire consciousness, especially among the young. The movie directed by Bruce Beresford, which came out two years later, also attracted a local cult following. Initially, there was criticism at its depiction of the Shire’s surf-gang culture, but then people starting boasting that they had appeared in the film. ‘Nobody likes us? We don’t care,’ seemed to be the response. An eight-part television adaptation of Puberty Blues is currently in production, with the blessing of the council. Coincidentally, it will air on Channel Ten.

Another ‘Alamo moment’ of sorts came in the 1990s, when a new state government act proposed abbreviating the council’s name to simply ‘Sutherland’. Local residents circled the wagons. The local paper, the Leader, noted an “avalanche of protest letters”. Eventually, the council won out. It is one of the country’s largest by population, run from a headquarters built of sturdy brick and concrete, with relatively few windows and a heavy camouflage of trees and shrubbery.

The same strand of Shire resistance was evident in the battle during the 1950s to block the construction of Lucas Heights, Australia’s only nuclear facility, and again, 50 years later, when the council and residents opposed the construction of a desalination plant at Kurnell, close to Cook’s landing point. Fighting outsiders, and resisting unwelcome outside influences, is a strong local tradition.

By the ’90s, the Shire not only considered itself the birthplace of the nation, but also the custodian of the Australian dream. The official history published in 1995 observed:

 

The nearly 200,000 people who live there consider themselves fortunate, and few would argue with them their way of life is as close as can now be achieved to what was once called the Australian Dream – the suburban home on its quarter-acre block, handy to the train to town, the beach and the bush.

 

The combination of the Sydney Olympics and the jingoism encouraged during the Howard years also gave the Shire more of a nationalistic air.

Just as the Shire was about to celebrate its centenary, however, it witnessed the most ignominious day in its history: 11 December 2005 – a classic Sydney summer Sunday. White youths, many with the Southern Cross inked into their skins, took to the beach wearing T-shirts bearing ugly slogans like ‘Wog-free Zone’ and ‘Ethnic Cleansing Unit’. Young men “of Middle-Eastern appearance” came under attack. The brute display of redneck nativism was beamed around the world.

While the vast majority of local residents shared the shock of the nation, more than six years on there is a palpable sense of denial about what the council prefers to call “the Cronulla disturbances”. Carol Provan, who was on the beach that day, strongly believes that the Shire served as a proxy battleground for racist outsiders, who had been summoned by the now notorious text message: “This Sunday every Fucking Aussie in the Shire, get down to North Cronulla to help support Leb and wog bashing day.”

“It was unbelievable to think it was happening here,” she tells me. Asked if there were racists in the Shire, she replies that “you get a couple of boys full of beer”, but does not think that local racism goes any further. Paul Ashton takes a different view. “These problems had been brewing for at least ten years,” he tells me. Amanda Wise agrees: “There’s definitely a long history of racism, for sure.” She stresses, however, that it is no different from many other Sydney suburbs. “What’s happened is that Sydney has identified the Shire as a racist enclave partly to exonerate itself.”

There is little disagreement over the damage the riot inflicted on the Shire’s reputation. “I’m so worried this new show is going to be the same,” laments Carol Provan. 

*

Were anyone to make a reality show called ‘The Other Side of the Shire’, they would find an unexpectedly rich supply of material. It might open at the Hazelhurst Regional Gallery & Arts Centre, the largest of its kind in regional Australia. It could interview one of Hazelhurst’s patrons, Edmund Capon, or go inside the studios of local painters in the flourishing artistic enclave of Bundeena. It could eavesdrop on the rehearsal of the Sutherland Shire Symphony Orchestra, under its Norwegian-born conductor, Sven Libaek, or film at the Arts Theatre Cronulla, which stages more than 20 productions each year.

Rather than visit the family home of Lara Bingle, it might drop in on another local celebrity, Glenn Stevens, the governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia. Failing that, it could track down the local nuclear scientists and engineers with PhDs; there are 300 at the Lucas Heights nuclear facility alone. The ‘Shire Song’, commissioned for the centenary celebrations, is also worth a listen, not least for its first verse, sung in the local Aboriginal tongue.

Of course, such a show would never rate. The national instinct of the past two decades has been to stereotype, scapegoat and denigrate. After all, the insular peninsula has come to serve a useful purpose: to be seen to sequester intolerant attitudes that are, in reality, commonplace across Australia. That is why The Shire will surely be a ratings success: it plays on the prejudices of participants and viewers alike.

Nick Bryant

Nick Bryant is the BBC’s New York and United Nations correspondent. He is also the author of The Rise and Fall of Australia: How a great nation lost its way.

@NickBryantNY

Cronulla Beach, Australia Day 2010. © James Brickwood/Fairfax Syndication
June 2012

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