Upon learning of my Southern derivation, the inevitable question would follow: “What’s there to do in Adelaide?” One way or another, every Australian capital city has come to embody an archetype. If Australia were a John Hughes film, casting each capital city would be easy. Somehow, Adelaide has a reputation for being a hopelessly provincial pseudo-city trapped at the arse-end of Australia.
When I moved to Melbourne from Adelaide for university, I had to introduce myself to a lot of people. It was a choice between confronting my trepidation towards social interaction with strangers or becoming a friendless hermit in a new city. I chose the former. At some stage in a first conversation with somebody, it would invariably come up that I was from Adelaide — not that I tried to hide it; I’m a proud South Australian. Upon learning of my Southern derivation, the inevitable question would follow: “What’s there to do in Adelaide?” One way or another, every Australian capital city has come to embody an archetype. If Australia were a John Hughes film, casting each capital city would be easy. Somehow, Adelaide has a reputation for being a hopelessly provincial pseudo-city trapped at the arse-end of Australia. Long story short, Adelaide is the dweeb. Mocked for its rounded vowels and meagre population, it sits friendless on the Southern Ocean while the eastern states snicker to themselves. Victoria had a gold rush, and we found copper. That about sums it up.
Where does this collective disdain come from, though? Why is it that we letterbox and denigrate other capital cities with the aplomb of a high school corridor? If Adelaide is the dweeb, what does that make Hobart? Or Sydney? It’s important to recognise that Australian states have a dense relationship history. The federated nation of Australia has only existed for a little over a hundred years, prior to which Australia comprised six separate colonies of the British Empire. For the 60,000 years before the European invasion, Australia was made up of 500 different nations. Ultimately, we must remember that any discussion of the Australian Federation sits upon a foundation of dispossession. Despite this, there are more than a few petty interstate competitions that continue to entertain and unite Australians.
Notably, the subject of beer has been fodder for inter-state rivalry for decades. What better way to defend your state’s honour than by sinking your state’s brew while watching your football team flog a team from interstate? The competition between the states’ biggest brewers is also made particularly absurd by the fact that most major beer manufacturers in Australia are now owned by foreign multinationals. Without fail, the announcement of the annual liveability rankings gets people riled up, too (Liveable for whom? Have the judges seen the prince of rentals in this city?). Melbourne has topped the Economic Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Global Liveability Ranking numerous times, including seven straight wins between 2011 and 2017. In the years since, however, Melbournians have found their city dethroned from the top of the leaderboard. After being handed the silver medal in 2019, Melbourne ignominiously fell to a tied eighth with Geneva in 2021. Being usurped by cities like Osaka, Auckland, and Tokyo is palatable, but being unseated by Perth and Adelaide must really leave a bitter taste in the mouth.
The state dialects are another entertaining hill on which people sometimes feel the compulsion to die. The Parmi/Parma and potato cake/scallop debates are well-documented examples of the linguistic rifts along Australia’s state lines. However, never have I experienced such vociferous condemnation as when I ordered an ‘AB’ instead of an ‘HSP’ in Melbourne. As far as I can tell, South Australia is the only state which calls this late-night snack an ‘AB’. The acronym stands for something different depending on who you ask, though I grew up understanding it as an acronym for Atomic Bomb. When I told my friends a HSP was called an AB in South Australia, I was very quickly told why that was a stupid name and that my use of it had tainted their view of me forever.
This parochialism undoubtedly finds its roots in our pre-federal history, during which travelling from Victoria to New South Wales was legislatively tantamount to travelling from the Netherlands to France. Furthermore, Australia is lonely down here. Where other nations can engage in good-natured competitiveness with the countries with whom they share a border, we have no one to do this with — so we turn inwards. As in a sibling relationship, one state often acts superior, as if the others ought to thank it for something. We should be indebted to New South Wales for being the first colony, to Victoria for the Gold Rush, to Western Australia for the mining boom, to South Australia for being the first state to afford women the vote, and so on. The states jostle for credit for these events and acts that were really products of chance rather than entrepreneurship.
During the past two pandemic years, we’ve seen this parochialism absorb a whole new raft of metrics and issues. States started to craft new but no less defined archetypes for themselves to inhabit. With eyes and grins incensed with the same fanaticism seen at a State of Origin game, we began comparing case numbers, vaccination rates, and severity of restrictions. Fair play. I don’t think there are many Melburnians who could honestly deny that they felt a little happy when Sydney went into a prolonged lockdown after the prior sledging we had received from their Premier. On vaccination rates and case rates, however, the inter-state rivalry gets morbid. A century and a half of jocular competition have led us to believe that any chance to get one up on our rival state is worth taking advantage of. Reducing the matter of vaccination rates to the realm of petty rivalry also obfuscates the structural inequalities the pandemic has worsened. There are Indigenous communities in Australia where double vaccination rates hover around 65-70 per cent. Many lower-income local government areas have vaccination rates that lag behind the state totals. This isn’t the story you get when you reduce the nation’s vaccine rollout to the status of a sporting match.
The pandemic ultimately revealed the extent to which Australia is enslaved to its pre-Federal past. This was especially true with the enforcement of state border closures and insistence that pandemic response was a state government responsibility. States closed themselves off from the rest of the country, while others were forcibly labelled as biological ‘hotspots’. Victoria’s successive lockdowns were simultaneously lauded, and Western Australia practically seceded from the nation, much to the delight of its citizens (who essentially deleted the state opposition party at their recent election). If Australia’s petty state rivalries did indeed originate due to our isolation in this part of the world, our insularism inevitably has a use-by-date. Technological expansion and increased trade reliance on our neighbours means we are becoming an outward-facing member of the global community. This is ultimately in our best interest. If we want to become a nation that can soberly recognise unjust structural inequalities, our focus must move beyond the click-bait state rivalries that have dominated the news cycle in the past two years.