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    Letter to council from Thomas Howe, 25 April 1843, courtesy of Public Record Office Victoria, Victorian Archives Centre.


Sydney has always been a touchstone for the development of Melbourne's identity. The relationship between a dominant city and the rest of a nation is complex, often troubled. The relationship is more complicated in those countries where two cities vie for dominance: consider Moscow and St Petersburg, Madrid and Barcelona, Saigon and Hanoi, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Neither stands for the nation, but the rivalry between the two resolves itself in another set of dichotomies that will often oppose materialism against culture, nature against artifice, tradition against modernity, hedonism against moral seriousness.

These differences, real or imagined, were always interpreted, and exaggerated, through a cultural lens. Although the differences between the cities are mostly differences of degree - Melbourne is flatter and colder than Sydney, and has more independent schools, more Greeks and Scots, and more enthusiasm for football - through the cities' histories, they have congealed into fundamental cultural dichotomies.

Nature dealt different hands to the two as sites for a city, a gentler though possibly not kinder one to Melbourne. The conventional comparisons were between the Yarra River and Sydney's celebrated harbour. The romantic gash of the harbour meant Sydney's planning had to take place around it, whereas the Yarra River interfered less in the creation of Melbourne: it was more easily bridged though less easily admired. Melbourne's flatter topography also meant Robert Hoddle's grid plan could work to create a more comfortable human environment. Melbourne's beach resorts around the bay were gentler than Sydney's surf beaches, admired as romantic but less amenable to play until the 20th century. Even the mountain escapes - Sydney's rugged Blue Mountains compared with Melbourne's sedate Dandenongs - suggested nature in Melbourne was more benign, more open to improvement. If Sydney's attractions were natural, Melbourne's were artifice. When world travellers from Sydney would exclaim there was no sight as magnificent as 'our harbour', travellers from Melbourne would find nothing to compare to Collins Street. Some have contended that these differences in physical geography led to cultural differences: a greater belief in the capacity of human action to create a better society in Melbourne, and a more fatalistic view of the political process in Sydney.

Climate would also become a favourite point of comparison. In the 19th century Sydney's heat and humidity were more often seen as oppressive. By the 20th century, as Australians adapted to a lifestyle that celebrated the outdoors, Melbourne's rain became the butt of jokes. Melburnians would be quick to point out there was actually more rain in Sydney; Sydneysiders would then retort it fell less often. Again some saw the weather as sufficient to explain broader cultural differences, between Melbourne's internalised intellectualism and Sydney's mindless hedonism.

Historical foundations were also different. Sydney was established as a penal colony - 'Convictoria', jeered some Melburnians, might be an appropriate name. The gulf between convicts and their masters helped shape Sydney's social structure. Melbourne was far more the product of the middle-class gold-rush immigrants. Again the differences are easily overstated: by 1851 convicts only represented 1.5% of the population of New South Wales.

Contention between the two first emerged in the enthusiasm with which Melburnians asserted their independence and eventually Separation from government based in Sydney. In arguing for a town council in 1840, the Port Phillip Patriot and Melbourne Advertiser (24 August 1840) claimed it would manage affairs better than 'a few irresponsible strangers, six hundred miles off, who could not say, to their own knowledge, whether we lived like opossums in trees, or underground like bandicoots'. The Sydney Morning Herald (23 November 1850) found the extraordinary celebrations that greeted Separation in 1850 inexplicable: Melburnians had 'lost their senses ... Why this excitement should be felt, we in Sydney are at a loss to tell'. At that point Melbourne was a town of 29 000 people, when Sydney had 54 000. From then on, however, there was real rivalry as Victoria's richer goldfields led to Melbourne's phenomenal growth, such that it was easily the bigger city - 125 000 people to 96 000 - by 1861. The rivalry was sustained by the host of travel books written by visitors to the two cities. The convention was that Sydney was staid, old-fashioned and English; Melbourne more modern, racy and Americanised. The tone was gently mocking rather than passionate, though visitors detected deeper animosity.

The economic rivalry intensified when Melbourne adopted tariff protection while New South Wales remained staunchly wedded to free trade. The policy promoted Melbourne as Australia's industrial and financial capital even after the 1890s depression, when Sydney rapidly overtook Melbourne as the bigger city. Sydney-Melbourne rivalry was a major obstacle in the movement towards Federation, with seemingly intractable squabbles over the tariff and the location of a new capital. Melbourne endured more extreme cycles of boom and bust, but its financial dominance was only seriously challenged in the 1970s. With further globalisation and de-industrialisation from the 1980s, Sydney's economic dominance seemed secure.

At the height of the 1880s land boom, confident, wealthy, Marvellous Melbourne had the richer cultural life, with a lively press, a bohemian intellectual life and a bourgeois consumer culture. While Sydney's elite looked to Europe, Melbourne's showed more civic-mindedness. Marcus Clarke predicted Sydney would become the 'fashionable and luxurious capital' but Melbourne would remain the 'intellectual capital', and the view of Melbourne's cultural superiority (or stifling moral seriousness) would persist as a staple feature of the rivalry.

Others presented the cultural difference not as superiority but as adherence to different intellectual traditions. The best-known statement was historian Manning Clark's, where he set out his view of the difference between Melbourne and Sydney in his chapter on 'Faith' in Peter Coleman (ed.), Australian civilisation (1962): 'The one believes in enlightenment and happiness for all. The other is indifferent to the fate of the uneducated masses, and believes in the cult of gaiety and beauty for the few great souls who are capable of them'. John Docker extended the contrast in Australian cultural elites: intellectual traditions in Sydney and Melbourne (1974), in which he posited a 'Melbourne optimism' with debts to Coleridge in its positive view of the possibilities of social amelioration, against a more individualistic and pluralist 'Sydney pessimism', with intellectual debts to Nietzsche and John Anderson. Vincent Buckley summed up the intellectual difference as Sydney producing philosophers and Melbourne producing historians. Contributors from both cities debated these differences with varying degrees of conviction at a Meanjin seminar in 1980 ('St Petersburg or Tinsel Town?') and in The Sydney-Melbourne book, edited by Jim Davidson in 1986. At the time, there was rising protest in Melbourne about the apparently disproportionate number of arts grants being given by the Sydney-based Australia Council to Sydney applicants.

For all the heat generated by these debates, it might be wondered whether it warmed many people beyond the intelligentsia. Once the tariff question was settled with Federation, the deeper divisions ran between labour and capital, and between the city and the country. With the profound economic changes at the end of the 20th century including the abandonment of protectionism, even some of the differences that sustained the rivalry began to disappear. South Melbourne Football Club went to Sydney, while rugby came to Melbourne; media networks went national, and Fairfax (publishers of the Sydney Morning Herald) took over the Age; a single Australian Stock Exchange replaced the separate exchanges of Sydney and Melbourne; the Myer department store took over Sydney's Grace Brothers; even beer-drinking habits were transformed by new national markets.

No doubt Sydney Road will continue to beckon Melburnians northwards towards guilty hedonistic pleasures. It may or may not be significant that there is no equivalent Melbourne Road leading out of Sydney.

Richard White