Melbourne vs. Sydney

The Metropolitan Concentration of Support for Australia’s Indigenous Voice Referendum and the Melbourne/Sydney Divide

Australian electoral geography, like that of many other countries, is increasingly structured around the metropolitan-peripheral divide. Consider, for example, the map of the 2022 federal election in Western Australia and South Australia (below), in which Labour victories were limited to Perth and Adelaide. In the 2023 Indigenous Voice Referendum (see the previous post), this tendency was even more pronounced. A casual glance at the nationwide electoral map (second map below) might make it seem that two rural areas supported the measure, one in southern Tasmania and the other in inland southeastern New South Wales, but that is not the case. The sizable Tasmanian electoral division that supported the measure is demographically based in the suburbs of Hobart, the state’s main city. The other easily visible blue splotch on the map is the Australian Capital Territory, based in the relatively large city of Canberra (with a metropolitan population of almost half a million).

As a close examination of the results reveals, all 34 of the electoral division that supported the initiative are located in urban and suburban areas. Consider, for example, the election map (below) of New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state by a considerable margin. Six of the state’s eight division that voted “yes” are in Sydney, while the other two are in Newcastle and Wollongong, sizable cities in their own right that are close enough to Sydney to arguably be within its greater metropolitan ambit. (Newcastle is less than 100 miles from Sydney and has an urban population of half a million; Wollongong is 52 miles from Sydney and has an urban population of over 300,000).

A more interesting feature of this election, however, was the failure of the “yes” vote in some of Australia’s main areas of population concentration. Perth and Adelaide are both major cities, with metropolitan populations of 2.2 and 1.4 million respectively, that supported the Labour Party in the 2022 election. In the Indigenous Voice Referendum, however, only two of Perth’s divisions voted “yes.” None did so in Adelaide.

What is more even remarkable, however, is the concentration of the “yes” vote in just one city: Melbourne. Thirteen of the 34 electoral districts in the country that supported the measure are found in this metropolitan area. In greater Melbourne, all central-city and inner-suburban divisions voted “yes,” as did several outer-suburban ones. The contrast with Sydney, where many relatively densely populated, Labour-voting divisions soundly rejected the measure, is noteworthy.

This election’s voting patterns in both Sydney and Melbourne will be cartographically explored in subsequent posts. For now, I will merely forward some insightful observations on the different political climates of the two cities made by Nick Nicholas and posted on the Quora website in response to the question “Why is Melbourne more left wing/progressive politically than the rest of Australia?” In his reply, Nicholas focuses on the state level, comparing Victoria (VIC), which is demographically dominated by Melbourne, with New South Wales (NSW), which is demographically dominated by Sydney. Wisely shunning “recentism,” he notes that in from 1955 to 1972 “Victoria was the Tory stronghold, and NSW was Labor territory,” and then states that “It was only in 2018 that John Howard memorably said that VIC was “’the Massachusetts of Australia.’”

Intriguingly, Nicholas goes on to contend that “The trend over the last few years has been for both the Liberal and Labor parties in NSW to skew more right wing—the Liberals more outspoken in their social conservatism, Labor more ruthless in their economic rationalism; and for both parties to skew more left wing in VIC—VIC being the last refuge of the old school Liberal moderates, and Labor being clearly leftist, especially in culture war issues.”

Nicholas’s explanations for this difference are also worth quoting. Here is a sample; interested readers are advised to visit Quora to see his full account:

But if VIC is more progressive than NSW, it’s not because Melbourne has an industrial past and pioneered unionism—that wouldn’t explain why NSW was so strongly in the hands of Labor for the first two thirds of the 20th century. It’s not because Melbourne is more multicultural than Sydney—that claim doesn’t make any sense to me. And it’s not a categorical difference, it’s really one of degree: there are plenty of reactionaries in VIC, and plenty of progressives in NSW. NSW has a progressive inner city too—though they vote independents or moderate Liberals in, not Greens.

Sydney does have a much more aggressive conservative pundit culture, particularly on radio: compared to Alan Jones, Australia’s answer to Rush Limbaugh, the best Melbourne talkback radio can offer is the grumbly teddy bear Steve Price. But that’s symptom not cause, and besides, Melbourne is also home to Andrew Bolt, who I guess is our Tucker Carlson.

Other respondents have also pointed out that the topography of Sydney makes it more prone to communities getting balkanised, rather than seeing themselves as a single city as in the better connected Melbourne. (That helped inoculate Sydney against the spread of COVID in 2020—and it helped infect Sydney with the virus of race riots in 2005.) That makes Sydney a more troubled, combative place, but I don’t see that that makes Melbourne a more progressive place; a more optimistic place, perhaps, but for the fact that our weather is so gloomy.

The stereotype that Melbourne was more arty, more bohemian, and Sydney was more blokey, more outdoorsy, is of long standing; that Melbourne was the home of sophisticated comedy and Sydney only made lame sitcoms; that culture was at home in Melbourne and Sydney favoured sport instead—all these were certainly entrenched in the 80s.

I suspect what’s going on is that there’s more thought leadership of progressive politics in inner city Melbourne than inner city Sydney, and that’s leading to a perception of Melbourne being more progressive, which is self-fulfilling in social progress issues—even though Melbourne did vote for a Thatcherite like Kennett, and is host to plenty of reactionaries, as recent rallies outside State Parliament are demonstrating.

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Australia’s Empty Countryside—and the Melbourne/Sydney Rivalry

Australia is well known for its low population density. With roughly 23 million people living in 2.9 million sq mi (7.7 million sq km) of land, it ranks sixth from bottom in this regard, following Mongolia, Namibia, Iceland, Suriname, and Mauritania. Australia is also known for its high degree of urbanization, although its 89.2 percent official urbanization figure places only in the world’s 16th position. Such a ranking is misleading, however, as many of the more urbanized countries are microstates or city-states, such as Nauru, San Marino, Monaco, and Singapore. Australia is also unusual in the degree to which its top metropolitan areas tower over its smaller cities. More than half of Australians live in greater Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide.

As a result of such intense metropolitanization in a low-density framework, maps of Australian population density can be misleading. A quick glance at a typical map in this genre shows the vast Outback as sparsely populated indeed, but also seemingly indicates moderately high populations densities in the climatically favored eastern, southeastern, and southwestern reaches of the country. But the brown areas on the map to the right, with only 1.1-10 residents per square kilometer, are still sparsely settled by global standards. On the map of Europe posted here, all such areas would fall into the lowest population density category.

The scarcity of rural population even in the relatively thickly settled Australian southeast was recently impressed upon me while driving on back roads from Sydney to Canberra.  The trip took my family and me through the administrative districts of Lithgow, Oberon, Upper Lachland, and Yass Valley, an area highlighted in blue on the map to the left. Part of the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, this low-elevation (2,000-3,000 feet [600-900 meters]) hilly plateau is devoted largely to livestock production. I found the scenery delightful, with tree-dotted pastoral landscapes alternating with woodlands and the occasional pine plantation. Human habitations were few and far between, and the miniscule hamlets that dot similar areas in the American West were absent. The small towns that I did pass through, such as Oberon proper (population 2,500), struck me as economically healthy and relatively well-nucleated, without the sloppy sprawl that characterizes most towns of a similar size in the western United States.

Although such claims are based merely on casual observation over a single transect of the Australian countryside, the basic demographic realities can easily be gleaned from census records. Lithgow, Oberon, Upper Lachland, and Yass Valley together cover 7,457 square miles (19,300 square kilometers), an area about the size of Wales, Slovenia, or New Jersey. The region’s total population, however, is a mere 48,000. One way to appreciate the low density of the region is to contrast it to California, where a similar scarcity of settlement is encountered only in the most remote counties in the far north and the desert east. Siskiyou County makes a good analogue, with 45,000 people living in 6,347 sq mi (16,440 km2) of land. But Siskiyou is a remote, rugged, and partly desert county, whereas the Lithgow to Yass Valley corridor is a gentle pastoral land situated in the Australian national core zone.







The area in question has registered moderate population gains over the past decade, as can be seen in the map to the left. The same map, however, shows population decreases in most rural areas of New South Wales, along with a major expansion in greater Sydney, which has registered three-quarters of the state’s total population growth during this period. Similar patterns are evident in most parts of the country. Such trends indicate an intensification of Australia’s already stark urban/rural divide. While the pastoral Outback and the main agricultural regions continue to lose population, Australia’s major metropolitan areas are all expanding, especially along their suburban fringes. As a recent press release puts it:

Population growth in Australia between June 2001 and June 2011 was strongest in the outer suburbs, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The five areas with the largest growth in the country were all on the outskirts of Melbourne, with the largest increase in South Morang (up 32,200 people). Point Cook, Caroline Springs and Tarneit in Melbourne’s west followed, each with growth of more than 20,000 people.

If present trends continue, greater Melbourne will surpass greater Sydney before too long to become, once again, Australia’s largest urban area. Considering the deep rivalry between the two cities, such trends are significant. But as a recent article in The Punch (“Australia’s Best Conversation”) argues, the actual differences between Sydney and Melbourne are insignificant:

Melbourne is the city in the world most similar to Sydney. Well, it is. Forget the differences. …Sydney and Melbourne have much, much more in common than either of them ever care to admit. Truth is, the brashness of Sydney (as seen through Melbourne eyes) and the bleakness of Melbourne (as seen through Sydney eyes) are just two examples of differences between the cities which are wildly overblown.

The 200 comments posted on the article, however, indicate that the rivalry is taken seriously indeed, especially by Melbournians. Intriguingly, one of the commentators (“TheBrad”) argued that the distinctive cultures of two cities are most clearly evident in one media segment: “you can tell a lot about a state by their morning radio breakfast shows – Sydney is in your face & Melbourne is a yawn…” The comment seems tragically prescient, considering the fact that the antics of two Sydney radio “shock jocks”  has been linked to the suicide of a duped British nurse, Jacintha Saldanha.

Although Sydneysiders may tend to view Melbourne as bleak and stuffy, many knowledgeably observers think that it has a more vibrant music and arts scene than its rival. Emblematic of the cultural differences between the two cities, some argue, is the fact that the Kiwi (New Zealander) singer-songwriter Kimbra—“the mesmerizing trans-Tasman pop sensation”—recently decided to relocate to Melbourne, not Sydney.


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