THE SUBURBS HAVE always held an important place in the Australian imagination. The space between what Henry Lawson referred to as the "city proper" and "the bush" has been a contested site on which the "Australian character" has been assessed and judged in either celebratory or dismissive tones.
For more than a century, commentators from Donald Horne to McKenzie Wark, satirists from Barry Humphreys to Kath & Kim, have tried to capture the values of suburbanites to celebrate the "Australian way of life", to lament its "philistine" nature or to explain the "divide between elites and battlers". Since the election of the Howard Government in 1996 unprecedented attention has been devoted to political swings within the suburbs.
Regardless of ideological position, the suburbs tend to be presented by critics as a hermetically sealed social environment, which itself structures the attitudes and sensibility of its inhabitants.
This may say more about the commentators than the majority of Australians who live in the suburbs: their similarities and differences may depend on factors other than the physical spaces they inhabit and the proximity to neighbours.
THE AUSTRALIAN INTELLIGENSIA has always tended to denigrate the suburbs. Both the left and the right have nourished the roots of anti-suburbanism, critiquing its materialism, anti-intellectualism, banality, false consciousness, marginalisation of women and cultural disinterest.
This anti-suburbanism was taken in a new direction by McKenzie Wark, who has argued in Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace (Pluto Press, 1999) that as outer suburbia has become culturally and economically peripheral over the past few decades, the "information gap" between the suburbs and the inner city has widened, threatening to divide Australia.
Wark's untested assumption of suburbia's "instinctive resistance to any challenge to its restricted and stable diets of information" creates a binary cultural opposition between what he calls "suburbanality" and "urbanity". He shifts from describing suburbia as "information-poor" to suburbia as "unable to absorb new information", filled with people who became a ready audience for reactionary voices in the "culture wars" of the 1990s.
In this dichotomy, suburbia is closed to new information while the urban represents openness. Suburban culture is described as resistant to "new information" and inattentive "to change, difference, possibility". On the other hand, inner-city urbane values are defined as tolerant, innovative, dynamic, involving "the cultivation of life as style". Suburbia is passive, urbanity is active. Like a sponge, suburbia absorbs information produced elsewhere. The suburbs are the "heartland", while urban Australia is the "headland".
Politician Mark Latham also distinguishes between two "political cultures" in Australia – the inner-city and the suburban: with different languages, contrasting lifestyles and opposing values. Both Wark and Latham share a belief that "old" class politics has been transcended by new cleavages based on access to information. Wark speaks from and for inner-city "urbanity", while Latham positions himself "From the Suburbs" – as the title of his most recent book proclaims (Pluto Press, 2003). Latham claims to speak for the less-influential suburban voice, drowned out in political debates that echo the sounds of the inner city. The "abstract", "symbolic", "powerful" inner-city style of politics, Latham argues, is out of touch with the more pragmatic style and immediate needs of the suburbs, where people feel disenfranchised from mainstream political processes. Latham explains the success of the Howard Government using this dichotomy to "purport to hold suburban values, yet its members are unwilling to live in the suburbs themselves".
DESPITE THEIR DIFFERENT positioning, both Wark and Latham treat "suburban culture" and sensibility as homogenous, where people think with a single mindset and speak with one voice. Even the occasional distinction between outer and inner suburbia assumes that a particular place and time will produce a predictable world view.
Wark's approach is based on a second-hand appropriation of suburban culture but, like Latham, he tends to use "suburbia" as an empty signifier to make sense of contemporary social and cultural problems. Yet, if a reader tried to understand a specific suburb using these conceptual maps, he or she would be hopelessly lost and quickly disappointed.
It is more helpful to approach suburbs and suburban culture from specific places and at particular historical moments. "Suburban culture" is too heterogeneous to define and contrast in a binary manner.
Technological, economic and occupational changes have had a differential impact on suburbs. Over the past quarter of a century, the secure jobs in manufacturing that were once found on the outskirts of our post-war cities have been replaced by more insecure service employment and higher unemployment. The information-rich inhabitants of the inner cities now have more in common with their counterparts in other global nodes than with their fellow citizens on the peripheries of their home cities. This illustrates the growing inequalities within Australian cities that both Wark and Latham observe.
IT IS, HOWEVER, far too simplistic to define suburbia, even outer suburbia, as a uniform space that has lost out during the past two decades because of the transformative processes of globalisation. Contiguous suburbs experience these processes in contrasting ways. Latham is right to berate those who view the western suburbs of Sydney as a place laid waste by globalisation. Many households within the area have benefited from the changes and those who "depict the region as an endless flatland of fibro homes and fringe dwellers do so from a position of ignorance". Yet, at the same time, other studies have shown that within this region there are concentrated pockets of marginalised households for whom a post-industrial landscape symbolises the withdrawal of opportunities rather than the allure of new aspirations.
As most Australians still live in suburban areas, or aspire to, then the concept is susceptible to misuse and abuse as a euphemism by politicians and cultural commentators claiming to speak "for all of us". During the mid– to late-1990s, it was commonplace to hear that the suburban "heartland" was "hurting". This suburban "pain" was often used to explain the rise of Hansonism.
Yet, when Mark Peel in The Lowest Rung (Cambridge University Press, 2003) analysed the voting patterns of marginalised suburbs such as Inala in Brisbane, Mount Druitt in Sydney and Broadmeadows in Melbourne, he found no evidence that these areas embraced One Nation any more than other areas. We should treat all portrayals of "the suburban sensibility" with caution and be as wary of people who speak for suburbia as we are of people who speak "for all of us".
AT ITS LEAST problimatic, "suburbia" is used as shorthand for some vague idea of an Australian collective consciousness on the basis that most Australians live in suburbs. In this sense, it serves the same linguistic function as the Middle Eastern term "the Arab street", referring to grassroots opinion. But once "suburbia" is juxtaposed with other Australian cultural value systems, we are asked to accept a false dividing line that supposedly explains political behaviour.
"Elites" and "battlers" alike – define them how you wish – live in inner cities as well as the suburbs. There are simply too many counterfactuals to give credence to the suburban over-generalisation. Within a generation, the same suburban electorate can swing from representing the heartland of Whitlam to Keating to Howard. Their platforms differed considerably and each leader recognised that he couldn't represent all of suburbia all of the time despite his best rhetorical flushes.
Suburbs are in a state of constant demographic flux. Anyone who has walked down his or her childhood street will experience a range of emotions associated with demographic and physical changes. Sometimes the street might be transformed beyond recognition as the houses deteriorate; new replaces old to make way for more palatial abodes. Alternatively, while the street might look the same, there may be signs of gentrification or downward mobility. Suburbs also change as families pass through life cycles. Memories of noisy streets filled with children are replaced with silenced schools and the noise of birds in now taller trees.
The suburban street I now live in has changed over the past 45 years from dwellings built for young public-service families with one breadwinner, on to ageing empty nests, then to university-student rental accommodation and now young professional dual-income renovators' delights. Its description has also changed from "outer suburban" to "inner suburban" as more new suburbs have grown beyond its perimeter. Even writing this, I am aware of gross over-generalisations within one street as these different residential cohorts interact.
MOST OF US move between the inner city and the suburbs through various stages of life. To suggest that one's address determines shifts in cultural outlook strains the malleability of the personality structure beyond credulity.
This range of variables suggests suburban heterogeneity. Abstract binary oppositions between the inner city and the suburbs have always been spurious and cannot be employed as a useful explanation for understanding the culture of "the suburbs" or its political behaviour.
These economic, political and demographic observations also suggest that there is no "suburban sensibility" that can be teased out of the experience of living in the suburbs. To assume otherwise is to accept a very crude form of physical determinism whereby the spatial form that one inhabits determines social outlook. Variables such as class, gender, occupation, income, ethnicity, education and even religion have always been better determinants of Australian political persuasion.
Quite possibly, an approach to suburbia that recognised its nuances and complexities would become devalued as currency for making political and cultural over-generalisations. But maybe that is how it should be.