Business

Comment: It's time to burst the inner-city bubble and go West

Bubbles within the bubble
Think outside the inner-city bubble and look at the opportunities for businesses and arts out West. Source: File

The suggestion of moving a media organisation like SBS, or an event like Tropfest, or a museum like the Powerhouse from the City to the Western Suburbs fires people up. But we need to think outside the inner-city bubble, writes Thang Ngo.

“SBS should move to Parramatta. That should be their head office. They could clearly differentiate the organisation and go to the – as we know – absolute centre of Sydney, which is the centre of all sorts of ethnic groups.”

With this statement, the chairman of FreeTV, Russel Howcroft, set the cat upon the pigeons. Howcroft, also GM of Network Ten and panellist on ABC’s ‘Gruen Transfer’, was defending SBS from a merger with the ABC.

SBS responded, telling advertising industry publisher Mumbrella: “With employees across different cities, SBS tells stories from around the nation. The location of our headquarters is of no consequence. We’re focused on investing our resources in great programs, not moving offices.”

As a Western Sydney resident and former SBS employee, I would love to see SBS jump at the chance to move to where its constituents live, to showcase the diverse voices in the West.

The argument against the move included the usual: Parramatta is too far to travel. Really? You’d queue 30 minutes for a Messina gelato in Surry Hills but a 23-minute express train from Redfern to Parramatta is too far?

And then there’s the argument that a Western Sydney location makes it’s harder to recruit good staff. Bearded inner-city staff sporting tattoos and ironic long tees with dreams of directing an indie movie or at least produce a ‘This American Life’-style podcast, maybe. But if you want a workforce that reflects Australia’s diversity, Western Sydney is a recruiter’s paradise.

Western Sydney is one of the most diverse areas of Australia, with 38 per cent of the population speaking a language other than English at home, and up to 90 per cent in some suburbs according to the Centre for Western Sydney’s profile of the Greater Western Sydney region.

According to the study, 87.7 per cent of the residents in Cabramatta speak a language other than English at home - the highest anywhere in Australia. Other Western Sydney suburbs Bankstown and Canley Vale (my home) are also over 80 per cent.

Diversity is more than reflecting it from the North Shore or inner city.

Brexit and the Trump election clearly demonstrate that much of the media is living in one huge echo chamber. Their values don’t necessarily reflect Australia’s views. People are rejecting the establishment and will vote for change that reflects them and their values.

Western Sydney is home to 44 per cent of Sydney’s population.

Diversity extends to understanding the day-to-day experience of Greater Western residents. People like me who get up at 6am to catch a packed train and don’t get home until dark, and who still aspire to a green lawn while greenies in the inner city think it’s a drain on the environment. Others who brave Parramatta Road, the Great Western Highway, the M5 or M7. People who eat at modest Ma and Pa restaurants who have never heard of heirloom tomatoes and don’t get excited about foraged food.

But arguments against moving away from the city are not new.

Earlier this year, Sydney’s elites came out against the NSW Government’s relocation of the Powerhouse Museum from Ultimo to Parramatta. They claim the move would ‘destroy’ the Powerhouse. That’s insulting.

Other supporters of the status quo banded together to form the Powerhouse Museum Alliance. Collectively, they workshopped 10 Reasons to Save the Powerhouse Museum (presumably from the clutches of Western Sydney).

None of these reasons address why cultural institutions such as the Powerhouse Museum shouldn’t relocate to the West and be accessible to families and school children of the West. Isn’t Parramatta the geographic centre of Sydney anyway?

Sugar-coat the defence of keeping services inside the echo chamber all you like. The glaring truth is the media and advertising industry live in an inner-city bubble. And they want to keep it that way.

"In the end, opposition to relocating services comes down to self-interest. The argument is the same whether it’s in Melbourne, Adelaide or Brisbane."

Outdoor company Adshel commissioned a survey of advertising agency staff which found “only 24 per cent of people have been to Parramatta while 62 per cent have been to North Bondi Italian”.

According to the survey:

  • 41 per cent of Sydney agency folk live in the city or inner city, compared to just 4 per cent of the public.
  • Another 25 per cent of agency staffers are in the eastern suburbs, compared to just 5 per cent of the general population.
  • Agency people travel 6.8km to work on average while the general public commutes 21.7km.

A survey of the wider media industry would show similar results, I reckon.

In the end, opposition to relocating services comes down to self-interest. The argument is the same whether it’s in Melbourne, Adelaide or Brisbane.

Now is the perfect timing for SBS to go west. Next month, Multicultural NSW is relocating from the CBD to Parramatta to join many other NSW Government agencies including NSW Police and Fair Trading NSW.

Out here, in the West, the struggle is real. And location is everything.

Thang Ngo served as a local councillor in Fairfield for nine years (1999-2008). He is managing director of IDENTITY Communications, part of IPG Mediabrands, and publishes the noodlies food blog.