Mathew Mackie

Small change: An open letter to the Wollongong residents who bashed a palm tree

Wollongong, the town of my birth, is a fairly laid back place. Except in the case of a recent council-sanctioned art installation. All bets are currently off. 



Wollongong, the small town of my birth, is a place beset/enabled by small town problems. Typically, it can be best defined by a Cold Chisel lyric. There’s no change, there’s no pace, everything within its place.

I discovered the latest episode of this condition yesterday, when I found myself on familiar streets to keep a hot date with my nan.

En route to the usual coffee shop squirrelled away from view (one that makes me suspect that she lunches with another grandson), we crossed the great expanse of clean dark granite and harsh edges that represents the risky facelift of the mall of my youth. Once a place hated for its 1990s birdcage architecture and proliferation of meth addicts, the council boldly removed both problems. Both now solely reside in the memory, which, strangely, has some residents longing for the things they once pushed to remove.

The click of my nan’s tongue probably best defined the colloquial view regarding the deforesting of the old retail jungle.

Before (L), After (R).



The problem, is change. Or boredom.

Or perhaps both.

While it seems that the council has changed, the populace hasn’t, as they’ve merely just transported their outrage from the old mall to the new one. You see, the council did something rather foolish, and attempted to introduce art. Worse still, modern art. 


Source: Mike Hewson



We have a fraught relationship with art in the public eye. We might have recently introduced street art to our streets, which is quite good, but it was a safe bet. We were merely emulating what our cooler, popular bigger brother already got into, and got over. We accepted it as art, because someone already accepted it as art.

But not the above piece. Honestly, I don’t get it either. Callin’ it as I sees it, I don’t understand the point of erecting a towering pole, and then duct-taping a palm tree to its highest point. Perhaps a lack of shade is the problem, or maybe not, as the volume of shade that has been aimed at the artist responsible is enough to keep his skin perpetually goosebumped. Conversing with the local paper, The Mercury, artist Mike Hewson said: “I’ve been told it’s the ‘shame of Wollongong, you should be ashamed of yourself’, I’ve had someone tell me I was committing crimes against nature.”

For those of you who are reading this in a metropolitan centre, rolling your eyes, and surmising that those dimwits who regard a ‘pole up a tree’ as a form of meaningful debate must have their head up their arses, you might be correct, but you might just be a bloody city type that doesn’t get it.

You see, those who live in smaller places have a more intimate relationship with their council. They’re not just a faceless mass that anonymously removes your refuse. Residents personally believe that every person in the council building is garbage, and refuse to give quarter or recant that assumption. This is especially true for Wollongong. The fact that we wore the tag of Australia’s most corrupt council as a badge of honour, a sparkling curio of confirmation bias says it all. Ask any Wollongonger you find and they’ll triumphantly confirm that fact. Yep, I told you they were bloody crooked.

Applying that logic, the council was already pushing shit art uphill. Worse than that, the artist in question had the gall to a) defend his creation and b) look like an artist.


Guess which one is the bloody artist type? Source: The Mercury


Both of the above facts (and the article that accompanied it) produced a typically vicious outpouring of grammatically impaired epithets that you’d expect to be yelled over a fence, or from a slow-moving car:

If your (sic) an artist then I’m the king of Australia idiot”

” it’s been a privilege to make something that has really made people care.’ How self aggrandizing. People cared for many many years before your art showed up, even long before you showed up..”

“So according to this fruit-loop the obnoxious yellow ratchet straps all over his piece of art are meant to be there but dont provide any structural security at all? Rightio pal. In relation to that playground, I’d be less concerned about children getting injured on it and more worried about some drunken fool inevitably falling off it and breaking their neck!”

The above three speak the small town mindset. The tallest-poppy attached to a towering pole for everyone to see, but not reach. The meta-fear is that the poppy will topple, detonate, split the earth in twain, and cast the town into the coursing lava pit below.

Yes, it might be a tree tied to the ground, but it’s more than that. You see, the Wollongong Holy Trinity of complaint extends to three major flashpoints. Moving the tourism centre out of town, painting the hospital, and the current cockwaffle.


Wollongong Hospital (in its completed form)


All were met with the same groan, not dissimilar to the one a disappointed lover levels at you: Is that it? 

Well, Wollongong, you might gripe, but have you not considered the role of your local government official? Public money must be spent, and lipstick must be applied to the pig. Something must be done. It is, after all, a town with essentially zero employment, a place to be born in and return to, but only once you’ve made a living elsewhere. Everyone who was born to the sweet delight/endless night of coastal living has accepted that condition as the normal run of things. It remains a problem with no solution. I mean, what right-minded enterprise would up stumps and relocate to a coastal ‘burg that groups to shake their fist at a tree?

As for where I stand, it is resolutely atop a pile of our burned tradition. I say this, despite a deep personal connection with the way things were. For those unaware, the mall in its original configuration was a minefield of iron fountains filled with drunks and rusty flowerbeds that bloomed Winnie Reds. Underneath, a tacky carpet of uniform brown and red tile. Except for the solitary tile painted black with tyre rubber. It was an artistic choice of my father’s doing, celebrating his recent nuptials to my mother through the medium of burnout out the front of the Anglican Church they were just married in. It was a bruise on the face of the mall, and the only heirloom the Mackie family possessed. It was, for us, a site of historical significance. We always had that, but things change. He’s gone, as is the tile of his design, and I have no problem with moving on to possibilities anew.

So, Wollongong, get over it.

It’s just a fucking tree.




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