For whatever reason, Adelaide has become the national punchline. As someone from that bullied place, I’d very much like to have a word.
It’s been a bumper season for bagging Adelaide. The running ‘joke’ in Sydney and Melbourne that South Australia is the pits has made its way into the national discourse, with a growing number of journalists and other identities making derisory comments about Adelaide whilst on national platforms, having forgotten that they are being heard or read in South Australia as well. It is a peculiar thing, and seemingly uniquely Australian, that otherwise respected national voices should dump on one particular state. No doubt they would argue the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ defence. I myself prefer the diagnosis offered by Adelaide writer Andrew P. Street, who says there is a ‘national blind spot’ blanketing everything south-west from about Broken Hill.
The latest journalist to stick a boot in is The Spectator Australia’s Terry Barnes. ‘Premier Steven Marshall obviously doesn’t realise the virus doesn’t want to visit SA, let alone live there’, he said on 20 July of SA’s lockdown. Similarly, Rita Panahi surprised her South Australian audience in an article on 17 July last year. Published in Melbourne’s Herald Sun and nationally via her social media, she hoped that the AFL grand final would be played in Brisbane rather than ‘the Godforsaken badlands of South Australia’. This sentiment would find support from her fellow Melburnian, 3AW broadcaster, Tom Elliott, who cannot tolerate the Englishness of the Adelaide accent and says that if Adelaide was blown off the surface of the earth, no one would notice or care.
Because the motive is to bond with the people of either or both of the two biggest cities, politicians get in on the act as well.
In June last year, after South Australia closed its borders to Victoria, Daniel Andrews appealed to his constituents, asking ‘Why would you want to go there?’ Three months later, South Australia made the welcome announcement that it was opening its border to New South Wales only for Warren Brown, in his Daily Telegraph cartoon of Wednesday 23 September, also accessible online, to mock the notion of visiting South Australia. Even a visiting foreigner has seen fit to knock Adelaide as a means of gaining acceptance into Sydney society. Kiwi actor Sam Neill, living in Sydney in 2016, was lamenting the effects that the CBD lock-out was having on the city’s nightlife. ‘I don’t want to see Adelaide being a place you go to for a good weekend’, he said. I have many more but let me mention this Hall of Fame contribution from SBS sports and weather presenter, Lucy Zelic. On 3 September 2019, Zelic was interviewing Central Coast Mariners player Ziggy Gordon, who had recently arrived from Scotland, on The World Game, with Gordon explaining that he had not yet been to South Australia. ‘You won’t see much in Adelaide’, said Zelic, ‘Adelaide’s a shithole’.
Do I lack a sense of humour? I have sunk into victimhood? If I have it’s because I’ve been living in Melbourne too long. I am a South Australian who came to Melbourne for what was meant to be a stint, but after children and the complications of separation from their kiwi Mum, I find myself stranded in Victoria ‒ which is the only reason this article is being written. Full-time South Australians couldn’t care less about the pretensions of people from Sydney and Melbourne and would never bother to catalogue the unkind things said about their city, but me, marooned in Melbourne and thereby infected with the Melbourne mindset, I feel the blows on my home state’s behalf and documenting them as I do is the only method I have to tend to my wounds.
From the beginning, Adelaide was up itself. It was established by British legislation not as a colony, like the other states, but as a province, one for free settlers only. The city of Adelaide was the apple of Britain’s antipodean eye, leading to what Derek Whitelock termed Adelaide’s ‘sense of difference’. In 1867, for the first-ever royal visit to Australia, Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria, sailed around to dock in Adelaide first, and famous visitors, Anthony Trollope and Mark Twain, both afterwards described Adelaide as Australia’s most cultivated city.
What has South Australia done to deserve this? Tasmania could also complain but South Australia is in a league of its own, one that is twenty thousand or so beneath the sea. It seems odd that in a federated country built on the spirit of egalitarianism one particular state should be submerged in this way, but comments emanating frequently from Sydney and Melbourne tend to confirm that the land mass of the Australian continent falls away into the ocean from a point much farther to the north and east than the map gives us to believe.
What was South Australia’s crime? Historians might say that South Australia made its own bed during the nineteenth century.
From the beginning, South Australia was up itself. It was established by British legislation not as a colony, like the other states, but as a province, one for free settlers only. The city of Adelaide was the apple of Britain’s antipodean eye, leading to what Derek Whitelock termed Adelaide’s ‘sense of difference’. In 1867, for the first-ever royal visit to Australia, Prince Alfred, second son of Queen Victoria, sailed around to dock in Adelaide first, and famous visitors, Anthony Trollope and Mark Twain, both afterwards described Adelaide as Australia’s most cultivated city.
In time, though, Adelaide’s moral superiority became starched. The city’s ‘nobly depressing rectitude’, as Douglas Pike put it, made it an easy target and this materialised in 1905 when a Scottish actress living in Adelaide, Thistle Anderson, wrote a small book entitled Arcadian Adelaide. Anderson lashed the town’s hypocrisy with observations that went further than they needed to, although before leaving for Melbourne, which she did soon after, she assured her shocked Adelaide readers that her book was just ‘a playful skit’. So began the tradition of people in Melbourne and Sydney giving cutting insults to the people of South Australia then telling them it was tongue-in-cheek.
Fortunately, the people of South Australia, to again quote Derek Whitelock, long ago ‘raised a psychological drawbridge round their province’. Adelaide’s ‘sense of difference’ is these days a sense of indifference. Western Australia is the most removed state geographically but, psychologically, the most removed state is and always has been South Australia.
As for me, I live for the day when SA plates are back on my car and I am sleeping at night in a house on the Adelaide plains. In my front yard, I might even raise a patriotic flag ‒ the one with the piping shrike.
Craig Pett is a journalist and a researcher. You can find more of his work here.