An invisible divide

9 September 2021 | Posted In: #140 Spring 2021,

Sydney once saw itself as a city free of class divides and open to social advancement. But as Jess Scully discusses in her new book, your postcode can predetermine your life outcomes.

‘But miss, why think about the future for?’ Sara asked. The 13-year-old held my gaze and, for a few seconds, I couldn’t answer her. No one had asked me this before. I spend most of my time thinking about the future: what our cities are going to look like in five or 50 years, what art will explore, how information will be distributed, what laws we’ll need, how people will spend their days, how we’ll work, how our economy will shift and change.

I’ve always assumed that thinking about the future was a natural thing to do, something that everyone did all the time, driven by motivations that were so obvious that I . . . well . . . so obvious, that I couldn’t really think of any of them, right now.

Casting about for an answer, I looked out of the classroom window, at the building next door. As fate would have it, I found myself looking at the hospital I was born in. All that separated me from this girl and her classmates was a couple of decades. Most of them were the first in their families to be born in Australia, like me. Many of their parents had come here seeking opportunity — like my dad, Bryan, originally from India — or fleeing political conflict and seeking asylum — like my mum, Trish, who’d come here from Chile. Kids navigating different cultures and languages; kids who’d seen enough of life to know progress is bumpy and, as they say, the future is unevenly distributed and fair can be hard to find.

Finally, I landed on a response. ‘Because you’ll live in the future,’ I said, feebly. ‘In 25 years from now, you’ll be my age. And you’ll want clean water to drink and air to breathe. You’ll need to earn money and you might want to have kids. You’ll be interested in what kind of world you’ll live in . . .’ I trailed off. Sara gave me the kind of gently condescending look that 13-year-olds everywhere are the masters of. That look which says, I’m not a kid anymore. I don’t believe in fairytales. I’m not buying what your selling, lady, but nice try. ‘Sure, miss, okay. But who cares what I think about the future? I mean, it’s just going to happen anyway, no matter what I think.’

She had me floored, again. I couldn’t imagine what it was like to feel like your voice doesn’t matter. For better or worse, people have cared about my opinion for years now, or at least, they’ve been polite enough to nod along as I’ve shouted my ideas from the soapboxes I’ve been given: festivals and events, radio shows and media interviews, and all the opportunities that come with electoral politics.

The girls in this class had been through more in their short lives than I could imagine: many of them had come from war zones, places where lives and the lives of everyone they knew had been disrupted forever. Was Sara right: was I naïve to think that the ideas of one or two people could make a difference? Was I selling false hope by suggesting that the future was something she could direct?

In less than an hour, this class of 13-year-old girls in Sydney’s south-west had punctured the blissful bubble I lived in, a privileged realm of ‘changemakers’, where everyone felt informed about the issues, empowered to make their mark and ready to make change. Suddenly, I was outside the bubble, looking in, and it was much harder to explain how one person could shape the course of their own life, let alone their city, their country, the world.

In my own life, I’d gone from being one of these first-generation Aussie kids in Liverpool and Fairfield to being deputy lord mayor of Sydney. These days, my office is in the front corner of Sydney Town Hall, a majestic sandstone landmark in the heart of one of the wealthiest cities in the world. I feel privileged to be able to have a say, and have my voice heard, on the issues that matter most to me: on how we make the city a fairer place, on how we build it to be more resilient socially and regenerative environmentally, on how we get more life and creativity on our streets, on how we open up the halls of power to make sure everyone else has their voices heard too.

Would it help Sara to know that this journey was possible if she wanted it? Was it naïve to think it still was? In my lifetime, I’ve seen Australia’s pride in its egalitarianism shrink and the gap between rich and poor grow. Worse still, governments have been actively widening that gap, making political choices that entrench disadvantage and pool wealth and access at the top, putting up walls where once there were pathways.

Today more than ever, your postcode can predetermine your life outcomes. Opportunity is being distributed unevenly across our cities and countries, dictating how long you spend on waiting lists to see specialists in public hospitals, for example, or even your lifespan. While I’m talking about Sydney, as I know it best, this kind of geographically distributed opportunity is so common around the world it even has a name: spatial injustice.

In 2018, University of Sydney student magazine Honi Soit published a playful interactive map which chartered the distribution of fast-food restaurants and boutique grocers around the city under the headline, ‘Food fault lines: mapping class through food chains’. The ‘Red Rooster Line’ had already been quoted in research, but this project added other brands, depicting the concentration in ‘The Affluent North’ of upmarket chain Chargrill Charlies and contrasting this with the ‘El Jannah Line’, in what they dubbed ‘The Ethnic West’.

It was a potentially silly but highly descriptive way of depicting where social and ethnic groups find themselves in Australia’s largest city. If you’re west of the Red Rooster Line, you’re likely to earn less, travel longer distances in traffic to get to work, cop more heat in heatwaves and even see your life expectancy reduce. Fairfield is squarely on the ‘have-nots’ side of the ‘Quinoa Curtain’, which is a term my colleague on council Jess Miller likes to use, rather than the more ubiquitous ‘Latte Line’. The Honi Soit map makes it starkly clear that there isn’t just one Sydney. Instead, your experience of the city depends very much on where you live, and the type of food you have access to serves as a metaphor for the range of opportunities you might have access to as well.

City Pulse, a 2018 research project by multinational professional services firm PwC ranked every suburb in the city based on access to work, green space, transport and education, with points deducted for crime and a lack of housing affordability. Once again, a version of the Quinoa Curtain emerged from the data, with the 25 most advantaged suburbs being those that ring Sydney’s glittering harbour. Before our eyes, a country that once saw itself as free of class divides and open to social advancement (justifiably or not) is becoming dramatically less equal.

As the dividing line between rich and poor grows wider and wider, it becomes a moat around the castle walls of decision-making. Inside the castle, you have the people who have time to take an interest in the rules of the game we’re all playing, the time to get involved and, often, the language and the tools to have their say. They’re typically the people who have their voices heard, they know how to lodge a complaint or demand that the system meets their requirements, and their experiences of the world can be so astronomically different to those of their poorer neighbours, who are living day to day, that the divisions are reinforced. Over time, the moat gets steadily deeper.

When a society divides into haves and have-nots, how does that impact who has a say and who has a sense of agency over their future? What does a community lose when a huge percentage of its greatest wealth — the imagination, ideas, experiences and creative energy of its next generation — is trapped on the wrong side of an invisible divide? That Latte Line, as it rises in this city and in the forms it takes in so many other places, has the potential to lock out a powerful source of new solutions to the big challenges that face us all.