Western Australia: a place to live rather than visit?

I’m now in Hobart, having moved from Australia’s largest state to its smallest. We only spent a six days in WA, and purely as a tourist. We didn’t visit anybody living here. So my view is inevitably superficial – but I hope it will still be of interest.

WA is vast, taking up one third of the Australian continent. It is mostly empty of people. 80% of its population, we were told, lives in the Perth area. Most of the rest live in the south western corner, which includes Margaret River. We didn’t get beyond these populated areas.

Central Perth is underwhelming. It has an undistinguished skyline of the usual tower blocks. Its setting, on the Swan River has potential, but the urban planners have given almost all the riverside to roads and speeding motor traffic. Only a small harbour area is free of traffic, and that is now mainly a building site. There is a pedestrianised shopping precinct but it is nothing special. There is a lovely park, King’s Park, just off centre (the largest central urban park in the world they claim), but even this is rather spoilt by trying to make it accessible to people in cars. The best views over the city are next to a busy road. There is quite decent public transport but car is king. Outside the centre there is the usual Aussie suburban sprawl, including some lovely waterside properties, once the roads have moved inland. These are surprisingly dense; all houses are detached, and they are mainly single story, but the backyards are tiny. The houses are cheek by jowl. Once you have acquired your building plot, the thing to do apparently is to cover it almost entirely with one storey of house. This holds throughout the residential districts of WA we saw. This may be a countrywide trend, but here even the posh homes on the river side looked a bit squashed up against their neighbours.

The best bit of the Perth area is the old port of Fremantle. A lot of old buildings have survived and they aren’t dominated by newer ones. You can have a fish lunch on the fishing harbour watching dolphins near the fishing boats (real, working ones) without traffic whirring by. The port itself isn’t all that big. There were just three ships there when we visited, two stock carriers and a single container ship. Barcelona it isn’t. WA’s vast mineral exports don’t go close to populated areas.

Outside Perth the main attraction is the continent’s southwest corner, around Margaret River. This is lovely. An attractive coast, with boutique farming inland, featuring its now famous vineyards. It’s a popular holiday district and deservedly so. We perhaps saw it at an ideal time of year, in between the wet winter and hot, dry summer. It was verdant, and the temperature in the very pleasant mid-twenties. There are plenty of wilderness sights in WA, but we didn’t have time to sample them. We will next time. And there could be a next time. We flew here because of the new Qantas non-stop flight from Heathrow by 787 Dreamliner. This was a success, and we prefer it as a way in to breaking the journey to the east cost to Dubai or Bangkok. But if they manage to put on a nonstop flight to Sydney, that might be a tempting alternative.

This is a mainly economics blog, so what could I make of the WA economy? It seems to be healthy and growing, though homeless people were to be seen frequently in central Perth. This appears to be mainly about mining, of which iron ore is the most important, but which covers a multitude of other things. This happens in the wilderness and is quite astonishingly destructive of the local environment. But as almost nobody lives there, that doesn’t seem to be an issue. The presence of aboriginal inhabitants is light. In the south west we only found any serious reference to them in the art gallery. Doubtless in the outback their presence is stronger, but the mining businesses clearly don’t have too much trouble.

The mines do need quite a few people, even if they aren’t sent down holes in the ground when you can simply remove all the rock that is in the way. These are flown in for periods of one to three weeks from Perth and outlying towns. As these workers spend money in their home towns, and go on holidays, this drives much of the rest of the economy, or so we were told. The Economist suggests that automation is far advanced in the mines, and fewer workers are needed. There was no sign of that – perhaps because this affects workers shipped in from outside WA to a greater extent. There are a lot very wealthy people on the back of the mining boom – who in turn invest in the boutique wineries in Margaret River, as well as fabulous properties to live in. But there seem to be plenty of decent mid-level jobs too, which are the key to a broadly prosperous economy. One thing we noticed was that there were quite a few older workers – including just about all the tour guides we used.

So my rather superficial verdict is that Perth and Margaret River are very pleasant places to live, with all the civilised comforts. If there are world-class tourist attractions they are probably in the outback, though apparently the surfing is world class too. But if you are visiting Australia anyway, it’s a nice place to go, though still over three hours flying time from most other places.

4 thoughts on “Western Australia: a place to live rather than visit?”

  1. “…….though still over three hours flying time from most other places.”

    I would say this is one of the big disadvantages of Australia generally. Anywhere is quite a long way from anywhere else. And then having flown the 3 hours the nearest city to Perth is Adelaide which isn’t a lot different!

    Australia does have some good economists. Two of my favourites are Bill Mitchell:

    and Steve Keen:

    Steve is big on emphasising the importance of private debt in the economy which isn’t neutral as some might think. It’s easy enough for neoliberals to crank up the economy by lowering interest rates which encourages more borrowing. There’s usually no point borrowing money unless you want to spend it, so more borrowing means more spending.

    But it’s really only bringing forward future spending ability. Unlike Government borrowing, which isn’t really borrowing at all, it does have to be repaid. So Steve puts it that this only works if the rate of borrowing is accelerating. And you can’t accelerate for ever!

    That’s why he refers to the Australian economy as a ‘house of cards’. Having said this he did say the same thing a few years ago and ended up with egg on his face when the Australian economy took off after the 2008 GFC. That was partially due to the fiscal stimulus applied by the Rudd government. Partly due to an export boom in the mining sector.

    However, I would say Steve’s mistake was more a question of timing than anything fundamentally wrong in in his analysis.

    1. Australia is a continent that is the key to understanding its geography. Here in Tasmania that’s different, but really the only place. NZ is quite different.

      I’m not a fan of Bill Mitchell. My impression is that he’s not a good listener. What I have seen of Steve Keen on the other hand is much more impressive. He’s also very strong on the absurdly basic mathematical modelling techniques that economists still use. So I take what he has to say about Australia very seriously.

      1. I’ve met both Bill and Steve and they are both pleasant enough individuals but I do know they don’t get on too well with each other. So there might be a clash of egos. I don’t know either one well enough to comment further.

        This is a pity because they aren’t so far apart. Bill is all for a Job Guarantee and is of the opinion that currencies should float even if it means there’s an imbalance of trade. Steve takes a more traditional Keynesian view that trade should be more closely balanced, and has doubts about the JG, saying that there are always going to be too many devils in the detail for it to be effective.

        I tend to agree more with Steve on the last point. They are very much in agreement in their analysis of the state of the world’s economy and in particular the folly of 19 EU countries which are trying to share a single currency. That could fail spectacularly any time soon and cause GFC part 2.

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