Letter from Perth: All change from the last Lions tour in this city of opportunity

Presence of so many English and Irish should help swell the number of Lions supporters

In its own inimitable way Perth is the antithesis of Hong Kong. An ultra clean city (you wouldn’t find a stub on the ground, much less a piece of paper) it is evidently supremely well run. The blue, red and yellow CAT bus lines are free amid the hustle and bustle of day-time in a city that works hard during the day and goes home in the evening.

The city centre is relatively small, 18 square kilometres, and has a population of only 18,000, with most migrating to the suburbs, although it is not quite the ghost town come 6pm or so that it used to be circa the last Lions tour a dozen years ago.

There are more small bars and licensing laws are being relaxed. Last year, the opening of Perth’s Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant (the customary long queues had begun by 11am yesterday – the man is a licence to print money) was delayed by roughly six months pending an alcohol licence, but nowadays it’s easier to obtain a permit.

In lots of other ways, and perhaps a bit like Ireland and most other places nowadays, Australia in general and Perth itself, is becoming more and more of a nanny state. As anyone who visits here on a one-year holiday visa, or as a journalist covering this tour, can testify, the amount of red tape has intensified, and the same is true of starting businesses. Smoking in al fresco cafes and bars is illegal, and soon it will be illegal to smoke in the streets in the central area.

Clear blue skies
Sipping a cappuccino under clear blue skies in temperatures inching towards 20 degrees in an outdoor café in Forrest Place, Vivian Browne, a Dubliner who has been living in Perth with his wife Mary and son Conor for the last 11 years, has witnessed Perth's striking growth.


“The building boom has been unbelievable,” says Browne, an Operational Support Officer with the City of Perth Council. “Basically when I came here everywhere was closed on Sundays and public holidays, and it’s only this year that the suburban shopping centres have been allowed open on Sundays and bank holidays.”

The population was around 800,000 when the Lions last visited, and is 1.2 million now. “They’ve migrated from the rest of Australia and internationally. There are a lot more Irish, but there’s a hell of a lot more English. There are certain areas where it’s a bit like heading into London. It’s a bit more Pommie-land anyway.”

The Irish backpackers have a bad reputation for drunkenness. “Quite recently the Irish ambassador had to ask Irish backpackers to behave,” according to Browne, “and it is a major issue.”

There are also even more traffic lights per square metre here than in Dublin, if that’s possible, as well as very strict traffic rules. Admittedly, there is the phenomenon of what are termed “hoons”.

"In Ireland and the UK car thieves go out, steal a car, and they do burn-outs, or laps around wherever, go across featherbeds, drive the car as fast as they can, they do spin wheels, in a stolen car. Here they do it in their own car."

Increase vibrancy
The pro-active Lord Mayor, Lisa Scaffidy, wants to further increase the vibrancy of the city and to that end the council want the centre to grow to 25,000 by 2015. Scaffidy came second in the World Lord Mayor Awards to Bilbao's mayor in Spain.

The driving force behind WA’s boom years has been iron mining (Western Australia is the second-largest iron ore producer in the world). The BHB Billiton headquarters dominates the city’s skyline of glassed business buildings. Rio Tinto is another huge multi corporations, as is FMG, Fortesque Metal Group, owned by Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, who is a great, great, great grandson of the WA former governor, Lord Andrew Forrest, at the turn of the 19th century.

Another main player is Georgina Hope "Gina" Rinehart. The daughter of the late Lang Hancock, who founded Hancock Mining, is estimated to be Australia's wealthiest person with a fortune of Aus$8 billion, give or take, and was rated the world's wealthiest woman in 2011 by Business Review Weekly, though she has dropped to fourth since then. Oh well.

In 2010, Rinehart bought a stake in media organisations, becoming the largest shareholder in Fairfax Media and taking a significant share in the Ten Network Holdings. There are also thousands of square kilometres of gasfields, and some oil, off the north west shelf of Western Australia.

Source of income
Being the prime source of income into the Australian economy has swollen the collective chip on the shoulders of Western Australians. The government takes more GST, proportionately, from Western Australia than anywhere else, and there are signs of the WA economy slowing down, with workers being laid off in the mines. But it remains a city and state of opportunities.

Like everywhere, the popularity of the Labour government under Julia Gillard is waning in advance of a September election, with the number one issue being illegal immigration, or the "boat people", who travel thousands of kilometres from Asia to Western Australia. The sinking of one boat killed 64 people last year. For humanitarian reasons, the government spends Aus$14 billion dollars on detaining illegal boat people, and in this the government are probably damned if they do and damned if they don't.

AFL rules
As for sport, the AFL, or Aussie Rules, does just that. The West Coast Eagles and Freemantle Dockers play out of Subiaco Oval. Next in line is the WACA, which is home to the state cricket team and many Tests. (Upstairs in the Convention Centre where the Lions held yesterday's media briefings, "Lunch With Ricky Ponting" attracted a full room of about 600 of Perth's well-heeled finest). Basketball is probably next, with the Perth Wild Cats regularly filling out the 18,000 capacity of The Arena, aka "the squashed coke can". There's also the Perth Glory soccer team, more or less on a par with Western Force.

Unlike even Hong Kong, this tour match may not attract many “weekenders” or supporters on tour. But as the city and state of opportunity, the presence of so many English and Irish should help swell the number of Lions supporters in the Subiaco Oval.

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley

Gerry Thornley is Rugby Correspondent of The Irish Times