The lights may be on in Perth, but is there really anybody at home?

17/09/2009 - 00:00


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The city of lights tends to rank highly in global surveys, but what does that mean?

The lights may be on in Perth, but       is there really anybody at home?

HOUSEWIVES in bathrobes and slippers scuffled about their homes turning on all the lights and raising the blinds. Street lamps burned warmly long past their usual dimming time. Even bowling greens in the suburbs were illuminated.

"Just to my right I can see a big pattern of light, apparently right on the coast. I can see the outline of a town and a very bright light just to the south of it," astronaut John Glenn told Nasa.

"The lights show up very well and thank everybody for turning them on, will you?"

The account of Perth's support for Friendship 7's orbit of the earth - recorded by Florida newspaper Ocala Star Banner and published on February 21 1962 - gave the isolated Australian city of 450,000 people worldwide exposure.

Perth was tagged 'city of lights' and gained a reputation for being a friendly sort of place.

More than four decades on, Perth still retains its positive image. Only now it's no longer based on anecdotal evidence. It's official. Well, kind of.

The right to brag about one's city is no longer based on the weekend's footy results. Instead, a flood of surveys now competes against one another to confer the title of 'most liveable'.

There is The Economist Intelligence Unit's Liveability Index, Mercer's Quality of Living Survey, the Anholt City Brand Index, Monocle's Most Liveable Cities and World Values Survey, to name a few.

The rewards for liveable cities are supposed to be great. A liveable city will attract investment and will lure the upper echelons of the business community, not to mention the ever sought after skilled labour force.

But what value is there in these types of surveys, and why do the results vary so much?

For example, Perth ranks as the fifth most liveable city according to The Economist (ahead of Sydney but behind Melbourne). Perth then ranks outside the top 20 in Mercer's quality of living results, and trails both Sydney and Melbourne.

And WA Business News is still looking for Perth's name in the liveability results of lifestyle magazine, Monocle.

"It's fair to say these surveys are a little bit superficial on their own," Mercer's Rob Knox says.

He says people using these sorts of surveys need to take into account other data and experiences when making business or lifestyle choices.

The Mercer survey is more of a tool for headhunters and human resource staff than the general public, as it focuses its attention on areas in a city where a high-ranking overseas businessperson might live, like Mosman Park in Perth or the eastern suburbs of Sydney.

"It's to help companies make decisions on making hardship allowances," Mr Knox says.

"Expat appointments are very expensive. We try and do this in a way that minimises that risk."

The survey assesses services such as education and sanitation to help human resource departments determine how much extra pay an expat should be entitled to.

Most people rarely get behind the data or purpose of a survey, and are quick to passionately defend their city.

Take the Victoria Tourism Industry Council's response to being ranked highly by The Economist and Monocle, and not so highly by Mercer.

The tourism council's chief executive, Wayne Kayler-Thomson, said: "The results of the Monocle ranking are more in-step with the Economist Intelligence Unit, which ranked Melbourne as the world's second most liveable city, compared to the recent Mercer report, which ranked Melbourne well outside the top 10."

Perth or Lagos

Anecdotally, Perth has done well in attracting expat talent in the energy sector. Global energy companies such as Shell use a three-to-four year rotation system, which gives expats enough time to settle into Perth and work out how to avoid their next transfer.

"We have to move where the work is and when we are in the junior years of our career we may move where the cash is," Mike Scott, managing director of Perth-based oil and gas company Cooper Energy, says.

"But once they have a family and get to Perth, they say 'I'm not going back to Nigeria'."

Mr Scott is a trained petroleum engineer who comes from the small southern Scottish town of Selkirk.

A keen AFL supporter, he says workers will often transfer to a local company in order to stay in Perth, even when it means they lose the higher pay and living allowances they have become accustomed to.

Perth certainly has a leg-up over most mining towns, where in some cases expats largely resign themselves to staying in compounds.

Mr Scott does, however, say his Melbourne-born wife thinks Perth is a bit dull.

This observation might account for Perth's absence from lifestyle magazine Monocle's list of cities with a great quality of life. The magazine lists 'ease of getting a drink after 1am' as one of its indicators, which shows how subjective the surveys can be.

UWA professor, David Denemark, is aware of the difficulties in compiling liveability surveys, as he is part of the ongoing academic project by social scientists, called the World Values Survey, that assesses sociocultural, moral, religious and political values of different cultures.

"The glory of these things is that they allow global analysis," Professor Denemark says.

"But what's really required is for people to know about the country they are exploring."

He says it is often difficult to compare issues such as housing affordability and health care across borders, because governments have different programs to help their citizens.

"Health care is really good in the US if you have the money to pay for it," Professor Denemark says. "But there's a long way to fall if you lose your job."

He cites Los Angeles as an example of a city that has huge differences in living standards within its borders, meaning people visiting that city would have vastly different experiences.

David Singleton, the UK-born head of Poseidon Nickel, says he regularly tells his countrymen about his experience of living in Perth.

"I tell friends in England it takes 12 minutes to get to work and if traffic is really bad it takes 15," he says.

Public services and transportation appear regularly in survey criteria, and effectively rule out overcrowded cities with poor public transport from appearing in the top ranks.

A trained mechanical engineer, Mr Singleton says Perth's entrepreneurial spirit is one of its enduring attractions.

"I have found it a very different business ethos than what I found in Europe," he says.

"It has that almost frontier town style about it."

But like most frontiers, Perth is a long way from other major towns. Located more than 2,000 kilometres away, Adelaide is the nearest city with more than 1 million people.

This isolation leads Mr Singleton to believe Perth can never completely solve the skills shortage problem.

"Because of its isolation, Perth will always be in a position that, when major projects come on board there will be some skills difficulties," he says.

By comparison, when London or Paris requires a particular skill set, they have numerous near-by cities to draw labour from, with people still able to return to their respective homes for the weekends.


Historically, Perth hasn't been able to compete with Europe on a wages basis, but was able to offset that weakness by offering a more affordable standard of living.

Mr Singleton says the difference between wages has decreased, but on the flip side, Perth is less affordable now.

This is a change noted by Venice-born Stefano Carboni, who was lured from New York to become the director of the Art Gallery of Western Australia.

"It's a much more expensive city than I imagined," Dr Carboni says.

"I'm not complaining about my salary but I was expecting to save more."

It seems state government departments, interest groups and the media will continue to use and misuse the surveys to make a particular point.

But having a look at the indicators behind the surveys can show stakeholders how a city can become a more attractive place to work and visit. It also doesn't take much for a bit of poor planning - in areas like public transport, architecture or healthcare - for a city to lose its status as a world leader and dive down the rankings.

Mercer's Mr Knox says most people focus too much on the rankings and not the ratings.

"The ranking tells you in what order the runners finished, while the rating shows the distance between each runner," he says.

"There's not a huge amount of difference between Australian cities."

If Perth's friendliness and liveability can be measured by the way it treats astronauts, it would appear residents are as hospitable as they were in 1962.

After astronaut John Glenn thanked Perth residents for lighting up the city, the state's premier of the day, David Brand, obliged with a promise.

"We will leave our lights on any time we can help an astronaut," the premier said.

In 1998, Perth residents and businesses recreated the glow by switching on lights during Mr Glenn's return trip to space.



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