Return to Perth
On a visit to Perth, Western Australia, after a 15- year absence, I was shocked to discover that at least some place in the world there was a city of 2 million still functioning with clean, landscaped streets free of pot holes, and people more contented-looking than anywhere I’d been in recent memory.
It was as pleasing to the eye as when I arrived in 1989 for the first time. It sprawls across a side area at the mouth of the Swan River which flows into the Indian Ocean at Freemantle. River and ocean foreshore are pristine parkland. And all of it set in a jungle of Australian gum trees, or eucalypts – olive-green, small-leafed and able to withstand the summer heat with occasional temperature of over 100F. The winter rains provide enough water to sustain them.
In 2017 the city looked more prosperous than ever. Never shabby, today it glitters with open-air café strips, shopping malls with designer boutiques and upscale restaurants. If anyone there is worried, it doesn’t show. I attribute it to its isolation from other Australian and S.E. Asian cities some 2,000 miles away, its balmy Mediterranean climate and the state and federal governments. Taxes and debt on future generations are high. What’s being spent is visible with high-profile development of better quality and design than in my own U.S.A. Maybe the contentment on Perth citizens’ faces comes from a more generous government safety net than the U.S. provides.
Even more evident than when I lived there from ’93 to ’99 was the influx of both Asian migrants and tourists. Perth’s little Chinatown has burgeoned. More Africans had blended into the mix. Old Aussies are worried about losing their white identity. The young Aussies are today a rich stew from everywhere. This is true in other Australian capitals as it is in Perth.
My closest Perth friends are Burmese. Friend Paul had entered the country in 1988 with a Master’s Degree in soil engineering. His skills were needed and within two years he became a citizen. Then his wife and parents followed. Then her parents and brother followed. The pattern is much the same in the U.S.
Perth’s Burmese population has grown to around 70,000 with several Buddhist monasteries to serve them. All of them found work of some sort. Paul found no engineering jobs on entry. But he began selling new homes for builders, loved it, and in the nearly 30 years he’s lived there has now managed to retire. Like most Australians his assets are primarily in real estate.
Perth’s real estate market sizzles during the mining booms, then fizzles when the mines are less active. The Chinese were buying iron are in large quantities until a couple of years ago. Now they’ve stopped. Perth real estate prices have dropped. Yet the average home price is around AUS$500,000, or about $350,000 U.S.
Wealth is evident in the better suburbs near the river and ocean. Even poorer neighborhoods do not resemble U.S. cities’ slums. I didn’t see a single person I thought might be poor, and only one homeless man coming out of a public shower at the beach. There were none in the downtown district. Government officials, criticized there as they are everywhere, must be doing something right.
Australia was founded on a socialist ideal of equality. After World War II mostly migrants poured out of the British Commonwealth, especially the United Kingdom. A neighbor of mine in the ‘90s told me how she and her husband came for citizenship as migrant farm laborers. She’d been a doctor’s daughter in England and her husband had a law degree. He preferred digging his hands into the mostly unfertile Australian soil.
Immigrants today are more wealthy and better educated. The government is selective about whom they allow to enter and live permanently. There is certainly an attempt on the part of the government to provide everyone with a fair deal, and a commitment to distribute the wealth equitably. Government services for recent immigrants and the elderly are more abundant than anyplace I’ve ever lived.
Paul would have been happy to spend his time at home in retirement. But he had a guest, me, and felt obliged to drive me all over the sprawling city. We had lunches in his favorite, mostly Asian, restaurants. We walked along the Swan River and Indian Ocean pedestrian paths. When we tired, we parked ourselves beneath a gum tree and admired the water views. Life is good down there. About as good as it gets.