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Not the brightest bulbs in Sydney

Nick Bryant | 06:47 UK time, Monday, 13 April 2009

Last month, Sydney led the world in the Earth Hour event, a campaign aimed at raising awareness of global warming by encouraging people to turn off their lights for 60 minutes. The billowing white sails of the Opera House were shrouded in darkness. So, too, the normally-floodlit girders of the harbour bridge.

In the three weeks since, Sydneysiders have experienced four involuntary black-outs, as the power supply has gone on the blink. So I am writing this blog in semi-darkness, wondering why it is that I have now experienced more power outages in the past two weeks in Australia's most populous city than I did in almost three years living in Delhi.

Perhaps this is an unfair comparison. Delhi has recently opened an impressive new metro network, which is still a pipedream for most Sydneysiders. It is run by a popular government which recently won re-election because of its success in modernising the city. Sydney's harbour lights went off for Earth Hour but have trouble staying on at other times.

The Indian capital is also being transformed by ambitious new infrastructure projects hurriedly being built in time for next year's Commonwealth games. Sydney, meanwhile, is suffering still from a post-Olympics slump.

Delhi is in the midst of India's revolution of rising expectations. Many Sydneysiders just seem reconciled to the uninspiring reality that they live in a malfunctioning city - a beautiful and vibrant one, for sure, but an underachieving metropolis nonetheless. 'Gotta love this city,' is the catch-phrase of the Sydney Morning Herald columnist, Peter Fitzsimons. But the city's creaky infrastructure is making it increasingly hard for many.

The past month has seen a rash of unfavourable headlines. Yet another ferry ran aground in the harbour - there were thirteen incidents involving the city's ageing fleet during the last financial year, once again highlighting the findings of a report which called for its modernisation.

There was the bikie-killing at Sydney airport, which revealed surprising gaps in security at the city's most important gateway.

Then there was the failure of the city's expensive new emergency warning system installed in the central business district to tell people what to do in the event of terrorist attacks or natural disasters. When the power failed, the state government finally learnt that it did not have a back-up generator to fall back on.

At the risk of being run out of town, many of the answers to Sydney's problems are found 881km to the south: in Melbourne. The roads and highways are impressive, the trams and trains seem to work efficiently and the city has clearly benefited from more than a decade of private and public investment. Alternatively, the New South Wales government could look to Brisbane, another thrusting and flourishing city.

Then, of course, there are the cities of Britain, all of which are shimmering, trouble-free utopias: modern-day Babylons, each and every one of them.*

I know this blog is Sydney-centric. But the city's problems are of national import, both economically and politically. Remember, the next time the voters of New South Wales will go to the polls is at the federal rather than state election. So local federal Labor MPs may take the blame for the failures of the Labor state government. For a party which returned to power on the back of big gains in New South Wales and Queensland, this is a real concern.

As the Australian economy worsens, the popularity of the Australian government continues to rise. That makes some sense of the comments from people I have spoken to at the top of the ALP who reckon the biggest threat to the government's re-election comes not from the GFC but from NSW.

And with that, the lights have come back on........

* Just kidding, Whitlamite.......

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