‘Piss off back to where you came from!’
Is there anything more galling than the chesty aggression and whining effrontery of people who reckon they have exclusive rights to occupy certain parts of the country?
My first brush with ‘localism’ came in the context of surf culture. I grew up about five kilometres inland from a classic right-hand point-break that shall remain nameless (oh, okay. It was Sydney’s Dee Why beach). There, the ‘locals rule’ rule was literally spelled out in large capital letters daubed on the footpaths in melted surf wax.
In the 1980s a few of my non-local grommie mates dared to paddle out when the waves were good, only to be served up the slogans mentioned above. Some were physically bullied out of the ocean. One 14-year-old pal had his board – a cherished birthday present – snapped on the promenade by a particularly entitled older chap, styled with a sun-bleached mullet and a sharktooth choker around his neck.
Back then I struggled to fathom how anyone could claim ownership of part of the Tasman Sea, let alone council footpaths. I honestly figured the ‘locals only’ palaver was a kink in the culture particular to Dee Why point. Of course, as I grew older I realised this kind of I-was-here-first-so-you-can-just-fuck-off brand of tribalism wasn’t just a Dee Why thing, nor was it purely a surfing thing.
Localism blends easily with racism and xenophobia, and it pervades much of the country, more so since Pauline Hanson showed up in 1996 and changed politics in Australia to this day. Who can forget a post- Hanson John Howard launching his 2001 federal election campaign by declaring, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’
If I close my eyes I can see a young Howard with a mullet and a choker stomping on a refugee’s surfboard, each kick accompanied by the words. ‘We! Were! Here! First!’
Only we weren’t, of course, but the message was out and the exclusionist dog-whistling helped foment the ugly Cronulla race riots (most memorable slogan: ‘We grew here, you flew here’).
And nowadays we have reached the darkest of places where Australia is willing to lock up three-year-old kids in an island prison until their blood gets infected just to make sure the whole world knows that in Australia it’s ‘locals only.’
But a funny thing happened during COVID. Localism of the domestic kind enjoyed a huge resurgence, and even became enshrined in law. In the early days of the pandemic, lockdowns and enforceable travel restrictions pitted Aussie against Aussie in a good, old-fashioned game of, ‘Why-don’t-you-just-fuck-off-back-towhere- you-came-from?’
It has been particularly noticeable in regional areas. I know this because I live in such a community: a coastal village a few hours south of Sydney. The holidaymakers on whom the town has relied for generations are now the subject of bitter mutterings about ‘outsiders’ and ‘blow-ins’ ‘wreckin’ it for everyone else.’
While there are very good reasons to lock down and restrict travel amid COVID outbreaks, I have noticed – anecdotally – the measures have caused a general trend towards some people telling other people to take a hike. There’s a widespread shaking of heads and furrowing of brows as cars with interstate number plates roll through the town where I live.
Local development is suddenly a massive problem, too. ‘They’re buildin’ too many homes!’ ‘We can’t cope with more people living here!’ ‘It’s not like it used to be!’ Ironically the data shows the vast majority of people who live in my local government area relocated here from somewhere else! So we have past blow-ins complaining about the latest blow-ins!
I am one such Johnny-come-lately. I moved here from the big smoke almost a decade ago. Over the years I’ve come up against the odd arsehole who thinks he’s Arch Duke of the South Coast: ‘I s’pose you’ve come down here to live the good life have ya mate?’ I was once asked. ‘Shame it’s ruining it for all the locals.’ Lately I’m hearing more of it.
As an erstwhile Sydneysider, my standard response to such challenges goes: ‘Yeah, but you know what? About one thousand people move to my hometown every single week. The difference between you and me is that I don’t whine about it like a little girl.’
In my humble opinion the only people who have the right to arc up about ownership are the first-nations people who, it’s estimated, arrived here more than 60,000 years ago. After all, as Aboriginal land-rights activist Noel Pearson pointedly observed after the Cronulla riots, ‘We growed here, you rowed here.’