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Barry Humphries: Did we laugh ourselves to sleep ... and into oblivion? Article by Sally Pepper.

Australian comedian Barry Humphries' humour identified and targeted a world of pleasant streets and gardens that is now under threat. We've stopped laughing, but is it too late?

I was raised on the humour of Australian comedian, Barry Humphries, when his main alter ego was the suburban sage simply known as "Mrs Edna Everage” and his eastern suburbs commentary issued forth in the monotonous narrow viewed but well-meaning drone of Mr. Sandy Stone. Barry’s characters described a world which was very familiar to me, although I lived in neither the now famous Moonee Ponds nor in the apparent epitome of Melbourne mediocrity, Glen Iris. The adults in my family all found the Humphries humour hilarious, despite, or maybe because of the fact that their lives were being held up to good humoured ridicule. I shared this delight and amusement with them.

Barry Humphries' targets were mediocre, commonplace and rather petty preoccupations such as lawn mowing, sandwich making, wall colour, general domestic decor and associated status symbols. It was all so familiar and we laughed our heads off all the more, delighted to be laughing at ourselves and our nearest and dearest. Or if it wasn’t us it was someone we knew. The humour rested on an assumption of self- satisfied comfort and safety, devoid of outside threat. Our laughter and Barry’s merciless assault is an indication of how quickly we forget and how short each stage of our lives really is. Barry was born in 1934, safely clear of any expectation of participation in WW2 or The Vietnam War. He emerged as an adult in the postwar comfort and optimism of the 1950s and played to an audience where young couples were settling into their suburban Shangri -la’s. "The Australian dream” of the house and garden was alive and well and not under any threat. This situation continued for a few more decades but on a downward trajectory in terms of general accessibility, that is to say, affordability.

Fast forward to the present day and what was once a source of relaxation, pleasure, security and comedy, the suburban family home, is now turning into a tragedy.

The undermining of the family home and garden in concept and reality has been under way for at least 30 years. It began with soft rumbles, the odd newspaper opinion piece advocating the end of the 1/4 acre block and the beginning of a rhetoric very negative and critical of the way we lived. People started to parrot these opinion pieces and preach knowingly at dinner parties, that we couldn’t go on living as we were as though cleverly seeing into the future. Then they would go home and continue living as they were, no doubt thinking that it was people in the future who would have to live differently, not they. The point was that they did not express any feeling of being under threat. Yet they were. They are!

The sacred, yet hilarious homes of our parents and of us are now being demolished, at a frightening rate. The honest workmanship of the Californian Bungalo and the 50s triple fronted cream brick veneers is being replaced with nondescript non- architectural multi dwelling, fence to fence arrangements , devoid of of any reference to the humanity of those who are expected to dwell within. The subject of Barry’s whole comedy career is being pulled down in front of us; a new cavernous car park excavation appearing near where I live each week. That is the reality on the ground. In the media , a past Victorian Planning Minister, Justin Madden who now works for developers was given space for a whole article about the need and desirability, nay imperative, of demolishing 60 year old houses in a ring of Melbourne suburbs about 15 kms from the CBD. There’s always a new angle in the scramble to fit ever more residents into Melbourne (which grows by about 80,000 people p.a.) Developers who can get their hands on these unsuspecting little houses on their “1/4 acre" blocks (I understand they never were as large as 1/4 acre, really) can make a killing by demolishing and redeveloping to fit in more residences.

It seems to me that people are now really getting upset by all this. They see their local neighbourhoods in a constant state of transformation. They are living perpetually in a construction zone. Trees, houses and gardens go, roadworks and construction abound and there is the constant shock of empty blocks of land either totally cleared and levelled or exposing raw bedrock 3 metres deep, previously covered with a few tonnes of earth and rocks and iced with pleasant house and garden.

But what has this to do with Barry Humphries? Well for a start, the much derided but rather enviable and almost egalitarian Melbourne suburban way of life is swirling down the plug hole and will be gone before you know it. The people of Melbourne did very little to protect it when it was first under fire and now it is probably too late. Were we asleep at the wheel? Did Barry Humphries unwittingly lull us into a child-like sense of security about our home city?

What does Barry say now when, in actual fact what is happening is that our precious gardens are being used to accommodate an ever higher population? Had we been asked 15 or 20 years ago if we minded someone building in our backyard, we would have said, “go and find you own land!” but that is what we are being forced to do now. People move out of garden-surrounded houses into units with token amounts of land and end up with only a little bit of change from the exchange. Collectively, what is happening is that others are building in our gardens!

Barry Humphries’ jokes about the scourge of thrip on the roses (or was it the tomatoes?) will be incomprehensible to future Melbournians. How can this joke be funny when the “problem” is foreign to you?


What irony! The drabness and predictability of Australian bland suburb, the 1/4 acre block, triple fronted cream brick veneer what was ridiculed as being predicable and even boring - is now almost a dying species. What we took for granted, in middle Australia, is now dying out like threatened species, being eradicated by bland, concrete-facaded boxes and towers that are called "apartments". While most people now would concede that the days of 1/4 acre blocks have passed, with "progress", but what's happening to our once gracious and dignified city, Melbourne, is a tragedy. So bereft of ideas, productivity, innovation and creativity are our political leaders, and economists, what we are selling out now is our housing to the real estate, mortgage and property developers. The mess the unfettered housing industry is forcing upon us is unemployment, entrenched deprivation, increasing poverty, loss of amenities, and a bland city. Congestion is being addressed by ever-increasing road capacity, freeways, more public transport costing multiple billions, but still the frenzy of "developments" continues. It's like a self-consuming monster, eating away at our city and leaving behind a cheap imitation of itself - and the housing Ponzi pyramid keeps growing and consuming our individual incomes, wealth and living standards.

I'm not sure how the new tenements and townhouses being put up are any less boring. No eaves. Square blocky architecture. Similar colour schemes. Similar frontage. Similar fake grass lawns with succulents and rocks (yes, so many new houses have PLASTIC lawns now).

Melbourne is devolving into a slum, and it's sad to see it happen piece by piece, but I can't help but think that the rot started a long time ago. Our society values nothing but "economic progress", whatever that actually is, and "growth", whatever that means. It was like that when I was a child, a teenager and is like that now. It's just now that "progress" and "economic growth" has reached peoples homes and backyards, and now they grumble. Have things changes, or is it just that the destructive nature of comsumer culture has come home. We've sold everything else off, now there is nothing left to sell except the very land from our childrens feet.

This is like traffic. I spoke 15 year ago about this outcome, and no one cared then. Now they suddenly care when its too late.

Likewise, the congestion and housing crisis will only become a problem when its too late.

I think I may just have to leave Melbourne and leave the idiots here stew in the mess they've created.

I hear your lament Dennis and I agree with you wholeheartedly! I've also just read admin's piece on the Greens and while the Greens may be a tad fanciful, at least their proposals are better than what is occurring currently. The neo-liberal policies of both of the major parties is not only killing Melbourne, but Australia as a (w)hole!!

The way I see it is if we don't vote for an alternative party or an independent, we'll continue to suffer at the hands of these megalomaniacs for years to come. Which leads me to the point which I don't understand. Why do the people of Melbourne and Australia put up with this crap? Why do we allow ourselves to be force fed tons of bullshit and act as if nothing is happening? Where is our intestinal fortitude? Are we waiting for some white knight to come to the rescue?

To me we, as Australians, have had it too easy. We are prepared to wear it as long as we're comfortable and some mug in a suit tells us that is so. We're being shafted and we don't know it. Our governments at all levels and all persuasions are rolling over to the ruling elites, the transnationals and are selling us out. This is a glimpse of the dark side. And it will only get darker unless we, the electorate, do something about it!!

Unfortunately we do not have enough time on our hands to rely upon the ballot box to save Melbourne from the worst of sprawl and concrete boxes. Even if we did, the Greens' infrastructure goals would not keep up with population growth. While their planning policies are an improvement on Labor and the Coalition, it is nevertheless going to be a case of too little too late. Therefore, unless the Greens confront the State and Federal government now on population and infrastructure policy, they will find that they are lulling their electorate into a false sense of security. It is after all their job to hold the government accountable. It would be a tragedy if they were to find themselves dangling the carrot on the very stick that the developers are holding.

Mark while I don't disagree with you that the Greens (and even if the independents are in accord) need to challenge both the Coalition and Labor over their growth fetish, do you not think that they will be derided by the major parties and the mainstream media Australia wide. It would be an honourable and it would a courageous exercise on their part, but, unfortunately, they would be outvoted and therefore it will not be enough.

We, the electorate, had our chance 12 months ago and we weren't up to the task. We caved in to the false prophets who espoused more of the same bullshit we've been dieting on since we got Jeffed!! Why?? Because we're shit scared of having to forgo a couple of creature comforts, of having to get our hands dirty, terrified of having to put our values on the line, petrified of the unknown.

WE ... got ourselves into this mess and WE have to get ourselves out of it.

I earlier suggested that the ballot box would be the way forward which it will be, however, if more prompt action is required, WE must extract the digit and become more verbose about our thoughts and actions. WE must show both Labour and the Coalition that we don't want more of the same. WE must demonstrate that Melbourne's/Victoria's burgeoning population is a noose around our necks. We want to be able to live in peace and harmony into our old age with our kids and grandkids. But first we must demonstrate and demonstrate hard and long until they give in. There is no other way!!

With the preferential voting system, it is possible a voter to give her/his first second and voting preferences to small party or independent candidates who stand for policies that the major parties won't. Before you vote at any election, find out which of the candidates in your electorate commits himself/herself to opposing 'growth' and allocate your voting preferences accordingly.

Other policies of candidates I would vote for are listed in the article Issues that should be decided at the 29 November Victorian State elections of 14 Oct 2014. - Ed

'do you not think that they will be derided by the major parties and the mainstream media Australia wide'.

I agree with you John but I do believe that if the Greens were to frame the issue properly, they would win the empathy of the vast majority of people who do not wish to see a big Australia. The media I believe would continue to try to avoid the population issue precisely because their arguments for large scale migration do not hold up to scrutiny. If anything the media would fail to report the issue and wait for the topic to pass as they did over the reaction to Kevin Rudd's Big Australia "gaffe".

Matthew Guy has even raised the population issue in the past few days (though I am suspicious of his motivations) but it is an indication that the issue of population is becoming less politically dangerous. This can only be a good thing.

Hi Mark Allen,
Your article is generating some interesting debate. Well done. On the subject of Matthew Guy 'calling for a population policy', my opinion is, unfortunately, it's the same old. Read the detail:

"I think there has got to be a genuine community, business and governance discussion about how we really focus on building the population of our regions, because I am very, very sure that the four-and-a-half million people of Melbourne think ... our city is bursting," Mr Guy said. "Can you imagine it with another million people on top of this, as it will be within 15 years time?" Source:

No way this little politician is going to have a real 'debate'. He is looking for big business support by signalling (a) reverse EW Link decision (b) signal to big construction (c) signal he will push population growth via the usual pretend 'debate' mechanisms. What he has said is utterly unnewsworthy, but it is what the growthist newspapers like to pretend is news.

It's about as newsworthy as saying that a well-known prostitute has just got out of the drug rehab and is announcing she will be pounding the streets again.

With apologies to the sex industry.

I believe that many of the middle suburbs are lacking in housing diversity and while I do not wish to see an end to the quarter acre block, I do realise that there is a growing demographic who are willing to sacrifice larger backyards for all the benefits that come with medium density living. This is why the inner suburbs are so much in demand.

It is fair to say that there are a large number of post-war houses in the middle suburbs that are not just not worth retrofitting. Therefore it makes sense to use this opportunity to create more duplexes and in turn make the middle suburbs more appealing to a wider demographic. However there are many houses that are worth retrofitting and many gardens that are worth saving. Unfortunately planners cannot pick and choose on a house by house basis which ones should be saved and which ones should go. Also, upon demolition, the general tendency is that the whole site is cleared, including all of the soil that has been enriched over the years and all the fruit trees etc. Therefore new incentives need to be put in place to ensure that the area that is cleared is restricted to the space in which the new building is going to sit.

I agree that the design of new builds is generally poor and they often do not look any better than what replaced the original building. This is why we also need to focus on ensuring that better design guidelines are put in place. It would be impossible to halt all development in Melbourne so it is still preferable in my opinion to direct more development to the middle suburbs where residents would nevertheless have access to at least some private open space and where any poor design outcome is less intrusive than many of the disasterous apartment blocks in the inner suburbs.

In the meantime we must continue to exert pressure on the powers that be to ensure that improved measures are put in place.

I heard this interview today- with Eleanor Hall and a rep. from the Productivity Commission. Gist of it was that people now live in houses worth lots of money and most of many retirees' wealth is in the family home (which to me says they are not very well off) and so they need to either downsize or take out a reverse mortgage. It was couched in terms which made it sound as though the Productivity Commission had the retirees' interests at heart (Ha!) - they will have a much better quality of life if they can unlock the capital in their houses. The general idea was that they should give up the idea of leaving the family home to their children. Then there was the acknowledgement that it was better for people to “age in place” which is also Federal government policy. To overcome this conflict the idea put forward was that people should be able to purchase something smaller within their area. (What a ridiculous complication to face late in life, and, living in the same area is not the same as having your garden, street, floor layout remain the same - which is what elderly people need, especially if likely to dement.)

It’s government polices that have inflated housing prices - and they are colluding with industry lobbies like the Property Council, Real Estate Institute of Australia and others among the few who actually benefit from this terrible situation. It’s not the fault of people who saved and possibly even built their own houses (an example was a 90 year old war veteran on the ABC today who would like to stay where he is, thank you!) and have paid taxes. This is all about cutting these people out of the Age Pension. It’s not fair.

And it is also about passing on all our pension money to a small bunch of tycoons in the finance, property and similar industries. This kind of big business interest is quickly slithering us down the road to fascism. We have already experienced undemocratic changes in planning laws in order to allow these bastards open slather and unending population growth.

Good stuff Mary! John Quiggin has a good article on the financial sector at

Older people might think that they have a moral duty to vacate their houses to make room for our societies' "children" i.e young couples with their children. Most of them will not be able to think this through since understanding of Australia's population growth is generally very poor, at least amongst those I speak to. If Australia had a stable population number within its shores with birth numbers equivalent to death numbers and immigration equivalent to emigration then there would be sufficient housing, without needing to stress vulnerable groups and pressure them to vacate their premises. We would have a pretty happy situation for most except developers and those who actually want rapacious population growth to fuel associated enterprises such as shopping centres and barn- like furniture stores; anything that feeds on growth. Australia does not, unfortunately enjoy a stable population but rather one that grows very rapidly with more than half of the growth from overseas migration. So vulnerable older people would be almost half right in thinking they were cooperatively making way for younger Melbourne families - not their own family but at least someone local. But it's more likely that they will be moving out to make way for a family from overseas that already has somewhere to live in that country! It won't be homeless people from anywhere who will be buying their Glen Iris or Murrumbeena bungalows! Is this remotely morally right? Once older people sell up the "family home" it cannot be left to their children. It amounts to stripping property and very modest wealth from middle and working class families. They have paid for their houses paid with after- tax dollars. Nobody has a right to move them on.

The problem is that the government which is itching to push these people out of their homes, is the same government they voted for.

It seems people want their cake and to eat it too. They cheer their rising house prices, then wonder why their home is then seen as a "prize" and now people want to get their hands on it.

Well, DUUHH! Did people think that their homes could rise so much in price, and nothing would change?

I don't get how so many Australians want the rising house prices, but then complain about the units and subdivision, when that is the inevitable result....