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Why the Gold Coast is not like anywhere else in Australia

Updated: Feb 18, 2023

Writing about the local history of Ashburton and its surrounds for two years has given me a new appreciation for the way Australian suburbs developed in the 20th century. A major contributing factor to this is the highly influential role of local councils in the decisions made about them.

So when my family and I went to the Gold Coast for the obligatory Theme Park pilgrimage this summer, I was struck almost immediately by how very different it was from anywhere else I had been in Australia.

The most notable thing about the Gold Coast is how there are enormous high rise apartment blocks built right next to three-level apartments from the 1970s that are themselves flush against an old beach shack of the 1950s era. There were people camping on the Broadwater foreshore in the shadow of a large high-rise construction site. It was like there were no building restrictions on anything at all and hadn’t been for a very long time.

This is so different from everything I’ve learned about Ashburton and Camberwell that it immediately piqued my local history antenna. There were widespread protests about building much needed apartments over a pretty crappy train station in Camberwell. So how come you can build whatever dwelling you like anywhere you want in Gold Coast?

In between theme park visits, I decided to investigate how this came about. That’s how I discovered there is a local history connection if we pretend that Ashburton’s local bicycle shop, Ashburton Cycles sells Malvern Star bicycles. They don’t but if we squint a bit, Malvern is close enough to Ashburton to make this tenuous connection work.

If that fails, well, it’s my blog and I’ll write what I want!

The quest for answers

My quest began with a visit to the Local History Museum in Elliott Street and then the Local Studies section of the Southport Library. I had several interesting discussions with the people there that helped fill out the details of Gold Coast history and directed me to a few of the resources used in this post.

But it also seemed that even they couldn’t really answer my overall research question about the random mishmash of real estate development. The closest answer I got was, ‘Well, it’s the Gold Coast’.

So what does THAT mean?

Before the high rises

Before Europeans arrived, multiple Aboriginal groups occupied the entire region of coast, swamp and mangroves continuously for over 23,000 years. You can read more about this time on the region’s Wikipedia page and the City of Gold Coast’s local history website.

When the Europeans arrived in the early 19th century, they developed the land for sugarcane production. They imported “labour” from the Pacific Islands (the quotation marks are because the Europeans undoubtedly exploited them and paid them a pittance, if at all) including Kanak people from New Caledonia. Modest settlements began to spring up along the coast, including at Burleigh Heads, Palm Beach and most significantly, Surfers Paradise.

In the late 19th century, the Queensland Government constructed a train line from Brisbane to allow the city folk to visit the beach at Surfers Paradise too. According to Alexander McRobbie’s The Fabulous Gold Coast (1984):

“The modest female beachwear of the time didn’t reveal much, but it did display calf to the knee which as exciting to the male as an ultra-brief bikini is now. Perving at girls on the beach was as much an attraction then as it is today.”

Turns out local histories from the 80s are pretty sexist.

In fact, the funny thing about the handful of 20th century local histories of the Gold Coast I found is not only that they cheerfully feature ample photographs of girls in bikinis smiling with fully dressed middle-aged men but they are overwhelmingly all written through the lens of real estate development. Pesky things like indigenous land rights, workers compensation, and environmental protection do not feature. Neither is there much need to discuss any kind of local government building approval. It seemed like that just… happened.

Every published Gold Coast local history is unashamedly pro-real estate development. This is because, I discovered, their authors all had financial connections to the Gold Coast real estate industry.

And that industry is like nothing else in Australia.

The boom begins

During the Great Depression, the little seaside village of Surfers Paradise rapidly transformed into a resort town. The Hinterland provided ample supplies of local timber and Surfers Paradise became the only place in Australia that thrived during a time of great economic crisis.

It was all privately funded. According to McRobbie, ‘every building was and is built with an income-producing purpose, or for sale as apartments. There were almost no buildings erected by local, State or Federal governments or by statutory authorities.’

Surfers Paradise Beach, 2023

This is what was bugging me about Gold Coast when I first arrived. It looks like a city with all its high-rises but none of them are office towers like in other major Australian cities. There’s not any Town Hall-style buildings even; only shops built for purpose. Everything about the city is geared towards accommodation or the tourism industry. Anything that is not, is shabby and poorly maintained.

According to McRobbie, most Gold Coast building workers worked for themselves as contractors rather than as employees. This, he contested, meant everything was built fast because nobody went on strike. Surfers Paradise apartments grew by one floor every week.

The absence of much governmental oversight turned Surfers and the surrounding land into a capitalist’s dream, breeding its own unique political culture. Outsiders critical of the rapid scale of development called the whole area ‘Gold Coast’. It was meant in a derogatory way (although there was actual gold discovered there many years earlier). But the name would soon be embraced by locals as representative of this real estate libertarian nirvana. The name came to encompass the coast south to Burleigh Heads and north to Paradise Point.

A holiday for women

As any parent of young children knows, a holiday is only as much fun as your crankiest child is having. For women in the 1950s, the usual holiday house rental at the seaside essentially transferred all their domestic duties of cooking, cleaning and shopping to a smaller, less convenient location. There was no holiday for wives and mothers.

Promotion of the Gold Coast, c.1970s

But from the 1950s, Surfers Paradise apartments offered a new experience for women: service and convenience. It cost more than a rented house but not as much as a hotel. These places offered new facilities like pop-up toasters, refrigerators, and washing machines. But the real magic came with the apartments’ swimming pools.

It could be a long walk to the beach. My personal experience of the Surfers Paradise beach – which I dragged my family to so we could say we went there - was windy with a very strong current that required me to constantly drag my children back between the very closely spaced life-saving flags.

Back then, nobody had pools at home. A holiday with a pool offered an outlet for the kids’ energy and a level of supervision that only required lying on sun lounges and chatting with friends or neighbours.

On the Gold Coast, women could finally have a real holiday from domestic drudgery for the first time.

Illegal shopping hours

Surfers Paradise also offered seven days a week shopping, with most open late into the night. This was illegal everywhere else in Australia. In Camberwell, you couldn’t even play sport on Sunday let alone buy a tie or a pair of thongs at 2 am.

It was also illegal in Queensland. But it turns out the absence of governmental oversight had some serious appeal to holiday makers.

Every Good Friday, inspectors from Brisbane would fight through throngs of shoppers to issue shop-keepers fines for illegal trading. The shop-keepers would hike their prices a little, pay the fine, and carry on trading.

The 24 hour lifestyle of Surfers Paradise aligned the town more with Continental Europe than Australia. This appealed to European immigrants and wealthier Australians, who all began to flock there.

Enter Bruce Small, of Malvern Star Bicycles in Glenferrie Road, Malvern.

Sir Andrew Bruce Small

Bruce Small, second from right

Born to Salvation Army parents, at the age of 25 Bruce Small purchased Malvern Star Bicycles from its original founder Tom Finnigan in 1920. By 1958, when Bruce decided to retire to the Gold Coast a wealthy man, he had interests in radio and refrigeration. He had also turned Malvern Star into the largest bike company in the southern hemisphere. Interestingly, he’s not mentioned on their website today.

For a man with a strong entrepreneurial spirit like Bruce, the unfettered financial opportunities of Gold Coast real estate proved far too alluring for retirement to last for long. Soon after he arrived, Bruce purchased land behind Surfers Paradise with the intention of developing it into a fancy canal-based residential estate, similar to those found in Florida.

The land was swampy and highly prone to flooding. It was also disconnected from the town. So to offset the cost of constructing a bridge, Bruce purchased an additional 500 acres.

Map of Bruce Small's Paradise City

He called the whole estate Paradise City. He gave areas the same names as high value affluent European areas: Riviera, Sorrento, Isle of Capri among them. Of course, all of this was just swamp when he bought it so if you’re wondering how Bruce Small became such a financial success, it’s pretty clear today that he was a highly skilled marketer.

The rise of the real estate kings

With all this development going on, it seems little regard was given to respecting the traditional usage of the land by the local indigenous people. The librarian at Southport Library told me that traditional burial grounds were discovered during the construction of Paradise City and ‘relocated’. I suppose that’s better than just being concreted over, but we are talking about human remains here and I don’t imagine the indigenous community had much say in what happened to them.

None of the local pro-real estate histories mention employment conditions for workers in this consumer paradise. Nor do they cover how large scale developments like Bruce’s would have destroyed important wetlands and native wildlife habitats. Even the librarian said the area was prone to serious flooding and the development of it benefited everyone.

It really was a very different in Surfers Paradise than it was anywhere else.

Dr Eddo Coiacetto of Griffith University wrote in 2009 that Gold Coast history tended to present post-World War II developers like Bruce Small as ‘small, entrepreneurial, risk taking and even heroic businessmen.’

He goes on to quote another pro-real estate history, Michael Jones’ history, A Sunny Place for Shady People: The Real Gold Coast Story (1986):

‘Much of the charm of the Gold Coast came from the small entrepreneurs such as Bernie Elsey, Bruce Small, Stanley Korman and other small operators who took risks and often failed. The 1980s is seeing a new type of capitalism. Investments are on a far greater scale, often involving several hundred million dollars in the one development. Sophisticated market research and complex American entertainment technology mean that the small operator is now less important. There is risk that big capitalism is as bureaucratic and boring as big government and the Coast may lose some of its charm.’

So where was the local Gold Coast government in all of this?

Well, this is where the shady part starts to come in. Not to mention the rise of the notorious Joh Bjekle-Peterson to the Premiership of Queensland. As would become very apparent during the Fitzgerald Inquiry decades later, hand waving through Gold Coast property developments with a nice little kickback for him was right up his alley.

Bruce Small enters Gold Coast politics

In 1967, Bruce Small decided to enter local politics. Having pulled off Paradise City, it seemed he also had a strong benevolent streak brought on by his Salvation Army upbringing in Melbourne. In addition to millionaires’ houses and canals, he also oversaw the building of churches, aged care facilities and services for non-tourist residents in the precinct. This made him a popular local candidate.

Bruce Small's marketing expertise at work

As a developer, it seemed Bruce had grown disenfranchised with the local Gold Coast Council. Exactly why this was is not easy to ascertain from the pro-real estate histories. In these, the Council is barely mentioned at all. Whenever it is, it is because it was (allegedly) standing in the way of whatever real estate development the author had a vested interest in.

The local librarian told me that during the 1960s and 70s the Council was notoriously corrupt in favour of unfettered real estate development. So I can only speculate Bruce’s decision to stand for Council was because it was more inclined towards his competitors than his business interests. Perhaps he sought to correct the balance.

Bruce Small campaign poster

Bruce Small turned his flair for marketing onto himself. He ran a ‘flamboyant’ political campaign unburdened by political correctness, as this campaign poster shows. He liked having himself photographed with girls in bikinis, riding bicycles and horses around town. This helped personalise his primary objective: to actively promote the Gold Coast as a holiday destination to interstate and international travellers.

It does seem though that unlike the other real estate developers building monuments to themselves, Bruce Small made an effort to bring the local Gold Coast community along for the development ride. When he ran for Council, Gold Coast had been severely affected in by cyclone-induced flooding and beach erosion. Bruce sought to revitalise its tourism fortunes and by extension, the local economy. From the age of 71, he served on Council from 1967 to 1978, including two stints as mayor.

Bruce Small's statue in Elkhorn Avenue

Bruce’s relationship with Joh Bjelke-Peterson, Queensland’s staunchly conservative and dictatorial premier from 1968-87 is harder to ascertain. According to his Gold Coast Story – a website of local history sponsored by the present day City of Gold Coast – it is believed he encouraged Sir Joh to abolish death and gift duties in Queensland. Not written in his entry is what one of the volunteers at the Local History Museum told me: that he also got Sir Joh to dismiss the entire Council for corruption, himself excluded.

Lots of black pots and kettles in that little anecdote it seems.

Bruce Small died on 2 May 1980. A statue of him looking very much like Nelson Mandela stands on Elkhorn Avenue in Surfers Paradise.

Japanese investment arrives

At the local history museum, I found these three photographs of Surfers Paradise fascinating. You can see just how much development had been undertaken in a very short space of time. The first is from 1952, the middle from 1969 and the last from 1981.

By the mid-1980s, Gold Coast had attracted an array of local and international players with names of some notoriety: Michael Gore (creator of Sanctuary Cove), Soheil Abedian (creator of Q1 Apartment Tower), Christopher Skase (Main Beach penthouses) and the Versace family (Palazzo Versace).

Aside from these colourful fellows, the next big phase of investment came from the Japanese. According to Dr Coiacetto, ‘the many Japanese investors of the late 1980s boom were motivated by the high status afforded to property and to golf club membership in contemporary Japanese culture. They sought to produce landmark developments of the very highest quality. They borrowed American ideas from California and Hawai’I and rolled out instant golf-estate landscapes.’

The key to making money on the Gold Coast was, according to Dr Coiacetto, to commodify property to facilitate its tradability. Strata-titling enabled and stimulated the production of home units for investment. Another was the introduction of timeshare that allowed an apartment building to be broken into thousands of small tradeable shares that required intensive direct marketing to sell.

Everything in Gold Coast is about using property to make money.

Of course, 1980s Queensland is still 1980s Australia, so the sudden presence of large groups of Japanese visitors in what is essentially a small country town at its heart caused outbreaks of xenophobic activism among local Gold Coast residents. As Geoff Burchill noted in his 2005 history/memoir Passion, Power and Prejudice, ‘people who understood the needs of pending development projects for the kind of money the Japanese were bringing in [like him], were not bothered. However, the cultural change was overwhelming for people in the community who were not involved with Japanese in business.’

As a real estate developer himself, Burchill worked actively to smooth relations over and keep the money flowing.

[Edited to add] I recently caught the classic Australian film 'Muriel's Wedding' on TV. It was well known that the town of Porpoise Spit Muriel is seeking to escape is based on a Gold Coast-style town. The positive response to the film surrounded the wonderful performances of Toni Collette and Rachel Griffiths. But it took seeing the film now for me to realise that the sub-plot relating to her father, Bill Heslop (played by dearly missed legendary actor Bill Hunter) is a direct social critique of the early 1990s political environment in the Gold Coast. Heslop wanted to be one of the big players in town ("you can't stop progress" was his campaign motto) and he attributes his downfall caused by accepting bribes to Muriel's theft of all their money. But you realise that this had little to do with it at all. Even the crack about the philandering 'Chook' hating the Japanese takes on a whole other angle. In my defence, I hadn't seen the film in years!

If you're wanting to see what the place was like in the 1990s, look no further than Muriel's Wedding.

21st century Gold Coast

By the 1990s, it seemed more local people were beginning to resist the constant real estate development. The recession helped them out but some obviously always had: as the continued presence of a few wooden 1950s style beachhouses and 1970s style small apartment blocks implies. But nowhere could I find these peoples’ stories.

According to Burchill, the Gold Coast Council began to reject ‘world-class infrastructure opportunities’ and ‘many observers’ felt Council consisted of people who were ‘simply amateur politicians without a clue about the city’s requirements to handle traffic or an icon development worthy of the new millennium.’

Or maybe they were just no longer willing to be a pushover to wealthy real estate developers. Who knows?!

In 2004, Gold Coast received its first entirely State Government funded building: the Gold Coast Convention Centre. Then some bright spark decided what Gold Coast really needed was to respond enthusiastically to Bjelke-Peterson’s vision of the holy grail of all infrastructure white elephant projects: a monorail.

The Monorail, to Geoff Burchill’s great disgust, was another victim of Gold Coast Council.

In his book, Geoff Burchill set out his manifesto for the future Gold Coast. This can be encapsulated in two words: more development.

Gold Coast map in 2023

According to the local librarian, today development vs environmental protection is a very VERY politically contentious matter. It has undoubtedly been going on for a very long time, most notably in relation to the Southport Spit. According to this 2017 article by Karine Dupre and Caryl Bosman:

‘For seven decades now, local communities have fought to keep The Spit for low rise, low impact, marine based and tourist activities [and giant temperamental rollercoasters at Sea World]. They have rallied, formed community groups, undertaken voluntary tree planting and encouraged councils and governments to see the place as the Gold Coast’s Central Park. The conflict between new and old values, interests and land uses of the different players in this game have not abated, nor is resolution any closer.’

In conclusion, the theme parks are super fun, the weather is reassuringly reliable every day and Gold Coast is like no other place I've ever been!

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