Brisbane - It's booming, it's brilliant, it's downright sexy

YES, Brisbane, you shall go to the ball. Don't take any notice of those "lack of sophistication" jibes meted out by your wicked stepsisters, Sydney and Melbourne. They're just jealous of your youth and potential. They're afraid that later this century you might rival them in power and allure. But the fact is Brisbane on several measures you already rival these cities.

Consider the evidence:

Both Sydney and Melbourne invested heavily in the boom of the late 1980s. The inevitable and ensuing crash plunged both into crisis. As the storm clouds gathered, flighty Sydneysiders upped and offed in search of the easy dollars yielded by swapping harbour-city houses for Queensland bungalows.

But it was Melbourne that fared worst, losing its state bank, suffering a humiliating series of high-profile corporate collapses, and finally resulting in an almost biblical exodus. In the year to June 1994 some 20,000 penitent and frightened southern souls sought their economic salvation in the Queensland sun.

Queen StreetThroughout this crisis that also engulfed Perth, Adelaide and Geelong - small cities all, naively attempting to punch above their weight - it was Brisbane that came through relatively unscathed. And this city's secret to surviving the chaos? Population growth.

Brisbane has recorded the highest percentage rate of population growth of all state capital cities every year since 1990. Its 1980s rival for this title, Perth, was wounded by economic events associated with WA Inc and the collapse of Bond Corp. Brisbane's sustained population growth translated directly into job growth. Do this better than any other state for a decade and a half and suddenly Brisbane looks downright sexy. It is transformed from the awkward and gangly self-parody of "Brisvegas" into the sleek self-confidence of "Cinderella city" by the sheer cultural power contained in the notion that everyone loves a winner.

In the 15 years to June 2005 official labour force survey data show that Brisbane recorded the largest percentage increase in jobs (56 per cent) of all capital cities. This same data source goes on to confirm that in the 12 months to June 2005 the Queensland workforce expanded by an historically significant 107,000 jobs or 5.3 per cent. This is the largest and fastest annual increase in jobs for this state in 25 years. But more to the point, the absolute job growth in Queensland over the past 12 months has not been bettered by any state in any year in a decade.

These are significant times for Queensland and for those investing in this state. By way of comparison, job growth in the far bigger and more important state of NSW in this year was 71,000 or 2.1 per cent.

Just when the conventional wisdom had written off southeast Queensland as being on the leeward side of the sea-change mountain, along comes a powerful surge in employment, driven by a boom in resources, construction and infrastructure, and promising even more in the property sector. After all, more jobs translate into an expanded capacity to take out mortgages and to push up property values. The numbers that belie this trend mask a cultural shift that has boldly gripped this city by the inner suburbs.

"New businesses were attracted to or blossomed in this region late in the 20th century. Boeing and Virgin joined Flight Centre and Billabong as new century enterprises freed from the corporate grip of Sydney and Melbourne..."

CityCat on Brisbane RiverThe subtle northward shift in both corporate gravitas and private wealth is reflected by the fact that in 1992 Brisbane-Gold Coast accommodated 10 of this nation's wealthiest 200 individuals. By 2004 this number had risen to 26. Sydney's share slumped from 85 to 73. An even more dramatic swing is evident among up and coming entrepreneurs: in 2004 some 29 per cent of the Young Rich List's wealth was based in Brisbane-Gold Coast, compared with 28 per cent in Melbourne and 21 per cent in Sydney.

New business opportunities in Queensland are now identified and crystallised locally instead of being handed over to southern interests. There is also evidence of a rising self-confidence emanating from Brisbane's popular culture. Throughout the 1990s the pop group Savage Garden proudly retained, and promoted, their Brisbane heritage. One generation earlier it was necessary for the Bees Gees to effectively cut ties to their childhood home of Brisbane.

The city changed dramatically as a result of these demographic and cultural shifts. Locals cite the 1982 Commonwealth games and Expo 88 as turning points. Both events projected Brisbane to a world audience. The Expo gifted Brisbane the development site of South Bank, which is now a lively arts, entertainment and tourist precinct embellishing the CBD.

In the early 1990s the city seemed to finally "discover" its riverfront location, 170 years after first settlement. Former mayor Jim Soorley presciently put a stop to river dredging opposite the CBD. This environmentally confronting practice was not based on the need for deeper navigation channels: it was a commercial enterprise to mine mineral sands from the river bed.

The new Treasury Casino, opened in 1995, added yet another jewel to Brisbane's CBD as a destination. And then it happened, quite late in the century and spilling into the new millennium. The demographic profile of Brisbane started to change.

The suburban monocultural Brisbane parodied by the term "Brisvegas" gradually acquired an edgy new market segment. Young, hip Generation Xers who earlier in the decade felt compelled to migrate south, started to stay put. And twenty-something Gen Ys seem to be following their lead. Perhaps partially attracted by the food source of minimally fitted-out restaurants, and also drawing sustenance from the burgeoning creative arts scene (which can be traced back to the establishment of Movie World studios in 1988), a powerful new sub-market affixed itself to Brisbane.

This new market demanded, got and is getting residential apartments within the Brisbane CBD and on the city fringe. This market did not exist in the world of Brisvegas; it exists now with the rise of the New Brisbane.

Brisbane changed profoundly during the 1990s. This change was fuelled by a series of factors that coalesced to deliver both a market and a culture that to date has remained leashed to the CBD and the inner city. Such changes typically begin in these places and with these groups before spreading to other tribes in the suburban territories. It may take another decade before suburban classes, let alone the snooty Sydney and Melbourne sisters, appreciate that plain-Jane Brisbane has had a makeover

This article was written by Demographer Bernard Salt, published in The Australian Newspaper on November 3, 2005 and is Copyright © 2005 The Australian