For a town with a permanent population of only about 9000 people, Byron Bay attracts a lot of interest. Most of that attention comes because of who those people are, or perhaps who they used to be: political activists, surfers, hippies, artists, junkies, cultists, larrikins, eccentrics, ratbags – and some who could be all these things at once.
Most recently, Byron's been in the news because of problems with drug addiction, and rising property values that are pricing out traditional inhabitants such as, well … drug addicts. The unique sensibility of the town is under pressure from many sides, and yet elements of that same culture seem to be driving its own decay.
But Byron is still one of the best places to live in Australia. It’s heart-achingly beautiful, magically surfable and intangibly exceptional.
“It’s a town where apathy does not exist,” says Simon Richardson, mayor of Byron Shire. “What draws us here is ultimately the ocean and the fact there is something kind of special in the air. I get people who say it hasn’t been great since the '50s or the '60s, or that the '90s were its peak. But when you drill down, often what they’re really saying is, ‘I was at my peak in the '90s, or the '50s'.”
Richardson says there are still plenty of 25-year-olds in share houses, living the surf bum’s dream, “but the difference now is the cost – you can’t just do it on the dole”.
Richardson and I are sitting on small Valvoline oil-drum stools around a large Valvoline oil-drum table outside 100 Mile Table in Byron Arts and Industry Estate, half-watching the mechanics in the auto-tuners across the road. The food – all ingredients locally sourced – is startlingly good. My green curry fish has a tang of authenticity that belies the eclectic menu. Richardson’s salad of tomato, chickpea and red onion almost glows.
Richardson comes from “Neighbours world” in the eastern outer suburbs of Melbourne. His paper round included Pin Oak Court, the cul-de-sac that doubles for Ramsay Street in the eternally running soapie. His mother was an office manager, his stepfather an electrician. He describes his upbringing as “very white, very Anglo – sport was our religion”. He went to De La Salle College, Malvern, where he nurtured dreams of glory with Collingwood or the Australian cricket team, but – inspired by Donald Woods’ biography of Steve Biko – he also wanted to go to South Africa and work for the ANC.
He studied for his BA at the University of Melbourne, and in 1993 attended the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, Washington DC, with the idea of changing the world through international diplomacy. But he became disillusioned by the Indonesian-Australian carve-up of the Timor Sea, and resolved to “think global, act local” instead.
“I ended up getting dreadies to my backside,” he said, “and spent five or six years in the forests in East Gippsland, Tarkine, Jabiluka, around Byron ... ”
He arrived in town in 1995 and lived at first in a sand dune.
He ran the environmentalist magazine Tribe, and “got spat on by old ladies at the opening of the Tarkine”, he says.
“I’ve been denied service in shops across two or three states,” he says. “You can get a bit ‘us versus them’.” But he remembers sitting perched on a tripod built to block bulldozers, looking down on warring factions of environmentalists and loggers, and realising “they virtually looked the same – apart from the dreads”.
Both sides loved the bush and, Richardson reasoned, “If we win, we’ll gloat and get lazy, and they’ll get vengeful. And we’ll keep doing the same sh-- over and over and over again.
“That’s when I thought – as ugly and boring and sell-out as it sounds – ‘I’ve got to find a way to compromise and actually work together'.”
He hacked off his dreads – “If looking like I’m looking gets in the way, it’s only ego to keep it,” he says – and took the first shoe-wearing steps on the road to political respectability.
First, he found a career. He went back to Melbourne University, took his Dip. Ed. and became a teacher. He met his partner, Jane, a landscape architect, at the Doulton Bar in St Kilda. They married, and he brought her to Byron for their honeymoon. They live in the village of Federal, about a half-hour drive from Byron Bay, with their two daughters, aged eight and five.
Richardson taught at the local Steiner school, and took relief-teaching work around the shire, joined the Greens in 2004, won a council seat in 2008, and was elected mayor in 2012 and then again in 2015.
He found canvassing intimidating. “You’re basically standing there and saying, ‘Like me,’” he says. “People can walk up and say, ‘You’re a ...’ One throwaway comment can cut you in half.” But he enjoyed the experience, and thinks his image as a family man softened the edges of his politics for some more reluctant voters. “Most of the time I had my children, who were born at election times, so I can kiss my own babies.”
He says talk of Byron’s drugs problem is overblown, although “ganja’s probably been the second-biggest economy in this area for 30 or 40 years”.
“We’re actually in the lower quarter of NSW for methamphetamine-related crimes,” he says, “and we’re going down. But it is in your face. You’ve got that ugly combination of a supportive community – in this area, if you’re a homeless person, you’re honoured, in a sense – mental-health issues, access to drugs and that playground feeling.”
The homeless have reason to love Byron. “You can be sleeping in some Town Hall laneway in Sydney,” says Richardson, “or you can be living in a sand dune and waking up to a million-dollar beach and walk into town and sit on a cup of coffee and life’s alright.”
But cuts to social services have forced more people onto the streets, he says, and left them more prone to self-medicate.
Property prices are a huge issue. The median house price is almost $1.5 million. Cashed-up refugees from the booms in Sydney and Melbourne are partly responsible for the reduced affordability of housing, but Richardson also blames Airbnb and similar vacation-rental sites.
“Airbnb’s gutting our community,” he says. “From our point of view, it’s an illegal activity in a residential zone.”
Byron welcomes about 2 million visitors every year. Traditionally, many have stayed in locally owned holiday homes, but “Airbnb has changed the game massively”, he says. Everyone is potentially a landlord, and the returns can be huge. People who used to let out their granny flat are now moving into that granny flat and leasing out their homes, and using the profits, says Richardson, to buy next door and do the same. In this way, houses are taken out of both the property market and the rental market.
For years, the council has tried and failed to quarantine certain suburbs from Airbnb. “Suffolk Park used to be the single mums’ capital of Australia,” say Richardson, “but now it’s been gutted because [on some weeks] every second house is empty, which means no-one’s volunteering at the surf club, no-one’s got their kids at school … you’re eroding the community.”
Richardson says he searched for common ground, bringing together an organisation called Victims of Holiday Letting (“every group here’s got a flag with a colour and a title”) with a number of holiday leasers to examine how to manage change, calm down party “happy houses”, and put the lid on the growth. They suggested to the NSW state government measures such as “three strikes” against council rules and you’re out of the letting market, and perhaps a late-night pool curfew, but Richardson says the government refused to support Byron while it is still formulating its own policies.
“We can’t just sit by and watch our community disappear,” says Richardson.
The mayoralty of Byron may not be the easiest job in Australia. To say that council’s decision to install parking meters has proved controversial is like suggesting some people are beginning to suspect US President Trump may have a problem with the truth.
Visitor numbers put huge pressure on the town’s services, says Richardson. “Pay parking is an inner-city response, but Byron has inner-city problems. I don’t think pay parking’s going to destroy who we are.”
It is not difficult to find locals who disagree with him.
“It’s a very articulate, intelligent community,” says Richardson, “it’s just very opinionated. We don’t have apathy, and some opinions aren’t as informed as others, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. At least people are passionate about their place, however they define it.”