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Features Australia

Lights out in Kath & Kim country

The carbon tax stole our Christmas festivities

5 January 2013

9:00 AM

5 January 2013

9:00 AM

Patterson Lakes is a bayside suburb on the southern fringe of Melbourne. Reclaimed from swamp in the 1970s, ‘Patto’ is built on a network of man-made coves and canals opening up into Port Phillip Bay. Like its Sydney cousin Sylvania Waters, it boasts stunning waterfront mini palazzi exhibiting an eclectic range of curious architectural and decorative tastes.

It also evokes the other Sylvania Waters: the 1990s television series about the dysfunctional Daniher family. Patterson Lakes is full of people like the Danihers — Cashed-Up Bogans, or CUBs. CUBs are hard-working and successful tradesmen, small businessmen and retirees. They’re loud and brash, don’t care overly about what others say or think of them, or are much interested in the wider world — as long as they can enjoy the material fruits of their labour.

Fittingly, television’s celebration of boganism — Kath & Kim — was filmed in Patterson Lakes, and the ‘Kath & Kim house’ is a local landmark.

Typical Patto residents score high on household income but lower on academic attainment. They adore conspicuous consumption. Everywhere are ostentatious trappings of CUB-dom — Porsches and souped-up Commodores sharing driveways, the unique deafening purr of Harley-Davidsons shattering the Sunday peace, huge but rarely-used motor cruisers moored outside waterfront homes, hooning jetskis, home cinemas capable of being seen and heard on the moon and, almost inevitably, tats, grunge and bling.

Politically, Patterson Lakes is in the solidly Labor seat of Isaacs, and its gorgeously over-the-top Christmas lights or, rather the lack thereof, highlight a Boganville revolt against federal Labor.

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The suburb’s beautiful waterfront setting is absolutely perfect for Christmas displays. No mere strings of coloured fairy lights around the front-yard shrubbery here. We’re talking brilliantly garish son et lumière triumphs: sumptuous outsize soundtracked tableaux featuring huge illuminated blow-up Santas; animated twinkling reindeer pulling sleighs from one light-festooned palm tree to the next; Niagara Falls of multi-coloured lights; and floodlit Nativity scenes with huge flashing Stars of Bethlehem radiating goodwill to men. Tacky perhaps, but these enjoyably florid displays reflect the suburb’s happily unselfconscious ‘look at moy’ affluence.

In previous years, house after oversized Patterson Lakes house strove to outdo the next, and the canals hosted a nightly concours d’elégance of power boats loaded with lively alcohol-charged parties enjoying the gaudy spectacle. But this year’s waterborne revellers were disappointed. Where once darkened waterfront mansions were like missing teeth in a Californian smile, this Christmas lit-up houses were ones standing out, piercing humid summer nights with their garish brilliance.

What’s more, displays generally were less extravagant and, while previously they lasted from early December into early January, this year many got going only shortly before Christmas, and then only for a couple of hours a night.

The reason is simple. Extravagant displays with thousands of lights, moving parts and fan blowers utterly depend on electricity. Truly over-the-top efforts can rival
a household’s power usage for the rest of the year; notwithstanding that summer is already the peak season. Indeed, most cavernous Patterson Lakes houses are crowned with one or more evaporative conditioners gulping expensive electricity as well as air.

The hangover for such seasonal overindulgence is in the next electricity bill. In Patterson Lakes, like the rest of air-conditioned Australia, that bill hurt even before the first Christmas light was lit. A Victorian Essential Services Commission report last September showed that household electricity bills in that state rose ten per cent on average in the year to June 2012, and 35 per cent over the past three years. Other studies show a typical large household (and many Patterson Lakes houses are very large) can hoover up thousands of dollars of power in a year.

And that’s before the full force of the Gillard government’s unnecessary, unwanted and unwise add-ons: solar subsidies, the Renewable Energy Target and the daddy of them all, the carbon tax. After ten-plus per cent hikes in their first post-carbon tax bills, consumers are bracing themselves for worse in 2013 thanks to two unwanted Christmas presents: yet more wallet-numbing pricing increases approved in late December by the Australian Energy Regulator, and Ms Gillard’s sceptic-free Climate Change Authority flatly and contemptuously rejecting appeals to reduce the RET burden on generators and consumers.

Even the conspicuous consumers of Patterson Lakes are reining in their discretionary power use to economise, and it’s the Christmas displays that have given way. Flashing Santas and other amusing extravagances don’t keep you cool, cook your food or light your home. While many residents have chosen to cut back or mothball their annual light shows, they’re very, very unhappy about having to do it.

In shops and over neighbourhood fences, this forced seasonal economy has been a favourite topic, and blame hasn’t been aimed at infrastructure investment and smart meters. Instead, it’s being put squarely on Julia Gillard, her Green allies and a carbon tax that’s still hated whatever Labor strategists may say. Her recent energy White Paper means nothing to these hard-working aspirational voters: Ms Gillard is simply the Grinch who stole Christmas from the children of Boganville.

The CUBs of Patterson Lakes are becoming stalking wolves waiting for the federal election. Many want to cast out the Prime Minister and their urbane local member, barrister and parliamentary secretary Mark Dreyfus — who also just happens to be responsible for implementing the carbon tax. The Christmas lights have been switched off, and Ms Gillard’s turn surely will come in a few months.

But it’s not all doom and gloom in Patto. Of the relatively few homes still fully lit up for Christmas, one was hands-down winner for sheer over-the-topness. No prizes for guessing it was the Kath & Kim house.

Terry Barnes is a former senior ministerial adviser to Tony Abbott. He lives in Patterson Lakes.

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