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Canberra is 101 and Australia still hasn’t grown up

Canberra’s 101st birthday has inspired fewer insults than last year’s centenary celebrations, but the national capital still bears an unfair burden of scorn. AAP/Alan Porritt

When Canberra celebrated another birthday last month it was spared the barrage of criticism that accompanied its centenary celebrations last year. In the lead-up to that big event, gratuitous insults flooded in. A UK birthday greeting screamed “Canberra: Deathly dull at 100?” while the Canberra Times announced:

Happy birthday, to a vision turned sterile.

“Canberra-bashing” was declared “Word of the Month” by scholars at the Australian National University and included in the Australian National Dictionary.

Canberra’s usual response to “derision from within and without” is “calm fortitude”, as urban planning academic David Nichols observes. The centenary organisers insisted they wanted to celebrate with the nation, rather than separately from it. Creative Director Robyn Archer called for Australians to “re-imagine” their capital.

These urgings sounded like the plea of anxious parents defending an unpopular child: “Now children, we want this party to be for everyone, so please be nice and join in”.

Australia showed no inclination to participate. At the big event on March 11, 2013, nine out of ten attendees came from the Australian Capital Territory or neighbouring Queanbeyan. Most of what was written about the occasion was from the perspective of outsiders looking on. Even sympathetic essays seemed patronising, such as Mark McKenna’s conclusion that the national capital, at 100, was “a work in progress” and by implication, not quite grown up.

Taken to heart

Canberra residents readily acknowledge their city’s reputation for dullness and delight in satirising its faults. However, the assumption that Canberra is “fair game” in the national sport of sledging is unnerving, because it implies that the place and its people don’t deserve the nation’s sympathy or respect.

Then-chief minister John Stanhope hoped Canberra-bashing would end after the 2003 bushfires. AAP/Alan Porritt

After devastating bushfires in 2003, then chief minister Jon Stanhope spoke passionately to this fear:

We don’t have to worry ever again about any outrageous slur that’s made about this town, any suggestion of Canberra-bashing, any suggestion that we’re any less of a community than any community in Australia.

All bullies portray the victim as different, foreign or separate from “us”. Research suggests that to stop bullying, we need to understand both the insecurities driving the behaviour as well as the way in which the victim is perceived as “different”. So what national insecurities underpin Canberra-bashing?

Capital target

Australia is an ambivalent federation. In the decade of negotiations leading up to 1901, wary colonies were bribed and cajoled into joining. Some states still chafe under the national yoke.

Western Australia was the last to join and voted to secede in a 1933 referendum – a sentiment that lives on. Few state premiers can resist making political mileage from an “us and them” mentality, especially over the distribution of revenue.

All capital cities, particularly in federations, stand accused of failing to understand regional needs.

But the other dimension of Canberra-bashing – the act of criticising Canberra and its inhabitants – is unique to Australia. This aspect of Canberra-bashing appears to sanction bullying on a national scale. Our licence to sledge Canberra and its inhabitants is given more power by the capital’s physical features that make it look so different.

Different yet familiar

Canberra’s development was tortuous. It took over a decade to agree on a site and, after 1913, the city was built slowly and grudgingly by government officials who didn’t want to live there. Two world wars and the Depression added to the delays.

Finally in the 1960s, after Robert Menzies demanded the relocation of federal government departments to Canberra, the 50-year old sketch of the capital was filled in. But, reflecting the values of the post-war era, a sprawling, car-dependent residential landscape supplanted the Burley Griffins’ vision.

To persuade reluctant public servants to relocate to Canberra, the Menzies government was compelled to meet their aspirations, with offers of detached houses on quarter-acre blocks coupled with ample parks and swathes of natural bush.

While critics are quick to deride the resultant monotony, they are slow to admit that Canberra’s suburban landscape is the product of values that many Australians hold dear.

The shock of what it means, when our cherished principles of privacy and space are privileged in an urban plan, is hard to accept. Instead, we insist our national capital is not the “real” Australia, as Shanti Sumartojo notes and resort to Canberra-bashing. It’s easier to pretend Canberra is not the “real” Australia, than to countenance the idea that Canberra, in all its ordinariness, might represent the best that Australia can be.

We need to move beyond the idea of Canberra as a place of difference to appreciate what our national capital says about Australia. From this perspective, Canberra offers some hints about the kind of society Australia might be.

A mirror to the nation

Canberra’s defining characteristic is its lack of pretension. The town is nestled in a valley and national monuments are dotted around the lake and on boulevards, not concentrated in a grand central display. The new Parliament House is half-buried in its hill, not towering over it.

In its preference for understatement, Canberra is unique among the world’s capital cities, where grandiose displays of power and influence are the norm. An unpretentious national capital is consistent with the Australian tendency to be sceptical about politics, power and “show”.

Canberra is open to the new. A city of immigrants, Canberra is younger and broader in outlook than the places its people left behind.

Canberra stands ready to serve our national vision, however half-formed. In 2008, the city opened its heart and homes to thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians who descended on the capital for the National Apology to the Stolen Generations. When Australia behaves like a nation, Canberra does a brilliant job of supporting it.

Canberra embodies the best and worst of Australia. Its portrayal as a place of difference stands in the way of an important conversation about what the city tells us about ourselves. Canberra is different only in its purpose – to serve the nation – and from this conflicted base, Canberra-bashing draws its strength. Canberra seems destined to attract ridicule for as long as Australia takes to grow up.

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