Canberra Paul Daley

NewSouth Press, pp.288, $29.99, ISBN: 9781742233185

It would be nice to say that most Australians have a love-hate relationship with Canberra, both as a place and a concept, but that is only half right. Outside the ACT, most people see Canberra as a place to be tolerated at best, an artificial construct for artificial people. Canberrans, for their part, see themselves as misunderstood, although their smug tendency to treat critics as semi-ignorant children does very little for their collective reputation.

Daley, a long-time denizen of the Press Gallery but originally from Melbourne, acknowledges that Canberra is a deeply odd place, and in this book about the city — one of a series about Australian capitals — he happily veers between defence and criticism. He acknowledges that there is no escaping the city’s purpose, dating back to the Federation debates in which neither Sydney nor Melbourne would allow the other to be the seat of national government. So a chunk of paddock roughly between the two was chosen, and the local Aboriginal tribe was shuffled aside. If Canberra is an entity rather separate from the rest of Australia, that is because it was designed to be. On 12 March 2013, it will be 100 years old.

For a city with a good share of monuments, there can be a strangely temporary feel to the place. Maybe this is because a significant part of the population leave after a few years, or perhaps it is because the elected politicians — who are, after all, the purpose for all this — usually have homes and allegiances elsewhere. Oddly, for a town built on politics, politicians are not much liked here; many Canberrans see them as not much more than an impediment to smooth, unquestioned administration.

Daley accepts that by and large the place has always been run by public servants, which helps to explain the proliferation of rules small and large, such as the prohibition on front fences. Many people think that Canberra was designed by Walter Burley Griffin, but Daley points out that only the bare bones of his plan remain; as much as possible, the city planners simply went their own way, building facts on the ground. There are a few Griffin echoes (aside from the lake); some of the avenues are peculiarly wide because Griffin had planned for Melbourne-style trams, for example.

Daley has an eye for strange details. For a city that is supposed to run according to schedule, there is a long history of things going not quite right. One story: for the opening of the (provisional) Parliament House in 1927, there was meant to be an Air Force flyover. Except that one of the planes lost control and crashed, near the site of the current National Library. There’s a plaque at St John’s Church, apparently.

Nevertheless, for those who choose to live in Canberra on a permanent basis, it can offer a very nice lifestyle. These days, there are some good restaurants and entertainment venues. You have to look for them, though: Canberra has no real social centre. There is, one might say, no there there. Or maybe good things are kept a bit secret, on the basis that Canberrans simply don’t like tourists from, you know, Australia.

It is also a very left-leaning city, in a parochial, tin-pot socialist sort of way. The ACT government has a marked fondness for social engineering and boutique gestures, although the mini-ministers often find themselves bogged down in demands for more bike paths and fewer potholes. Strangely, Daley makes no real mention of the farcical ACT election of 1989, the first to elect an executive government. It saw a load of jokers and whackos on the ballot paper, including a number opposed to the idea of self-government, several of whom won office. This is a crucial omission, for the event says much about Canberrans’ attitude towards democracy: basically, they don’t care that much for it. Yes, there is an underlying culture of public service in Canberra, but equally there is an idea that government is something done to the country rather than for it. It is as if Canberra fell in love with Gough Whitlam back in the early Seventies and never quite recovered. No wonder that the city doesn’t like conservative governments; no wonder that the feeling is mutual.

Daley has a good time linking the city’s history to its social attitudes, but it must be said that he misses a number of important issues. Away from the pleasant eateries and government departments, the city has a morass of social problems: homelessness, drugs, youth unemployment, the despair that comes with nothing to do and no reason to do it. Not everyone can work in one of the shiny buildings, and being shut out in Canberra often means being shut out for good. Maybe Daley, ensconced in Parliament House for a living, has no reason to see those outside the magic circle. But the result is an oddly lopsided book, as if a couple of chapters were lost along the way.

Will Canberrans’ view of Australia ever change, and will people in the rest of the country ever embrace their peculiar capital? Daley suggests not. Canberra is now a self-perpetuating system of public servants breeding public servants, and the rest of us will just have to learn to live with it. Which doesn’t mean that we will ever have to like it.

Derek Parker is a regular contributor to The Spectator Australia.