Defending Canberra City

Canberra bashing is a pastime we here in the national capital are used to. Normally, I do not dignify it with a response. Normally I speak out only to advocate for Canberra or to defend Canberra. But I can no longer ignore the naysayers. On Canberra's 100th birthday, I once again feel compelled to defend our great national capital. As with Washington, people use the name of our city when they mean 'the seat of government'. As with Washington, we were born of a feud between two cities into a landscape which was pretty harsh at the time. Again as with Washington, some of the state capital cities which would have preferred to have been the national capital still have a few issues.

Those who do not like politics or the government deride Canberra out of ignorance or indifference. But I really took exception this week to an article by Martin McKenzie-Murray, a columnist and former Labor speechwriter, because he made his allegations and vicious remarks about Canberra in the context of our birthday. Quite frankly it is bad manners to say these sorts of things on someone's birthday. That is why I feel compelled to speak out about this even though it is not my normal practice.

I am not sure how long Mr McKenzie-Murray lived here or how much of our city and region he saw but I want to correct some of his myths and misconceptions. First, I do not think Canberrans curse our 'weird remoteness' any more than people who live in Perth, Darwin or Hobart. We are two hours from the best ski fields in Australia, the same distance to the beautiful, wonderful, magnificent South Coast of New South Wales and a 20-minute flight from Sydney. I do not think this makes us 'weirdly remote' at all.

According to this critic, the architects of Canberra, Walter and Marion Griffin, imposed a 'diabolically impaired vision' on us. What they imposed on us was an ideal city, an ideal city with a prairie modernism —an embodiment of their aspirations for equity. He said they imposed on us a city not like any other city in the world, not just a new city for a new nation—a democratic city for a democratic nation.

I know what is diabolically impaired with this author's views, and that is this myth that a planned city is automatically boring or sterile. Perhaps it is laziness or simply pandering to stereotypes that stops some people from looking more closely at Canberra. I do not know how many times I have heard people say they came to Canberra for a year or a short-term job and stayed because they loved it. Like so many others, when I arrived here I fell in love with the place—and I fell in love. I came here for six months and I have been here for 20-plus years. This is a normal Canberra story— you come here for a short time, you fall in love, you fall in love with the place and you stay. What really annoys me about this populist puff piece are the tired old cliches about the Public Service. Without research or evidence Mr McKenzie-Murray wrote:

From my limited experience I not only saw staffing surpluses, I saw team morale bruised by grossly inadequate executives spending our time and money on obscuring the root fact of their uselessness. It's a vague form of corruption.

Public servants are valued and valuable people. They manage our hospitals and health services, our schools, our universities and our transport networks. They look after our environment, our defence forces and our financial institutions. Those who run down and belittle public servants insult the people who run this country, who serve democracy.

The author also wrote that the attributes of Canberra were essentially parakeets and mountains, and that they did not make a city; people do. I agree with him. Canberra has exceptional people. Cities are made by the people who live in them, and in my view Canberra is peopled with the creme de la creme. You go to dinner parties and you talk about policies and ideas and visions; you go doorknocking and you meet people who have written the policies that you are talking about. It is an extraordinary city.

I am shamelessly proud of Canberra, and you only have to go out and see the way we are celebrating our centenary to see the strength of this community and the spirit of our soul. It was beautifully summed up yesterday at the centenary by Michael Costello, who talked about the fact that we are not just celebrating our community; we are also celebrating our country and our democracy. It is a democracy that was based on enlightenment and social democratic principles; it was forged not through civil war but through peace and common purpose. That is what Canberra is all about— a symbol of our democracy.

Download a copy of this speech.

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