Random notes from the seventh city.

“This is the site of Australia’s newest airport” the sign reads boldly on Canberra’s half-built new facility, which appears to be about 25% smaller than the existing one.

Straight up from Sydney on the red-eye you would want something a bit more eye-catching to arrive at, for a nation’s capital. The only place we could do with a giant animal, and all there are rows of European trees, as the taxi takes you into a somnolent country town. Given the psychotic degree of importance that is attached to the minor adjustment of expenditure and receipt known as the budget some sort of ceremony should be required. A giant boll weevil? Giant dog buggering a giant trousered leg? Something like that. Didn’t even have to fight for a taxi. What sort of city is this?

Canberra is the great mistake of course. We chose as its designer a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, someone so besotted with the man that he copied his entire style, down to the triple barrelled name. Wright was a great architect (and Walter Burley Griffin’s incinerators are pretty good) but a terrible planner, obsessed with an idea of mile high skyscrapers in garden settings, between which people would travel by dirigible. So if you’ve ever wondered why Canberra doesn’t work, it’s no dirigibles.

Interestingly, even WB-G’s plan for Canberra assumed it would fill up more than it did — his drawings show the wide spaces filled with theatres, and open-air amusements, stately buildings etc which never materialised. Even better would have been the plan by the runner-up, Finnish early modernist Elial Saarinen (whose son Aaron was the judge in the Sydney Opera House comp who got Utzon’s design over the line). Saarinen envisaged a closely-built city with Russian style block length apartment buildings with internal courtyards, all in white stone — St Petersburg in the bush. How weird would that have been?

Anyway, what the place needs now is slums. Miles and miles of slums. Fill the green spaces to bursting. Here’s the idea — we have open immigration for anyone who is willing to spend the first five years of their time here living within the city bounds of Canberra. Abolish planning controls and sell the land in private plots. Crowd a million people in on the French Foreign Legion principle — short of being an operational unit of Al-Qaida, we don’t care what you did elsewhere.

With a decade Canberra would be one of the great roiling amazing cities of the world. Slums, crime, poverty, exploitation, opportunity, gangsters, sudden multi-millionaires, shops, pubs, markets, street food-sellers, musicians, new art forms, new genres, weird murder sprees, red light districts, no-go zones, drugs. The poor living on barges in the lake, the shacks and shanties lapping at the edge of the stone buildings, tell me that wouldn’t be better than the enormous monumental display home suburb we have?

Parliament House is all of that wrongness summed up in one building. Your correspondent has set up the international affairs bureau of Crikey here, in the Crikey office, surfing the desk usually occupied by the Australian Jewish News, which is pretty funny. I’m gonna take 40% of it with me when I leave — small bits here and there, I’m sure they’ll be able to work round it.

M’esteemed colleague Bernard Keane led me through the vast expanse of the place, whose bowels (Parliament’s not Bernard’s) I have only troubled lightly once or twice. Dotted around the vast and Escheresque corridors camera crews are doing stand-ups with each other to get their white balances, and Keane keeps stopping to try and pick up snippets of conservations.

“…well the food standards agency…”

Keane slows, and then speeds up again.

“No interest in the food standards agency?”

“Nahhh f-ck the food standards agency.”

Young men, whose lack of social skills has guaranteed them a career in politics, are cruising the corridors, stuffed into $89 suits, carrying sheaves of paper. I recognise one particularly ill-looking and bloated one, and go to say hi, before remembering that that was 20 years ago, and he is now a Senator…

The carefully chosen trees are in full red autumn bloom beside the stone and glass. The native forest wooden floors go on for ever. The style, aimed at timelessness, is as 80s as Crocodile Dundee doing a Koala Blue advertisement. Though ours is more tasteful, I can’t help but be reminded of the Casa Poporului, Ceacescu’s mad palace in Bucharest, so massive that 90% of it has never been used, nor ever will be, corridors stretching off for ever.

The Australian budget obsession is weird, weird. Other nations make a thing of it course — the battered suitcase in the UK, the yard-high print out in the US — but no-one has the weeks of lead up, the anticipation, the work-over of every detail. Is this a response to an absence of historical ceremony — that they just start to grow autonomously like a fungus? Couldn’t we incorporate ritual? Bjelke-Petersen’s mob outwitted Whitlam’s attempt to remove a DLP Senator prior to an election being called (the ALP had not yet got his resignation, which was proffered in exchange for the ambassadorship to Ireland) and the poor lonely old DLP bastard was hidden by being offered an evening of beer and prawns in someone’s office. Could not the “night of the long prawns” become our Black Rod moment? A procession of giant seafood items, prawn costumes like Orthodox bishoply garb, the knock on the door, the refusal (“Go away — there’s nobody here but us prawns”) etc etc.

Tell me that wouldn’t get more visitors than those dumb Spanish tomato festivals. With that in place, I suspect the half dozen nips and tucks that constitute a budget would acquire a genuine occult aura befitting the weight being placed on them.

Bernard K has gone off to do a vodcast with Crikey’s mystery guest, a man whose metabolism has preoccupied him all morning (“Gotta get you something to eat before we go in”). The quality of beef stew from a local eatery is discussed, with the conclusion that it may as well be served as coffee and no-one would notice.

Crowds of public servants are filling the place up, in so far as it can be, and people are playing spot the protestant.

With the lockup looming, Dan Cass, green node extraordinaire arrives, with a list of 18 people I need to meet, all of whom are doing huge things in cross-wiring empathy platforms for a post-party Politics 3.0 mind cloud p-shift, I think I got that right…

And still the dialogue echoing through the endless halls. “If we adjust the BSI’s of the CFOs then a benchmark rejig will … this is joined-up cleverness for an AB audience … but with focus feedback on the QTDs …”

Hours to go, and no local bar to slide into. Just the white facade, and the building burrowing quokka like into the hill…

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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