Funny thing about Canberrans — bag Canberra, and they react with outrage. Criticise Sydney, and Sydneysiders couldn’t care less. Have a go at Melbourne, Melburnians will barely glance up from their coffees. But Canberrans have a real inferiority complex. So Paul Keating’s reference to Canberra as one big mistake produced anguished cries in the national capital yesterday.
Handily, Keating himself best explained the need for Canberra. As he was actually in Melbourne, he declared that the capital could have been there, doubtless out of deference to his hosts. But soon the visionary Sydney architect in him took over, and he opined that in fact it should have been in Sydney, on Garden Island (good luck getting a parking spot).
If a former Prime Minister can’t work out where to stick the capital in 2009, imagining our NSW and Victorian ancestors — mired in trade disputes as well as bitter colonial rivalry — could ever have managed it is a bit rich.
One of the unappreciated benefits of Canberra is that it has always served as an epithet for people outside it. Every sin of government can be blamed on “Canberra”. This artificial town, peopled by soulless bureaucrats (invariably “faceless”, “pencil-pushing” and “shiny-arsed”) and useless politicians can be the national scapegoat for every parochial whinge, complaint about officialdom and rant about parasitic pollies.
Australian politics would, I suggest, have taken a different course if people railed at Sydney or Melbourne rather than Canberra.
Not that I particularly mind outsiders bagging Canberra (I’m a transplanted Sydneysider). The fewer people who know what a fine place it is to live the better, for mine. It is an actual, real-life town these days, unlike the company town that it was up until the 1980s. And the ACT pays it way, giving more in taxes than it receives in revenue from the rest of the federation.
And yes, it’s boring if you’re under 30, and it has no beaches and the coffee’s poor, but it has the mountains and it’s beautiful and the epitome of the great place to bring up kids.
What was more surprising was Malcolm Fraser’s comments about Parliament House, which he appears to now regard as a billion-dollar folly blotting his Prime Ministerial record. Keating disagreed, correctly. APH is one of Australia’s great buildings, but its majesty is subtle compared, say, to a show-off like the Sydney Opera House. Under tabloid media pressure during the early ‘80s recession, Fraser agreed to some design changes to reduce costs.
The one with the greatest visual impact was the removal of the planned trees that would have covered the outside of the building, rather than the sweeping lawns down which generations of kids have now rolled. The smoother, more minimalist result is arguably a significant improvement.
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As for whether politicians are cut off from voters in here, well, the days of the public roaming the corridors of power are unlikely to ever return. In any event, if politicians become perceived as disconnected, voters have a way of dealing with that. Both Fraser and Keating can attest to that.