The biggest thing to happen in Canberra for a while happened this week. Andrew Barr, mayor chief minister of Canberra, declared that he hated journalists and was over the mainstream media. Journalists, displaying a remarkable thinness of skin, then declared they hated Andrew Barr back, getting stuck into him on Twitter.

Press Gallery journalists, most of whom are Canberra residents, berated Barr and stood proudly on the Fourth Estate’s tradition of speaking truth to power, holding governments to account, etc etc. He was compared to Joh Bjelke-Petersen. One former journalist invoked Stalin. As the response grew more hysterical, you wondered when Barr was going to open a gulag in a Hume warehouse. And The Canberra Times, which was directly attacked by Barr, was particularly aggrieved and compared him to Donald Trump. 

It’s been more than two decades since Michelle Grattan’s effort to turn the Canberra Times into, in effect, a national newspaper (the comparison with the Washington Post was often made) ended with her being sent packing. Since then, the Times, which later moved back into Fairfax control, has receded into a local rag; its best feature is that it takes the Public Service seriously and, particularly when Noel Towell was on the beat, subjected it to strong scrutiny. But with a rapidly declining circulation, the end of the print edition can’t be too far away. After that, it will be just another Fairfax website.

Why can’t a wealthy city of 300,000 people, the nation’s capital, populated by people notionally engaged with public affairs and home of one of Australia’s best universities, sustain a publication focused on what they do?

Part of the problem is that not much actually happens in Canberra beyond the Raiders and the Brumbies in winter. It’s boring, in a good way. The population is highly educated — 40% or more have tertiary degrees — and high-income. Unemployment is usually at least one whole percentage point below the rest of the country — there has never been double-digit unemployment here. So many of the social problems found in larger and smaller cities have little impact. And because there’s only one level of government, housing and infrastructure are actually planned coherently.

Canberra is also unlike the rest of the country in other ways. It is far less diverse than major cities. Reflecting the Public Service, and the rest of the governing class (politicians, lobbyists, journalists, statutory board appointees, thinktankers, economists), it is overwhelmingly white. Whole sections of the public service look like the post-war wave of migration simply never happened, let along more recent immigration from beyond Europe.

I’ve lived here for nearly a quarter century and love it — I’m thankful I had the chance to raise my kids in such a wonderful town. But it’s in a bubble from Australian life; it’s a Toy Town that bears little resemblance to the rest of the country. We’re disconnected, not from “real Australia” but from other Australias — the one of our major cities, the one of our regional towns, the one that is low-income, or from a non-English speaking background, or Indigenous (the Public Service has been striving mightily to improve its level of Indigenous employment for as long as I can remember, and always struggled).

It is particularly divorced from the Australia that has endured the economic transformation that most of the country has undergone since the 1980s. Not for us the transformation from manufacturing to services — Canberra was always about services. Not for us the dislocation and anxiety from globalisation and foreign competition. Most of us have the skillsets to move wherever we want, even overseas if we want to or have to. Journalist, lobbyist, politician, consultant — we’re the kind of people who benefit from globalisation, rather than be threatened by it.

Neither politicians nor journalists are particularly trusted by people. Barr versus the hacks is a clash of the untrusted, in a city that is divorced from Australian reality. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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