Canberra City Hill
City Hill in Canberra. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons


Canberra is the nation’s capital city. It has a population of 400,000 and was founded in 1913.


You can live your life in Canberra and avoid all politicians. You can’t live a week inside its design without feeling like Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin: confused.  

The Chicago couple first built the city with their minds then put it on paper to win the Canberra planning competition. They lived on grazing land and stayed to see their 20th-century vision blur. The moral of the story usually told in Canberra: genius misunderstood by old men!

No. Even the thickest city official could understand the plan described very clearly by its planners. Parliament that was easy to visit! The virtue of democracy built into every structure so every person always felt their rights! The indelible grace of nature for all!

The pair sincerely believed in liberal democracy. That liberal democracy had never believed in itself escaped their notice. They did notice the many parts of Canberra built in clear opposition to their guidelines.

If you stay a week, think of oppositions and of outsides with insides containing their reverse. Or just look at white Lego parliament on its green and artificial hill. Outside a sweet toddler’s birthday dream; inside a nightmare of the dead. You think a little clearer in Canberra when you know it was made to be misunderstood.


The last year Canberra truly mattered to us all was 1975. I stood as a second-grader outside Parliament House knowing only that my mother had never looked so shaken as she did. She’d talk later about the thousands who came to town that Tuesday: intellectuals, labourers, people from the land. Different, but all shook up the same.

The crisis is recorded as constitutional but was ontological, particularly for the city’s workers. This place built for democracy could not sustain its ideal. Now, we lived inside deception.

The Dismissal taught the nation to expect zip from parliamentary Canberra and taught ordinary Canberra to forget its raison d’être, that lesson the Griffins never learned.

This is a town that no longer believes in the purpose for which it was purpose built.


The 98.5% of Australians who don’t live in Canberra see a failed concept. But Canberrans care, as residents of any place do.

They have often cared progressively for the maintenance and future of their place. Sex work has been legal and safe for yonks, while other states still lay waste to reason. Canberra tried hard and came close to caring for its injecting drug users. In 2013, a same-sex marriage oasis brought life for a day to the Abbott desert.

Canberra’s creators didn’t care for the Griffin light rail. No one cared enough for the people at the margins built into Canberra to build anything better than the worst public transport we came rarely to depend on.

The transport story is long and better suited to bedtime. Let’s get to the dawn: the light rail is built and is now being tested. Tested like the patience of a Griffin or a patron of the very bare service they once had the gall to call the ACTION Bus.


  • A minimum of 1800 cups of coffee are served in Parliament House on a sitting day.
  • It is a fact that secret wartime tunnels that run beneath Lake Burley Griffin have not been established as fact.
  • Suburban streets are chiefly named for the nation’s departed, none more grieved than Cyril who gave Canberra Callister St and the world the glory of Vegemite.
  • Cycling as a principal form of transport is reckoned at its highest national percentage in Canberra.
  • The Royal Australian Mint is falsely described as an “attraction”.
  • Australian champion marathon runner Robert De Castella is the nicest man in Canberra. Everybody knows this.  


In 2004, we saw the release of this century’s outstanding Australian film. Somersault was the vision of Canberra woman, Cate Shortland and the debut of leading lady Abbie Cornish. Cornish plays the very young woman Heidi who seeks to escape her distance by escaping a city so full of it.

The photogenic city does have bad angles, and Shortland caught a few. To those who’d ever lived estranged inside the outside town, it was a shock: Canberra shot by someone else exactly as you’d seen it.

Abbie Cornish in Somersault.

The newer housing tracts don’t look so different to their elders: tidy, neither humble nor immodest. You can live so well inside a house inside a circular street far enough from those darling Brindabellas they turn a little blue on. Look, then let them know they lift you from the distance to watercolour sorrow.

If you need to do this more than once a week in Canberra, don’t watch Somersault again. Don’t look toward your neighbour, whose face or whose home makes you think of Heidi. Walk outside and stare ahead at the blue gum haze of little mountains and forget the misery and the meth hidden inside a postcode that looks so very well outside.


Grand Obsessions: The Life and Work of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin by Alasdair McGregor

Come and Join Us In Canberra! Recruitment material c 1973 by Public Office Board

Political Amnesia Quarterly Essay by Laura Tingle

A History of Canberra by Nicholas Brown

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Peter Fray
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