I have now lived in Canberra for half a decade in several different houses. Always northside. Always northside.
A few months ago, notorious weirdo, Myles Peterson, wrote an article in the Courier Mail trolling Canberra.
Cashing in on the torrents of taxpayer cash flowing on to Canberra’s gold-paved streets, local retailers and supermarkets charge prices found only in South Yarra and Vaucluse. Low-paid Canberrans have been steadily priced out of the city. Students cannot afford to rent anywhere, often taking drastic measures just to put a roof over their head. Many visiting undergraduates flee long before completing first year.
Savvy former public servants have taken the exploitation to absurd, some would argue corrupt, levels. Government-owned land is selectively released to cartels of ex-bureaucrats, who then make out like bandits on-selling postage stamp-sized blocks to Canberra’s housing-desperate underclasses.
Links to the article swept around the Canberran networks along with the ‘corporate’ memory of who Myles Peterson was and why he was so notorious. From the point of view of the Courier Mail, the article was a success: the page views must have skyrocketed. People outside of Canberra would have read it and responded with outrage when it confirmed everything they secretly believed about Canberra. People inside Canberra reacted with bemusement: several different people made quips about golden cocaine and cocaine gold, not having enough change on them for coffee due to all the hookers and blow, and being mindful of not scuffing the freshly gold-plated road.
Today’s trolling article in The Age by Martin McKenzie-Murray inspired a different response. Without the absurdity of Peterson’s article, the response inside the circle has been hostility. The article merely contends that Canberra is a bit less packed than Melbourne and Sydney.
On the day I moved to Canberra I was taken to the top of Mount Ainslie. From there you can view The Plan – the sight lines, the Parliamentary Triangle, the geometric symmetry. From there you could also see the empty boulevards and feel the crisp air. That cool wind didn’t just come from the Brindabella Ranges. There was a chilling vibe. Here was the ”unreality” of Canberra that Keating had described.
Nearly 100 years before, the city’s planner had wanted nothing less from his design than a revolution in our consciousness. Griffin described his plan for Canberra as ”[the best opportunity] so far afforded for an expression of the democratic civic ideal and for all that means in accessibility, freedom … and splendour”.
But what was splendid in the vision was sterile in the living. Griffin had designed a city that pre-empted the primacy of the car, which was both prophetic and pathetic. Instead of a tightly knit centre, six (now seven) small districts emerged, separated by vast space and ill-connected by public transport. Between these centres lies mandated green space, which is pretty for tourists but pushes locals apart, limits land availability and drives up property prices.
I use the word ‘hostility’, but it is less than that. It’s more: ‘And what would you know?’
Canberra-bashing is easy and fun. My younger sibling is a cabinet maker. I am in awe of his ability to craft things. It’s like an art and he’s good at it. He lives in rural Victoria in a house he bought and is in the process of renovating. He doesn’t understand the property market, but he thinks he can make some money through the renovations. He gets his news from breakfast commercial television. He struggles with reading, preferring to get audio books.
When I last saw him — and despite the family rule that people get into political conversations with me at their own peril — he decided to tell me that he thought the carbon tax was rubbish and that it would ruin the economy. When I asked him to explain the carbon tax, he couldn’t. When I walked him through the concept of externalities, he would agree that he shouldn’t have to pay for companies to pollute but then couldn’t link that idea to increasing the cost of pollution.
As a way out of the conversation, he bagged Canberra with the usual remark: ‘You guys just don’t understand what it’s like to live in the real world.’
Peterson’s and McKenzie-Murray’s articles use this same trope: Canberra is distant, unnatural, and a burden. My brother was echoing this: he does a real job by building something but I don’t have a real job because it’s technical and theoretical.
Owen Dixon didn’t want to have a fixed location for the High Court in Canberra. He felt that the Court should be as close to the people as possible (individual citizens being the primary unit of the legal system). Parliament House was built in Canberra in order to separate it from individual States (States being the primary unit of the Commonwealth; not the people). But the public service (and the swarm of people who shadow the public service) has always been the most distant. Public servants are servants to the Minister. Advisers are advisers to decision-makers. Administrators are administering organisations. The unreality arises from the abstraction, and Australians tend to distrust the thinkers.
The media is not interested in the hive of activity in Canberra, and so the public that it’s meant to serve never get to look in on the world. Instead, they see it represented in satire, invective, and controversy. For that reason, articles like those are troll-bait to confirm the prejudices of the Real World while trying to provoke some kind of reaction from the ivory city.