ACT News


Cotter has last laugh at old prejudice

If a river could sue for defamation, then in the early years of the 20th century Canberra's Cotter River would often have hauled the Sydney weekly The Bulletin through the courts. It was a part of the terrier-like magazine's case against Canberra as the site for the federal capital city (The Bulletin was passionately in favour of Dalgety) that a city at Canberra would wither and succumb to disease for lack of water.

This would happen, the weekly accused, because the so-called ''river'' that the city would depend upon, the Cotter, wasn't a river at all but only a miserable creek, a mere ''pencil streak'' of water, a capricious trickle. At Dalgety, by contrast, there was Australia's most majestic and most dependable (being snow-fed) river, the Snowy. The Bulletin caricatured the Cotter not only in words but in some contrived photographs and especially, because it was at this time richly illustrated, in cartoons and drawings.

One hundred years ago this month, even with the Dalgety cause long since lost (the Canberra site was chosen in 1908) and with the ceremony for the naming of the federal capital city only weeks away, The Bulletin was still scoffing at the Canberra site. Shown are two elaborate anti-Canberra cartoons , both done for the weekly by the great cartoonist-illustrator Livingston ''Hop'' Hopkins.

Notice how in one the Cotter is so puny that a man can stand with a foot on either bank.

To help you enjoy these little masterpieces here are a few words of explanation.

The background to ''A shot at a £250 prize'' (above, left) is that in January 1913 the federal government had announced a competition for the best painting of the federal capital site as it was, before being transformed by having a city built on it.


More about this competition and its outcomes - most of the resulting paintings are in Canberra now, and on display somewhere - in another column on another day.

The Bulletin seized on the announcement. The caption for the Hop cartoon says: ''The Government has offered a prize of £250 for the best painting of the Yass/Canberra site. The competition is open to artists of all sexes. The objects at the extreme right on the distant mountain are more artists who have lost their way and can't find the capital site.''

The cartoon by Hop emphasises what a bleak, dry place it allegedly was, with none of the beauty landscape painters would normally depict. Save for two dead specimens, it is a treeless place. The Cotter is a dribble, with one frog and a sole duck. A female artist has been scared by a snake, another is firing a gun at a bird. A sign nailed to a (dead) tree begs smokers ''DO NOT SPIT IN THE WATERSHED.''

The Bulletin's cover page of January 23, 1913, depicted ''A FANTASTIC CHRISTENING: Scene - the Federal Capital Site'' (the ''christening'' was the approaching naming of the city). Two priests are in conversation. The dark-haired, bearded gent with the baby in his arms is that caricaturist's godsend, King O'Malley, who was then minister for home affairs. The white-haired one is then prime minister Andrew Fisher.

First High Priest [Fisher]: ''Name this child.''

Second Ditto [O'Malley]: ''Hsh! All the suggested names are in that hat, and the first one the governor-general, blindfolded, draws out will be it. [In the background the GG is at his task.] But we've forgotten to bring water for the christening ceremony and I've sent search parties out all over the place to find some.''

That will mean, Hop has added, ''Another delay of 10 years.''

In the Gobi Desert-like wilderness behind the two priests, we see one forlorn water-seeker setting off with some buckets, while another is using a water-divining device. At the O'Malley priest's feet are the skull and bones of something that died of thirst at Canberra, this pitiless wilderness where a city has no chance of success.