Canberrans do not deserve the great city title

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Two minutes after the customary expression of pleasure by Canberra folk about having their city recognised again as having the highest standard of living in the world, its citizens should stop to contemplate how little they deserve the title, what little use they are making of their circumstances and how easily it could all be taken away.

The well-being recorded by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development involves estimates of comfort and safety by regions in all of the world's wealthiest nations. Rated are disposable income, employment and unemployment, rooms per person in our homes, life expectancy, air quality, homicide rate, and proportion of households with broadband connection.

Almost all of Australia rates highly, compared with most other nations, on each of these measures. But in Canberra, incomes, qualifications and degrees of creature comfort are on average higher by more than 20 per cent than in the rest of Australia, and thus above most regions in the world. Most of the ACT population is of the smugly and comfortably sorted variety. In a Sydney, a Melbourne or a Perth, there are pockets of population - say the Tooraks, the Vaucluses, Killaras, and Peppermint Groves - where the average person is better off than the average Canberran. But the OECD was comparing whole cities, indeed whole regions, such as states. 

Our standard of living in Canberra is a quantum higher than that enjoyed by most Australians, significantly higher than in most industrialised countries, and lightyears ahead of our northern, eastern and western neighbours. Battlers and strugglers around the world may not necessarily want to live in a city just like ours, but they do aspire to match our health, welfare, education, access to services and access to material goods.

We represent the material paradise - the heaven on earth - for which others around the world live and work and hope; the stage from which one might think they can find that inner harmony, peace and safety with which to contemplate a paradise beyond.

But one does not see the citizens of the ACT behaving as if they are living in some sort of ideal society. We are one in 180,000 in the world. But no one would think we have won the lottery every day of our lives.


Nor could one compare our Elysium to our imagined ancient Rome, Athens, Xanadu, or Shangri La. Or see much in our public or our private lives that must edify those who envy us. Perhaps Katy Gallagher could be our Joan of Arc, but could Simon Corbell play Pericles? Andrew Barr, Christopher Wren?

We live in an ideal environment, yet consistently squander our opportunities to improve or sustain it. As a polity, we have become accustomed to getting the second rate, usually at top prices. We have become addicted to the idea that the generations which follow those here now must aspire to less. It's a city winding down, trying to do less with more, in almost all of its manifestations. The greatest city on earth is a city of the second rate.

It is a city getting manifestly uglier, in part because of the determination of its politicians to alienate every bit of land, and to spend the proceeds, during the lifetime of this generation.

It has a government dedicated to creating a new town in which the land plots, the streetscapes and the connection with the bush will be markedly inferior to those of most of the existing citizens. In Australian, as much as Canberra terms, we are planning slums. When the landbank runs out, they will be unable to sustain the Canberra style of government or demand for services, even basic ones.

It is a city in which planning and design has been handed over to get-rich-quick developers, where planning authorities, or ministers, automatically tick any proposal, no matter how ghastly, so long as it promises work to the developer-union which, along with the poker machine lobby, has so much influence over ACT governments. It's a city that hasn't had a new idea about education since 1975, and which is building new schools on 20th-century models.

Rome, Florence, London, Paris, Budapest, Krakow, Saint Petersburg, Istanbul or Damascus were built, generally, by populations of not much greater number and at a time when they had local domestic products of less than five per cent of that of the ACT.

It is, of course, true that most of those populations then lived lives of poverty and squalor, and that the sumptuousness the world remembers was of only a tiny few. But that might emphasise how much bigger those few dreamt than we do now.

What does it say that the homeplace of the citizens of the ACT is generally drab, apart from some oddments which represent not us, but the national capital? Apart from the Arboretum, the taxpayers of Canberra itself have yet to conceive, construct or deliver a single worthy thing, or any service or facility of particular quality or vision. It's not that we couldn't afford to have an exceptional or inspired hospital, school, police force, or facility for the old or the young.

We Canberrans don't deserve the credit for the Griffin plan, the streetscapes, plantings, parliament houses, national galleries, museums and libraries. We may be the prime customers and beneficiaries, but it is not ours, though we are largely saved the cost of duplicating such facilities, as Sydney, Perth or Newcastle does. The shocking disappointment is what little the people of Canberra, as their own little polity, have contributed to make the city beautiful, the land peaceful and sustaining, and the citizens happy, healthy and wise.

Jon Stanhope tried, unpopularly, to promote some public art, but there is more that is beautiful to the hectare in Chicago or 500 other cities than to the square kilometre of Canberra.

Before self-government, Commonwealth instrumentalities developed great towns and town centres, and networks that were models of a suburban dream to Australians and the world. They have been replaced by Lilliputians, of lower aspirations, lesser pride, meanness and narrowness of vision.

Successive ACT governments have supervised, in bipartisan spirit, nasty, shabby, greedy and yet less sustainable suburban developments. Instead of great public streets, places and buildings, they yearn for football stadiums, funfairs, and the profits from penthouse developments alongside the lake. Their concept of what Canberra could be is less than that of a Menzies 60 years ago.

There is no longer a single vibrant town centre. That is not an accident, but the fault of poor planning, poor government and a habit of deference to big financial interests and of ignoring small scale entrepreneurs.  

There is nothing bold in the planning of health and education. Nothing bold or new, let alone better, in ideas, ideals, words or deeds. The apparent focus seems entirely on the grim business of doing more with less, on scaling down not up, and of hoping for more money from the Commonwealth - which is to say other Australian taxpayers.

Our Grants Commission submissions suggest being here is a disadvantage needing external subsidy.

A city with this birthright, the capital of a rich, confident and outgoing nation deserves something better than determined second ratedness. It needs some leadership, some idealism, some guts. That it has so many whingers, people whose primary complaint is about garbage collections and the rates, may be a function of leaders who cannot lift their gaze above the ground.