Why Canberra needs to grow to progress

The recent Canberra Day celebrations should remind us that in the perception of its people Canberra is a city of contradictions. These contradictions are generally healthy enough but they do create divisions in the community which sometimes flame up into nasty tensions.

It often seems as if there are two Canberras. We are torn between being relaxed about and even proud that we are Australia's best-kept secret yet wanting recognition and acclaim from Australia at large and sometimes even from the wider world.

It is a mystery to me just why Canberra cops the criticism it does from the rest of Australia. I always dismiss the wilder and more superficial criticisms but strangely they do keep coming. The reasons may be a mixture of many different perceptions: Canberra as a political city when politicians are increasingly on the nose; Canberra as a tall poppy that should be cut down to size; Canberra as the great site of unfathomable representative processes; Canberra as a public service city when bureaucrats and bureaucracy are derided; Canberra as a code for everything unpopular that the Commonwealth government does to Australians.

Yet this is to neglect the magic of Canberra's national institutions, its proud place as Australia's new Federation city, its claim as the beautiful Bush capital, a proud example of successful regional development, and the joys of living here.

We are divided between striving to protect our existing city and its comfortable lifestyle yet wanting population growth to enhance our opportunities to do things at home in Canberra rather than having to go elsewhere, especially Sydney, in search of extra services and entertainment.

The dynamic between Canberra and Sydney is crucial to understanding the national capital. Sydney is a cultural, sporting and entertainment outlet for an increasing number of Canberrans who often go to Sydney to shop, to see shows and to undergo major surgery. We recognise that there are needs that Canberra cannot always provide. But we are unsure about just what the balance should be.


We are not sure whether we want to be a small to medium-size city or a bigger one. As a consequence we can't agree on an optimum size for Canberra. Some of us are satisfied with the current population size of Canberra for aesthetic and/or sustainability reasons –manageable traffic, clean air and quiet living – but the current size of Canberra does constrain our lifestyle in a number of ways unless we can afford to go to Sydney.

Canberra's future in male national sporting competitions is restricted unless the city grows. Not only do we need a market of a million people or more but we need bigger stadiums suited to the capacity required for national and international sporting competitions. Participation in elite female competitions is thriving but ultimately could be undercut by the city's absence from equivalent male competitions in basketball, cricket and soccer.

We are torn between being happily different as a public service town yet wishing sometimes that we were more like the rest of Australia.

Regrettably there is far too little pride in the virtues of the public service. The deeds of the great postwar nation-building public servants are too easily forgotten and infrequently celebrated.

We are also divided between those who are comfortable to be dependent on Sydney or NSW or the Commonwealth and those who enjoy the relative independence that self-government for the ACT brings and want to expand that independence by greater freedom from the Commonwealth.

Local critics of self-government slip too easily into blaming the supposed evils of the ACT Assembly for anything that annoys them as if larger jurisdictions are any better. We only have to look over the border to the characteristics of the government of NSW, paraded regularly before the Independent Commission against Corruption, to show the limitations of a much larger polity.

I suggest that open debate about these contradictions should be on our agenda. We should discuss them explicitly rather than leave them to be implicit in other controversies about planning, services, the environment, development and governance.

There are elections coming up this year for both the Commonwealth parliament and the ACT Legislative Assembly. It should be incumbent on all parties and candidates standing for these elections to make it clear just where they stand on these big questions about the national standing, optimum size and appropriate character of our capital city.

No city can be all things to all people. We must be comfortable with that fact. We can't have it all. Canberra will never be everyone's cup of tea. It is not on the sea but we have our lakes. It will never be as big as Sydney or Melbourne or even Perth or Brisbane, but is large enough for excellent services and community facilities.

It will never have the vibrancy of Paris or New York so some people won't want to come here to live and work. But we have open spaces and are surrounded by beautiful mountains. Some people will retire elsewhere for family reasons when their working lives end. But people everywhere move, so we must accept those losses of our friends too.

Canberra brings together wonderfully smart and generous people in a great community. There will be competing visions for that community, but any vision must include becoming a more widely respected national capital and the recognised centre for public administration of the common good.

Above all we must be self-confident rather than self-deprecating. There is too much negativity in Canberra when we have a great deal to be happy and confident about.

John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University. He delivered the 2016 Canberra Day Oration.