Federal Politics


Sadly capital still a city of lite

Never mind the underlying feeling, the message from the top is to celebrate Canberra's centenary at all costs

The clash - when it finally came - was over live music, but it could have been over any one of so many little things. It was a very slight spat, over in a couple of seconds; yet the engagement revealed something very personal about the many different ways we can experience the world.

Robyn Archer is the creative director for next year's centenary of Canberra celebration. Last week she was moderating a discussion between four journalists for the Walkley Foundation about the city. It is customary, of course, to describe Archer with words like ''successful'' and ''acclaimed'' and I'm sure that's true. But it's also worth noting that, although she made her name singing the German cabaret songs of the '20s, in recent years her work has turned towards boosterism. She's directed, for example, the Adelaide Festival, a Melbourne ''summit'' and numerous other revels throughout the country. She has a knack of finding what's good and burnishing it until it shines.

A journalist does a different job, reflecting reality instead of creating it. There's no requirement for reporting to be consistently negative, we just focus on what people are interested in or talking about. If a journalist thinks something is not right or could be better, it is their job to point it out and give voice to the marginalised and dispossessed. They should not shy away from controversy, it is all part of painting the entire picture. And that is why - when the topic of live music in Canberra came up - the ABC's wonderful morning announcer Alex Sloan (usually bubbling over with enthusiastic positivity) mentioned it was a pity there were not more venues for live music groups. She was merely stating the obvious.

But Archer would not allow space for anything negative - after all, it's her job to celebrate. She rapidly countered that the Polish Club does have bands on Friday: seemingly unaware that by saying this she was, in essence, proving Sloan's point. And it's true, for example, that if you're prepared to make a round-trip of 50 to 100 kilometres you can probably find quite a lot going on. That's not the issue. The question is, could it be done better and, if so, how?

As moderator, Archer didn't make the same mistake twice. She reined in the panel, posing uncontroversial questions such as, ''What do you like most about Canberra?'' And yes, Paul Daley, the author of the brilliantly elegiac book Canberra, really does love (who would not) the early morning walk up Red Hill with his sloppy black labrador. And the incisive wit of cartoonist Geoff Prior (arborist Lindsay's son) recollected a time, in the middle of the Cold War, when it was still possible for Telopea Park schoolkids to wander into the Soviet embassy across the street and receive wonderful leather-bound panegyrics of praise for communism.

I was too busy laughing along with Jack Waterford to remember in any detail what he contributed. Nevertheless, nobody could extol Canberra's booming Weimar-like cabaret scene, for example, not even Archer. Nor did anyone refer to a thriving coffee-shop culture of debate and ideas, because there isn't one. This city is marvellous, but it's established on a barren foundation rather than providing a thriving forum for civic life. It is designed around the great institutions of nationhood - all very fine and imposing. But where's the room for the rest of us, the little people?


This question takes me back to the past, too; to a time when it was possible to just wander up and over Parliament House without having to pass through barriers and scanners. That's not possible today, supposedly for security reasons. Personally, I can't help feeling that some junior bureaucrat's embarrassment after arriving at work only to find a massive Green banner had been draped from the flagpole probably has had much more to do with the intensified security measures than any genuine fear the place is a terrorist target. And this is all part of what I detest about Canberra.

Faceless authorities determining what can and can't be done. The way the opportunity to make decisions is removed from the individual and invested in the bureaucracy. At first these measures might appear good, but soon a creeping authoritarian streak emerges to batter down any possibility of expressing personality. Such as in the androgynous Parliament.

Here it is not even possible to use Blu Tack to stick a poster to the walls. Everything is preserved for the next occupant. Fine in theory, the regulation enforces sterility. Soon this colonises the mind. Who has ever been inspired sitting in blank white rooms adorned only with ''approved'' artwork? Not Leonardo, certainly. This tendency to barrenness strides over the cut-out cardboard suburbs, each with their designated pharmacy/newsagency/supermarket but none with enough vibrancy to allow you to live your life in such ''villages'' without daily resorting to your car. Canberra is 10 times less densely settled than Sydney or Melbourne, there's no reliable public transport, yet our government seems constantly surprised when the one-lane highways instantly fill-up and require extension.

The bungalow housing once decreed ''appropriate'' for civil service families no longer provides an answer to our changing social dynamic. Nevertheless, as individuals at least we can extend and renovate: the buildings we live in can be made to change. The suburbs, government bureaucracies and regulations are, it appears, another matter.

It took Parliament nine ballots before deciding by a narrow margin (39 to 33) to make this the site of the new capital. I wish they had chosen Eden, or somewhere by the water.

Since its early days, the city has remained crippled by continual in-fighting between bureaucrats and visionaries, all hobbled by their insistence that they are the only people who can be trusted to understand, order and regulate our houses; schools; roads and lives: the very structures that frame our existence. Yes, I will be happy to celebrate the city's centenary next year, but I'd be even more thrilled if something could be done to improve it further. Wonderful though it is, it could be far better.

Bah, humbug!

Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.