Federal Politics


The heart and soul of Canberra

Our community is transient compared with most Australian cities. Tens of thousands of Canberra residents see the ACT as a temporary home only; a place they have come to study or to advance their careers. Some of these ''new'' Canberrans fall in love with the city and stay for the rest of their lives. Yet many others return interstate to what was always their true home.

This may explain why Canberra seems less parochial than similar-sized communities across the country. The people of Wollongong or Newcastle, for example, wear their pride for their city in an unabashed way that ACT residents rarely do. Canberrans have also long had to cope with the nation's sneers. Some Australians resented our perceived privilege; some judged our community by the goings-on in federal Parliament. Few Canberrans, we hope, were ever ashamed of their city, but most knew to brace for a put-down when other Australians asked where they were from.

The firestorm of 2003 did not define our city, nor did it make us special. It was important because it did the opposite: it showed that Canberrans were just like other Australians. When tragedy struck, we supported each other. In the darkest moments of that day, when ash was choking our city and flames were destroying houses and lives, thousands of Canberrans rushed not to protect their own homes but to help strangers. In the aftermath, we fed each other, housed each other and cared for each other. We cried together. And we rebuilt together.

The Canberra Times' then editorial cartoonist, Geoff Pryor, later drew what he saw unfold in the wake of the fires. Like countless other Canberrans, he had headed to his local evacuation centre to offer mattresses and bedding for those who had lost their home. His cartoon, an illustration of the generosity and compassion he witnessed, was titled ''City without a soul''. It was all that needed to be said.

In the days and weeks that followed January 18, 2003, Australians did not see Canberra as a place to deride. They saw a devastated city of fellow Australians - and they offered the help, sympathy and love that we needed.

Today, we remember the terrifying events of 10 years ago, and particularly the four Canberrans who died. The firestorm scarred many others, too, some of whom never recovered fully from the disaster and its repercussions.

Yet we also remember with pride how we responded. We suffered hurtful losses - yet, on the whole, we rebuilt and carried on with our lives, determined not to let the pain break us. We showed the country that Canberrans are a strong, caring people, with far tighter bonds than one would expect of a transient community like ours.

The 2003 firestorm was Canberra's first great tragedy. It will always hold a special place in our collective memory. Perhaps, one day, this city will face a worse disaster. If it does, we know the bravery and compassion we saw on that dark day a decade ago will shine in our hearts once more.