Canberrasplaining: don't explain my own city to me

Canberrasplaining: don't explain my own city to me

If Canberra-bashing is an endearing joke, it’s as one-sided as the school bully ruffing a noogie onto the head of their peer. While town rivalry exists across many places (Sydney versus Melbourne, New York versus LA), there’s a difference between claiming to be the "better city", and just booing "you suck" in the earshot of those who live elsewhere.

The Carillon sits beside Canberra's Lake Burley Griffin.

The Carillon sits beside Canberra's Lake Burley Griffin.Credit:Sitthixay Ditthavong

It’s not as though Canberrans are oppressed peoples exactly, but let’s face it, we have our fair share of being blasted by the dominant majority.

For Canberrans, taking it on the chin while people from interstate rip into our community has become second nature. We get the message loud and very annoyingly clear: our city has the spirit of a wet mop and we wouldn't know a good night out if the Mardi Gras paraded down Bunda St.

While this criticism isn’t anything new, what has changed is that first generation Canberrans - the children of the 1970s public service recruitment campaign, the early UC alumni and the first "Nappy Valley" residents - have grown up and are now responding to it. No longer are we a start-up city, home to no one but bureaucratic blow-ins who long to go back to the "outside world". For the first time, the ACT has a significant number of people who were born and raised in the capital, who, unsurprisingly, take it rather personally when their home is denigrated. Especially by those who have had very little, if any, experience of the place.


While it seems reasonable enough to let the community speak on its own behalf, this is not the experience most Canberrans have. Following on from Canberra-bashing, cue Canberrasplaining; the act of non-Canberrans telling Canberrans what Canberra is like.

No matter how many school excursions you’ve been on, or how many times you visited your girlfriend while she was studying at ANU, I don’t need a picture painted of my own city to justify why you don’t like it.

Canberra is my lived experience. I took my first steps here, it’s where I had my first kiss, got caught shoplifting, buried my family dog, broke my toe, won a grand final, had bronchitis, celebrated my 18th; it’s the place I left, and the place I returned home to. I went to school with its kids, dated its bachelors, served its customers, hired its employees and made life-long friends within its community. But despite being so Canberran my blood may as well run Canberra milk, I’ve had the place explained to me more times than I can count.

Why? Because to the rest of the country, Canberra is not "my hometown", but rather, "our Capital city". A patriotic sentiment that rolls off the tongues of politicians, journalists and social commentators with a sense of entitlement and ownership. It’s as though every school excursion is an opportunity for interstate teachers to offer up Canberra as some kind of estate the children of Australia inherited, gazing over Anzac Parade and declaring, "everything the light touches is our kingdom". We may be reasonably new to self-government, but the place hasn’t exploded in the last 30-odd years. Do we really require the outside states’ input like a board of directors?

This is especially true when the way we’re characterised is as familiar a stereotype as “dollarydoos’ is to Australian banks.

Yes, Canberra is a place where government decisions are made, but you are more likely to run into a kangaroo on your street than a federal minister. While many MPs own our houses, few actually live in our communities. There are more YES voters in Canberra than politicians. More refugees in our schools. More volunteers in our community centres. More people at exhibition openings. Hell, there are more dogs at Barrio over a weekend.

That said - let’s not forget those “boring” politicians, who are regularly affiliated with Canberra, are responsible for our lives and the laws of the country we live in. If the rest of Australia has a problem with politicians being a total snoozefest, I suggest they stop mistaking their own lack of political engagement for living in a ‘cooler’, more metropolitan city, and do more to vote in people who serve their interests.

"To say there’s ‘nothing to do in Canberra’ is to ignore the pleasures of mother nature."

"To say there’s ‘nothing to do in Canberra’ is to ignore the pleasures of mother nature."Credit:Paul Chappell

We know our heritage buildings are younger than some living grandparents. But beyond the white, robot super constructions, there are stories in our modern architecture; repurposing public schools that have closed down, the tragic Canberra Hospital explosion and National Museum build, houses resurrected in Weston Creek post-2003.

Also, compare the four square kilomentres of the Parliamentary Triangle to more than 2000 square kilometres of stunning bushland. To say there’s ‘nothing to do in Canberra’ is to ignore the pleasures of mother nature.

Even when the shoe is on the other foot, and people have figured out that Canberra is not entirely awful, we’re still addressed like Australia’s timeshare. Our growing industries, such as food and hospitality, are reported on by national media like a tourism achievement for Sydneysiders or Melbournians, and fails to acknowledge that, by and large, these ventures have been made off the backs of many Canberrans who were motivated to improve and give back to our community. They congratulate us for not being the stereotype they originally placed upon us, and send the enlightening message Canberrans have been pointing out for ages - that we are not a bleak bureaucratic bubble only serving as a backdrop for Question Time.

Canberrans are at the forefront of progress. We’re the most educated, the healthiest, most environmentally friendly city. We don’t need people from interstate to speak for us, to explain our city’s character to us, or to hijack our conversations.

So before you explain what our capital city is like to someone from Canberra, ask yourself if maybe - just maybe - they might already know more about the place than you do.

Sophie Verass is the digital editor at SBS' NITV and a freelance writer. In 2016, Sophie was a finalist for the ACT Young Woman of the Year. Follow Sophie on Twitter

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