Who is Canberra?

Who is Canberra?

White, leftist, elite - and only here for a career? Let's explore the stereotypes.

Illustration: David Pope

Illustration: David Pope

A quarter-century ago, 60 Minutes broadcast a sneering snapshot of Canberra during the early 1990s recession. Its star reporter, Richard Carleton, and his crew filmed the city's wealthiest street, took viewers into busy pubs and did their best to portray every stereotype they could.

"Public servants make up half of Canberra's workforce – and the other half works for the public service," Carleton mocked. "Here, unemployment and recession aren't social problems. They're the cocktails you order after flexing off."

Carleton, who died in 2006, knew a thing or two about privilege. The highly paid Sydney Grammar old boy insisted on taking an esky of wine, quince paste and smoked salmon to cover East Timor's independence conflict.


Yet his caricature of Canberra played to the prejudices of a nation ever ready to lay into tall poppies, bludgers and – worst of all – those believed to be elitist taxpayer-funded bludgers.

Is there truth in any of the clichéd insults that abound? We've all heard them. Canberrans are lazy. Overpaid. Out of touch. Overwhelmingly white. We wouldn't recognise the real world if it slapped our face and ripped off our lanyard.

Are we really so different? The answer is yes ... and no. Let's look at what the available data says.

'Canberrans don't exist'

"Everyone in Canberra is from elsewhere, and everyone eventually leaves."

It certainly was true. Or at least true-ish.

Australia began regular five-yearly censuses in 1961, just before Lake Burley Griffin, and the city around it, started to fill. Back then, the ACT had fewer than 60,000 residents. But not many were Canberran: only one in five were born here.

Even now, as the young city ages, "real" Canberrans remain rare. People come – and then they go. And they depart at a rate higher than any other capital except frontier Darwin.

This trend has barely changed in three decades. (For whatever reason, we're much likelier to go after we hit the age of 47.)

These comings and goings leave Canberra with a unique age profile – relatively few schoolchildren and retirees – which helps explain why this city is so different.

'We're elitist'

Elitist ... or just elite? It's often said that most people passed a test or interview to get here, whether to enrol at university, enlist at ADFA or join the public service.

Putting aside the work we do, the starkest statistical difference between Canberrans and the rest of the country is the degree to which we're educated. Forty-five per cent of ACT employees completed a university degree, compared with 30 per cent of Australian workers.

In fact, if you rank Australia's 2200 or so suburbs by the share of workers with postgraduate qualifications, the top 14 are all in Canberra. (Lawson, Barton, Turner, Campbell and Forrest lead the list.)

Yet this isn't just about public service and university job requirements; the difference exists in the blue-collar and semi-skilled workforce, too, from tradies to machinery operators. Even one in every 35 labourers in Canberra has a masters or PhD.

'We're overpaid'

Australia's best-qualified workforce should be paid well, right? Nonetheless, the complaint persists that Canberrans, whatever jobs they have, are paid too much.

Average ACT wages are consistently about 11 per cent higher than elsewhere. Yet that doesn't account for the work Canberrans actually do, and what it's worth.

Take bureaucrats, or "fat cats" as Carleton (and others) called them. The consulting firm Mercer regularly used to compare APS pay with the private sector. Each year, its finding was the same: most mid and senior-level public servants could earn more money outside government (say, in Sydney or Melbourne). The pay gap widened at higher levels of the public service.

Yet all that income doesn't seem much help in the housing market. Fewer Canberrans (27.6 per cent) own outright the property they live in than do Australians (31.8 per cent).

We're certainly advantaged, though. When the Bureau of Statistics measured the socioeconomic factors of 55,000 small areas in Australia this year, two of the three least disadvantaged were here (Duntroon and part of the new suburb Wright). The Stuart Flats public-housing block in Griffith, soon to be demolished, was the only part of the ACT among the nation's 1000 most-disadvantaged areas.

'We're all public servants'

Strangely, the most stubborn of Canberra stereotypes has never been true. Even back in 1961, as public sector workers began to flood the city, they made up only about half the workforce (precise data is unavailable). The rest were builders, maids, shopkeepers, farmers (including a sole beekeeper), hotel staff, tailors and even 15 fishermen.

Today, only one in three Canberrans is publicly employed.

Yes, this is still a government town and the Commonwealth is the largest employer. But the real jobs growth is in research, science, technology and data services.

The ACT's labour market also has its quirks. Canberrans are three times more likely than other Australians to be jewellery makers. We have more fitness workers (1.3 times) and more people employed in childcare (1.2), but far fewer in aged care (about half the proportion elsewhere).

We tend not to work in supermarkets or fast-food shops. And surprisingly, we're 24 per cent less likely than other Australians to be prostitutes (or at least to declare ourselves as such on census night).

'We're out of touch'

And so to the main gripe you'll hear about Canberra: this city, chockers with academics and public servants, is an ivory tower far removed from "real Australia".

Yet, putting aside that Canberrans are filtered on the basis of education, we're cut from the same cloth as everyone else.

That "white Canberra" descriptor? About seven in eight of us say we have "Australian" or European ancestry – exactly the same as rest of the country.

There are a few ethnic differences. We're twice as likely to have Croatian ancestry, and significantly likelier to be from eastern Europe (thanks to Snowy Hydro workers), Korea, the subcontinent and Ireland.

Nor is the capital the temple of aetheism it's often portrayed as. Half of Canberrans call themselves Christians, compared with 58 per cent of Australians. We're 22 per cent likelier to have secular beliefs or no religion, though that's closely associated with (if not caused by) high education levels.

At the suburb level, Newtown/Darlinghurst in Sydney is the capital of godless Australia, but Civic is the third-most-aetheist suburb (62 per cent), with the Braddonistas at No.10 on the national list (59 per cent).

Canberrans are also a third more likely to be Hindu than other Australians.

'Rusted-on lefties'

As well as being less religious, we do have different political views. The ACT has long voted out of sync with the rest of the country.

In recent decades, Canberrans were:

  • the only voting bloc (state or territory) in favour of a republic (40 per cent more likely than Australians as a whole to vote "yes");
  • the only group willing to enshrine the "one vote, one value" principle in the constitution to prevent gerrymandering (38 per cent more likely);
  • the most likely to favour allowing gays and lesbians to marry (20 per cent likelier); and
  • when asked in 1977 to choose a national song, we were only a third as likely to want God Save the Queen but more than twice as likely to select Waltzing Matilda.

We're often described as a "locked-in Labor town", but none of the capital's federal electorates have ever been classed as "very safe". Canberrans voted in an independent MP once, and a Liberal MP three times ... in the past 70 years.

Labor has also dominated ACT elections since 1989, but only once did the party win majority control of the Assembly (under Jon Stanhope in 2004).

Same ... but different

When a firestorm wreaked havoc on this city 15 years ago, the late grump Paddy McGuinness wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald: "The best thing that could be done now ... is to abolish the ACT as it exists, pare it right back to essentials, and let most of its citizens lead normal lives within NSW."

He was talking about the "mistake" of building a city surrounded by bush but also about the "dysfunctional socialist utopia" it had become; the money "wasted".

It's often forgotten that taxpayers' money laid the foundations of every Australian city. The national capital just happens to be the youngest.

Yes, we're firmly middle class. But many people mistake our open spaces and abundance of greenery for privilege, because that's what marks the suburbs of the wealthiest Sydneysiders and Melburnians. Here, it's just a benefit of good planning.

Maybe this generation of Canberrans, or the next, will come to love this city as much as the rest of the country envies it, and make it their home for life.

Markus Mannheim edits The Public Sector Informant and writes regularly about government.

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