Gang-gang: Keys to the city of Canberra
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Gang-gang: Keys to the city of Canberra

In our child-like simplicity we had imagined that when this Friday Chief Minister Katy Gallagher awards basketballer Patty Mills the ''keys to the city'', she would hand him an actual symbolic, ornamental key or even a jingling-jangling bunch of them. But no. She will instead present the sportsman with ''an engraved glasswork''.

Our imaginings of an actual key owed something to the fact that one of the first ever accorded this honour, Robert de Castella, was given a very grand key (and a citation) when he was given the keys to the city in July 1983. The Canberra Times photographed him with it. The Times said then that the marathon champion became only the second person ever to be given the keys to the city of Canberra. He'd been pipped at the tape some time earlier by Peter Allen, the singer-songwriter (and unforgettably gay and abandoned dancer).

Singer-songwriter Peter Allen seems to have been the first to get the keys of our city.

Singer-songwriter Peter Allen seems to have been the first to get the keys of our city.

Another reason for imagining an actual key is that keys to the city and freedom of the city traditions (the two overlap) refer to medieval times when cities were fortified by an enemy-resisting city wall. It might have just one gated entrance, slammed shut and locked at night. To give a visitor the keys to the city was to say that the city admired and embraced him and trusted him so much they were giving him the means (the keys) to come and go at will. When Katy Gallagher gives Patty Mills the ''keys'', she is saying that we trust him not to run amok, pillage the city and take over rule of it from her by force.

Although Peter Allen seems to have been the first to get the keys of our city the first great and grand instance of a distinguished visitor to Canberra wielding a symbolic key was on May 19, 1927. The Canberra Times was on hand to see the occasion and reported it in prose more purple than, alas, the Times employs today (unless it is discussing Nick Kyrgios).

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in 1979 visiting British comic actor Derek Nimmo had honours heaped upon him, including being given the ''freedom of the city''.

in 1979 visiting British comic actor Derek Nimmo had honours heaped upon him, including being given the ''freedom of the city''.

''PARLIAMENT HOUSE OPENED. DUKE OF YORK'S MISSION FULFILLED. SCENES OF EPIC PAGEANTRY

''AMID scenes of epic pageantry, His Royal Highness the Duke of York opened Parliament House on Monday.

''With a golden key the Duke unlocked the massive doors, and as they swung open the mission which brought him from 14,000 miles across the seas reached fulfilment. The opening of the doors was symbolical of the opening of a new era in Australian progress and prosperity. Before our youthful Commonwealth the way is now clear to the realisation of many ambitions and to the attainment of many ideals.
''Canberra, the infant cradled in hills and nurtured in the spirit and ideals of an ambitious nation, has been invested with the heritage which is hers in her own right, and with due pomp and ceremony has assumed the position of Queen City of Australia.''

The Chief Minister's office calculates that the keys have been given to nine groups (almost always sporting teams) and six individuals. Of the 15 recipients it lists, almost all are sporting teams or sporting individuals, and one wonders what this says about our city. Are we in this Clever City really too sports-obsessed to ever give the mystic keys to other sorts of folk? Why not give keys to the occasional intellectual or aesthetic athlete, to a scientist, say, to an author, to an academic, to a musician (we don't begrudge Mills his keys but wonder what he's done that makes him more deserving than, say, Nicholas Milton, the engaging conductor of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra)? Why not to an emeritus newspaper columnist for his decades of selfless service to the metropolis?

Former capital territory minister Michael Hodgman.

Former capital territory minister Michael Hodgman.

Why not, given the apparent eagerness to give the Keys to Canberra teams, a breaking of the monotony of giving the key only to sporting teams and the awarding of the keys to that special team, the Brazil of international NIMBYism, the Yarralumla Residents Association?*

Another oddity, a parochial oddity, of the 15 or 16 keys awarded so far is that every recipient has been a Canberran and/or a member of a Canberra-based team (like the Raiders, the Canberra Cavalry, Canberra United). So in a sense they don't need a key to the city, given that they are already in it. This seems contrary to the aforementioned mediaeval origins of the award, the giving of it to extra-city aliens to assure them that they are welcome here. We have a kind of half-precedent for doing this: in 1979 visiting British comic actor Derek Nimmo (in town for a short season of a play he was starring in) had honours heaped upon him, including being given the ''freedom of the city''.

In 1980 (in the unhappy days before we governed ourselves and were ruled by the federal government's Grand Imperial Wizard aka the minister for the Capital Territory) there was a nice freedom of the city kerfuffle in Canberra.

The minister, the utterly Tasmanian Michael Hodgman, unilaterally granted freedom of the city to the RAAF base, Fairbairn, and then to a locally-based CMF unit. The army was miffed at being beaten by the RAAF to be first to get the freedom of Canberra but some citizens and The Canberra Times were more miffed by something else.

''How,'' the Times (fiercely in favour of self-government) seethed, ''can a man who does not even live in the city give its freedom to anybody? [The minister] is being pretty bloody liberal with other people's freedoms.''

* Some readers who enjoyed our characterisation last week of the Yarralumla Residents Association team (YRA) as ‘‘the Brazil of world NIMBYism’’ wonder if, given the way the World Cup has worked out, we should now think of the Yarralumla side as the Germany of their discipline.

But we think Brazil, always a byword for flair, innovation, imagination and artistry in football, is still the way to think of the Yarralumla side. There are lots of average teams of NIMBYs but the toffs of the YRA have always opposed any whiff of change (a hospice? Horror! Think of the noise the dying make with their rock music parties!) with, in their arguments, the equivalent of the breathtaking wizardry Brazil showed in the days of Garrincha, Pele, Zico, Kaka and Ronaldo. What’s more, the YRA’s Peles and Ronaldos are still in peak form and writing dazzling, intellectually twinkle-toed, change-defying letters to this newspaper.



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