Shivering midwinter Canberrans! Have you ever wondered, as dressed like polar explorers, you brave this city's alarming and extremity-nibbling midwinter cold, why our federal capital city was not plonked somewhere with balmier weather?
Even though the Constitution adopted at federation said the city had to be somewhere in NSW (and at least 100 miles from Sydney) the state bristled with idyllic places. Why not somewhere gorgeous at the seaside where the weather is never Siberian?
Now, those who think they do know one fact about Canberra's history think they know the answer to that question. They know for a fact that the movers and shakers of the day (the search for a possible federal capital city began in 1899 and lasted until, with an exciting exhaustive ballot, federal parliament chose a Canberra-region site on October 8, 1908) were anxious to build a federal capital city so far inland it would be safely out of the reach of the big, big guns of any enemy navy swaggering in NSW waters.
Alas, quaint and colourful as this belief is, it is quite wrong. My little, truthful book of attractively-told facts quite refutes it. But the belief lives on endearingly because of course once people have a cherished belief (even in, say, the flatness of the earth, in there being a Hell that homosexuals are sent to, etc) they will never let it go.
Meanwhile, for fact-lovers, here is the actual truth about Canberra's metropolitan possie.
When I began researching the issue, going where historians had never bothered to go before, my first surprise was that from the very first all the NSW sites short-listed, surveyed and discussed and promoted by their locals (who were always vastly outnumbered by their place's sheep) seemed such remote, far inland, god-forsaken, forbiddingly-cold-in-winter rural places. The Canberra site, put into the tournament of the sites by the pushy people of Queanbeyan, had all of these unfortunate-seeming qualities. Why these places when NSW teemed with balmy paradises?
It emerged that the site-seeking parameters were set and then adhered to by others ever after by NSW Commissioner Alexander Oliver. Appointed late in 1899, he spent 11 indefatigable outdoors months investigating potential federal capital sites. His influential and tone-setting methodology insisted the new, ideal city must arise somewhere with a "bracing climate".
He declared that science and personal experience showed that a "warm, moist temperature" of the kind found along the NSW coast was unhealthy (typhoid was rife there). Instead what was needed for "the various classes of the body politic whose home ... will be at the Seat of Government" was "a bracing, recuperative climate" with "pure bracing mountain air ... at the same time a stimulant and a tonic".
In NSW this required "the air of our more elevated tablelands and plateaux [sic]", places guaranteed many frosts during the year.
Oliver was didactic about this but he wasn't being controversial. Everyone already knew that "bracing" places were best for the health and that the world's history showed how over time they produced superior races.
Alexander Oliver blended the race and health truisms when he insisted that "Those who have been commissioned to find [an ideal federal capital city site] have not been sent out to discover a climate for a Black republic, but one to which not only will the constitutions of Australians of British descent readily accommodate themselves but by which their physique will be improved, their faculties and energies raised to a higher pitch of usefulness".
In federal parliamentary debates (where I never, ever found a single mention of needing the city to be out of reach of big guns) the Scots and the Vikings were invoked as examples of dynamic peoples who had arisen in chilly places. By contrast the dusky peoples of lush, tropical places where life was soft and easy never seemed to amount to very much.
One journo reported the local air was "like champagne". The visitors were very, very impressed.
And so it came to pass that whenever parties of federal politicians left the comforts of Melbourne to investigate possible sites they made expeditions into remote, rural, far-inland places. Their 1902 investigation of Dalgety has been made famous by photographs of senators at Dalgety bathing in the scrotum-numbing Snowy River.
Then on August 13, 1906, a big party of politicians and press came to look at the hitherto-ignored and very remote Canberra site. Oliver had died in 1904 but his site guidelines were still the gospel and the Canberra place turned on a sparkling, cloudless, flatteringly frosty day (the carriages from Queanbeyan crossed creeks that musically tinkled with broken light ice). One journo reported the local air was "like champagne". The visitors were very, very impressed.
Parochialism and politicking played some part in voting in the thrilling exhaustive ballot in parliament in October 1908. But, as Canberra came from behind in a big field of 11 possible sites (every one of them bracingly Oliverian) to pip Dalgety at the post, the Canberra site's actual, sparklingly-cold-in-winter, politician-impressing merits counted for a lot.
The resulting garden city is a paradise for wildlife. So the next time you hear your gardens' birds complaining about the early morning ice on their bird baths, go out and tell them that without this occasionally ice-making climate they wouldn't have this Bush Capital to thrive in.
- See online: Canberra! Think of it! Dream of it!
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