I’m no great fan of the national capital [photo by Sam Ilic] even though I like its architecture. I’ve only been to Canberra a couple of times and the closest I’ve come to staying there was a night across the NSW border in Queanbeyan. I found the capital an elegant but cold and dull place far removed from the mainstream of Australian life.
Walter Burley-Griffin’s creation is a work of architectural brilliance but no soul. In a country with a dominant coastal culture, Canberra is an inland fish out of water. The site of the capital was a Federation issue and Canberra was the compromise between Sydney and Melbourne. In the last 50 years Sydney has outranked its Victorian rival in most metrics and is Australia’s only truly global city. If we were making the choice of capital today, Sydney would be the obvious choice (we could get rid of the useless states while we were at it).
Yesterday Peter Martin blogged about the old Keating and Fraser arguments about Canberra as the Australian national capital. Martin linked to a Laurie Oakes article in which Paul Keating said the capital should be Sydney. Fellow former Prime Minister and Melbournian Malcolm Fraser can’t quite bring himself to agree the winner is Sydney. However he told Oakes the new parliament house was his worst mistake as Prime Minister.
Oakes said Keating was merely “possum-stirring”. According to the Australian Dictionary of Colloquialisms, possum-stirring means to liven things up, create a disturbance; raise issues that others wish left dormant. Oakes was right. There are plenty of plenty who wish the Canberra capital argument remains dormant.
Most of these people have a strong Canberra connection, including Laurie Oakes. Oakes, Nine’s federal political reporter, is not happy about the alternative. He said the main reason Sydney should not be the capital was because of corruption and lobby groups. “Our federal politicians and senior bureaucrats would all then live among, mix with and be constantly influenced by the same log-rollers, urgers, developers, greedy business people, lobbyists, shysters, corrupters and crims who have made NSW politics such a cesspit,” said Oakes. True, but hardly relevant. A three hour drive is not going to stop someone from trying to corrupt a federal politician.
Peter Martin (The Age’s Canberra correspondent) is also in the negative camp and said Keating and Fraser were wrong to call Canberra a mistake. He agrees with former Canberra Times editor Jack Waterford who said “opposition to shifting the Australian capital to Sydney or Melbourne would be even more fierce today than it was 110 years ago.” But would it? No one really cares outside vested interests in Canberra such as Oakes, Martin and Waterford.
Keating made his remark about Canberra in a 2007 speech when John Howard was still in government. Keating said Howard had effectively moved the capital to Sydney anyway and “Canberra had an air of unreality.” He was supported by NSW Premier Morris Iemma and Patricia Forsythe of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce who said Sydney was already nation’s economic, cultural capital and transport hub. “When world leaders come to Australia they come to Sydney,” Forsythe said, “and if they have time they will go to Canberra.”
Keen to distinguish himself from the man he followed, Labor PM Kevin Rudd did find time to go to Canberra. His home town Brisbane is too much of an outlying city to host cabinet meetings on a regular basis but it is not hard to imagine the next Sydney Prime Minister – whoever he or she might be, and which ever party he or she represents – going back to the Howard precedent. Canberra need no longer be a waste of a good sheep paddock.
Australia is not alone in the misguided notion of quarantining the capital from the largest city. There are 35 such capitals worldwide at the time of writing according to Wikipedia and the list is growing. Abuja (Nigeria) and Astana (Kazakhstan) both became capitals in the 1990s. In 2006 Burma shifted its capital from Rangoon (Yangon) to the remote hillside town of Naypidaw so that its paranoid military rulers would feel more secure. Washington DC and Ottawa are closely related. But the capital Canberra has most in common with is Brasilia which arose from post-war presidential designs to inherit the Brazilian capital from Rio in 1960.
Brasilia turns 50 next April and its 101-year-old architect Oscar Niemeyer hopes to be alive to see the anniversary. It is the only 20th century capital that UNESCO has given a heritage listing to and viewed from above, the city has elements that repeat in every building which gives it a formal unity. But not everyone was happy. Brasília was a city built for the car, not the pedestrian. Simone de Beauvoir complained the similarity of Brasilia’s apartment blocks gave the city “the same air of elegant monotony.”
A similar cool air infects Canberra. Even Canberra supporter Frank Moorhouse says he likes the city and its culture because it has a “Scandinavian aesthetic rather than a Mumbai aesthetic”. But this, like the massive freeways of Brasilia, is a 20th century aesthetic. The museums can stay in Canberra but on environmental grounds alone we should be discussing when the parliament should move closer to the people it serves.