Happy Centenary To Our Trendsetting Capital


Happy birthday Canberra! I can hardly believe it’s already been 100 years since Prime Minister Andrew Fisher stood with fellow dignitaries on Kurrajong Hill, shrugged his majestic shoulders, and declared, "Eh, yeah, it’ll do I guess." And in the century since, this great city of ours has lived up that famous declaration, acting as a beacon to all those who hunger for democracy, justice, and quite nice breakfast places at a reasonable price.

It’s a well-kept secret, but I was actually born in Canberra, before my parents spirited me away to the big smoke at the age of 10 weeks for fear that if I stayed too long in the capital I might accidentally become Treasurer. I’ve always carried my birthright with pride: it’s not many people who can claim to have been born in Canberra, and even fewer who would.

I’m glad I was born in simple, faithful old Canberra, and not in glitzy, glamorous Sydney or Melbourne or Maroochydore. I’m glad I can say that I come from the city of the War Memorial, of Cockington Green and the Earthquake Room at Questacon.

No city honours history, science, or tiny miniature villages like Canberra. In fact, many cities don’t honour tiny miniature villages at all. Where is Sydney’s Cockington Green? Where is Brisbane’s? Canberra is the only city with the sheer GUTS to say, "Here I am, World, and I’ve got a little castle to show you all".

That’s what I love about Canberra, its guts. A lot of cities don’t have a great amount of moral fortitude. Frankly, a lot of places give in to peer pressure. Look at Melbourne, always trying to copy what the cool kids do, build a wheel just because London did, start a comedy festival just because Edinburgh did, employ a corrupt police force just because Sydney did. It’s a trend-chaser. But Canberra, no, Canberra is a trend-SETTER.

And how could it not be, with all the furious intellectual debate and ideological alchemy that is forever going on up on that noble hill?

Nowhere else in Australia can ordinary citizens observe the thrilling spectacle of an assistant press secretary sharing a bowl of potato wedges with a deputy editor. Nowhere else can the hoi polloi rub shoulders with junior ministers and Hansard transcribers alike.

There’s electricity in the air whenever you’re strolling along Northbourne, the wind in your hair and icicles in your pants, knowing that a stone’s throw from where you’re about to find that the pub is closed, levers are being pulled and deals are being struck that could completely change the future of disability pension indexation for the next 18 months. How can you not be intoxicated by a city that is forever making you feel a part of history?

Look at what’s going on there now. Whispers and intrigue abound. Plots and counter-plots. Backstabbing and front-kicking. It’s just like The Third Man in Vienna, except that, as we implied earlier, Vienna has no Earthquake Room.

Canberra really comes alive during a good bout of leadership speculation, and this latest bout is both of an extremely high quality, and amazing longevity, having begun shortly before World War One, and being expected to continue well past 2030.

The only fear is that leadership tension may be destroyed by climate change before its time. But for now, we can revel in Canberra in its prime, enjoying the Ruddmentum as it sweeps over the land from Belconnen to Tuggeranong, transforming the countryside like Kansas turning into Oz. Will Kevin unseat Julia? Will Malcolm unseat Tony? Will Bill unseat Kevin? Will Kevin and Malcolm form their own party? Will Tony unseat Kevin and Malcolm? Will Julia form her own party with Christine? Will Christine unseat herself?

It’s all up in the air, and although none of these things are ever, ever going to happen, it is a delight to see the questions asked. It’s splendid to be in a city where a battalion of hard-working journalists and automatic writing psychics can keep on speculating day after day, night after night, free to indulge their wildest desires because there is literally nothing else to do.

Haha, just a little joke! Of course there is LOTS to do in Canberra.

Besides the attractions already mentioned, there’s also the zoo, where I once saw a monkey try to get a dummy out of a pond. There’s the embassy district, where you can drive past with rocks and try to create an international diplomatic incident. And there are numerous festivals and public events, such as Floriade, Christmas, and the Running of the Chief Whips. There’s Belconnen shopping centre, which turns its lights on sometimes. And I think there’s a tower on a mountain or something? Not to mention the numerous cafes and restaurants that dot the cityscape like so many liver spots on Philip Ruddock’s lithe body.

In this the Asian century, Canberra is ready to contort to meet the needs of today’s go-getting, fast-moving, optic-fibre neo-modernist society. Staid old Adelaide may be set in its ways; flashy, shallow Perth may be unable to tear its gaze away from the shiny baubles it digs from the earth; but Canberra is beholden not to tradition, or to minerals, or to any sort of productive output whatsoever. Canberra is its own man, if it is a man, and it welcomes all, embraces all, and seems eerily calm in certain areas to all.

So on this auspicious occasion, let us raise a glass of reasonably acceptable chardonnay to our nation’s capital, that bright shining city of hope and wonder, that shows us all the way to the better future.

If you want skyscrapers go to New York. If you want art go to Paris. If you want drugs go to Amsterdam. But if you want a city that’s clean, a city that has pride in its appearance, a city that coolly and phlegmatically accepts its own destiny as a major player on the world scene and hands down its contribution to history like a smartly dressed waiter serving up a delicious omelette; if you want a city that represents parliamentary democracy in all its well-organised, incrementally progressive glory; if you want a city that has an amazing amount of pornography and quite a lot of sheep not very far away; then you’ll head down to the banks of Lake Burley Griffin, pop a party popper, and say, Happy Birthday, you grand old dame. Here’s to the next hundred years, and let’s hope no enormous storms or volcanoes wipe out the entire population any time soon.

Here’s to you, Canberra, the birthday cake on the paper tablecloth of Australia.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.