Canberra: the nation’s capital in progress

Mar 17, 2021
Credit - Unsplash

One gets used to people suggesting that the whole idea of Canberra was a terrible mistake. A waste of good grazing country. A folly, an expensive indulgence, which ultimately and inevitably produced self-reproducing bureaucrats and a governing class out of touch with the lot of ordinary Australians. Perhaps they are right.

If there had been no Canberra, there might have been no federated Australia, and, had a union of some sort ultimately been formed without a Canberra, it might have been greatly different, perhaps not including Western Australia. There are a number of reasons why the Australian national capital is located well away from the capitals of any of the states.

In 1900, the poorer and less populated states feared that their views might be swamped by those of the larger states, NSW and Victoria. But NSW was adamant that the capital not be Melbourne, and Melbourne as sure it could not be Sydney. They were as worried about the influence over the federation of the permanent administration, and the press, the media and the lobbyists already used to promote their interests to the local state parliaments and ministers.

Canberra was in this sense a compromise. The priority claim of NSW was recognised, but it was agreed that the national capital would not be in Sydney – indeed not within 160km of it. Pending the selection of a federal capital territory – to be an area at least 250 square kilometres – the parliament would meet in Melbourne. Canberra-Yass, the ultimate selection, was a splendid compromise, not least because NSW undertook to construct a railway line between Yass and Canberra, to make it more accessible to politicians coming from the south.

Commonwealth negotiators were keen that the territory be capable of being self-sufficient, particularly for water, and made a hard bargain about eminent domain over the headwaters of the Molonglo and Queanbeyan rivers, though these were to remain in NSW. And in an act of great farsightedness, the Commonwealth also got NSW to agree that the Commonwealth would have access to the waters of the Snowy River for future hydro-electric purposes.

What was also intrinsic to the enthusiasm for a separate capital was the fact that a good many Australians, including a wide cross-section of the founding fathers and first politicians, had read many of the works of Henry George and his single tax league. The so-called prairie socialist had a strong influence throughout Australia, including in some of the pre-federation schemes to open the land to free settlers, to use leasehold both as a form of planning control and for value capture as the price of land increased with community development. They saw land taxes as providing the basis for a self-sustaining city, one which could simultaneously provide cheap land on which settlers could build, while also providing a form of title against which they could borrow.

The Griffins themselves were suffused with ideas about how a great city could be on a human scale. They knew that the city would attract visitors, not least because of the spectacular plans for a lake. Griffin wanted significant national cultural and recreational services and facilities, as well as ones adapted to the needs of a local, well-educated population. He wanted grand avenues and significant streetscapes. But what he also wanted, and integrated into the plan, was model housing and community facilities and services so designed as to demonstrate to Australians, and to the world, how high quality could also be economical.

Griffin did not build or design Canberra houses, although some of his wife’s sketches illustrate their ideas. But he planned curbs and gutters, access to clean water, sewers and electricity. None of these were routinely built into ordinary housing, let alone public housing at the time. In many parts of urban Australia, sewerage systems were not to come for another 50 years, while the era of the great utilities – providing water and electricity was only beginning.

Even the cold mornings in winter were considered an asset, better for productivity than tropical heat and humidity

When the city was first imagined, Australia had one of the highest standards of living in the world, and embarking on federation, as well as on a great national capital project was a measure of the optimism and self-improving zeal that encapsulated the age. Australians knew of great capitals, whether on the L’Enfant model in Washington or in Paris, London, Berlin, Budapest and Saint Petersburg. There was no reason why a new but confident nation could not aspire to the same standards – a great city reflecting Australia back to itself but also setting standards that other Australian cities could observe and imitate. Indeed, even the cold mornings in winter were considered an asset, better for productivity than tropical heat and humidity.

There would be a university. For the time being, schools, healthcare and many community services, including local policing, would be contracted by the NSW government, but it was always imagined that in due course the city itself would develop and control its own services and that they would be of the highest standard. This was not a matter of an open cheque-book. The very idea of staging the development of such services involved a closer eye on the economy than some of the critics recognised. But the principle was that nothing that was interim would effectively doom future services to be second-rate.

Of course, many of the people who would be coming to make a home of this capital had policy skills and imagination focused on the best outcomes from scarce resources. The politicians, the planners and the policy officials had here a sort of tabula rasa on which they could debate and settle projects without being compromised by old accommodations and assumptions, many of which had emerged out of the corruption of 19th-century Australian politics.

The winning design of Walter and Marion Griffin embraced the geography and the environment, binding it together with the idea of the lake. The self-sufficiency projects began with the development of a forestry and brickwork industry, even a light railway. The great Canberra govvy came into existence, deliberately designed so as to allow economical extension. The first schools – Ainslie, Telopea and Canberra High were built setting standards in Canberra architecture yet to be matched.

Now I tell this tale not so as to give a potted history of the building and development of Canberra as a national capital. What I am wanting to emphasise instead is the strength of the idea of a great national capital in which all Australians could take much pride. A project that would expand Australians’ sense of themselves. That would show and demonstrate the best that Australia had on offer. A place perhaps far away from a Perth, or a Townsville, but which could be sustained in the imagination. The theatre of national politics and administration, but also a place one would want to visit as a tourist. As one could instantly evoke Sydney with images of the Harbour Bridge, and, later the Opera House, Canberra was soon to have its national insignia, not least of the view from Mount Ainslie down past the War Memorial, Anzac Parade and across the lake to the old and the new parliament houses. This sight is familiar to almost every Australian and is as splendid as the vista from the White House to the Capitol buildings.

But we ignore at our peril the enduring idea that Canberra was to be a model city, rather than just another hodgepodge of greedy short-term development.

We have now filled in much of the national triangle, though I do not think that the book is ever closed on what can still be done there. National and international tourists view both the triangle and the design of the new parliament house with pleasure. But many take as much pleasure from the lake, the natural and human-scale setting in the Australian bush and some of the magnificent avenues and streetscapes of the original design. One could say that the focus of this admiration is in the so-called national areas, and in their setting in old north and south Canberra, the only part of the city that the Griffins pencilled in. But we ignore at our peril the enduring idea that Canberra as a whole – from Gungahlin to Tuggeranong, Belconnen to Molonglo – was to be a model city, rather than just another hodgepodge of greedy short-term development.

A part of the modern tragedy, of course, is that the modern freestanding Canberra house is on average more than twice the size of the original modest, but adequate guvvies, but is plonked onto blocks of land of about half the size. This has the effect of reducing the capacity of planners to incorporate trees and shrubs and attractive streetscapes. We are as a result getting significant uglification, lower building quality and design standards, as well as all the appearance of endless and wasteful sprawl. But we are also tying our hands behind our back in terms of reducing our environmental footprint and making a meaningful contribution to climate change.

In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, thousands of mostly young public servants came to Canberra from all over Australia to work in government. Along with them came more thousands to build the houses and flats, provide legal, accounting and medical services, or staff retail establishments and restaurants. As our population growth has slowed, more of our workforce was actually born and educated in Canberra. But it still has features that make it different from most other Australian cities.

Canberra now has just the sort of population – educated, engaged, and attentive to trends – that those who imagined a national capital envisaged. They are not only in the public administration. They are in defence and in great educational institutions. In Embassies. In increasingly professionalised lobbies preparing evidence for their cases. In the law.

But there are some emerging trends which could reduce the sense of national ownership and partnership.

John Howard once remarked of Canberra that it was a funny place. It looked, he said, like Killara, or Wahroonga, in Sydney’s leafy northern suburbs, but it voted like Cessnock, the coal town in the Hunter Valley. That is true enough, at least unless the Labor Party has taken Canberra’s south too much for granted, something that has happened twice over the past 50 years.

The Bureau of Statistics divides the Australian population into quintiles depending on the level of education and income.  Most of the so-called AB class, the highest or best-off quintile belong to the professional and managerial classes. The C quintile, next down in socio-economic status, could be said to be white-collar workers, while the next quintile, or D, is generally in the skilled trades, and so on.

Around Australia, the quintiles are each 20 per cent of the population. In Sydney and Melbourne, indeed in most of the capitals, that proportion is maintained. In Tasmania, the whole is somewhat skewed, with significantly fewer in the higher SES levels, and rather more in the bottom levels. But Canberra is quite sui-generis. More than 50 per cent of the population belongs in the top quintile – which is to say they take their place in the top 20 per cent of the population. Nearly 30 per cent belong in the next quintile: which is to say that more than two-thirds of the population belongs in the top 40 per cent of the population.

That’s not a matter of dry statistics. The Canberra population includes disproportionate numbers of the best educated: by far and away the highest proportion of PhDs in the population, and higher than average proportions of graduates. Jobs and incomes are there to match. This is not to say – I emphasise – that Canberra does not have significant pockets of poverty and disadvantage, but even there, proportionately, the nation’s capital is not usually near the top of the lists.

Put in another way, the average resident of Canberra has an income and general standard of living perhaps 20 per cent higher than is the average in any other Australia city. There are suburbs, or suburban agglomerations in other cities which have, on average, wealthier people: the Tooraks, the Rose Bays and the Peppermint Groves for example. But these are surrounded by areas of much lower average standards of living. When I put Canberra at the top I am speaking of the average of the whole city – the wealthier sections, the medians, and those which are worst off.

Depending on how one measures it, indeed, it is quite possible that the average standard of living in Canberra is the highest of any substantial city anywhere in the world. Indeed, even the average for Australia is right up there at or near the top.

The people of Canberra do very well… This is, apparently, paradise.

The people of Canberra do very well. Our standard of living is the standard to which billions of the world’s citizens, even in nations such as the United States, or parts of southern Europe can only aspire. This is, apparently, paradise.

We are safe. We have good shelter. We have, I should think, more square metres of roof over our heads per person than any nation on earth. We have clean water, and excellent and secure food supplies, even in times of drought. We have abundant reserves of energy. We have probably more vehicles per household than any country on earth. We have one of the world’s longest lifespans. We have excellent educational institutions, of high standards and high participation rates. Unemployment rates are low. Our tax rates are very low. Our economy, local and national, is in good shape.

But there now seems less sense of partnership between our city fathers and all of the rest of Australia in the stewardship of a common vision of a National capital. The National Capital Authority has more or less withdrawn from an active interest in anything other than the lake and the national triangle. It promotes tourism but does very little to engender any sort of public excitement around the idea that the project is a continuing one, a work in being, and one still needs a regular infusion of ideas and feedback from the wider Australia. An impression is created that the job of building the national city has now ended and that there is nothing left to do.

Politicians have become focused on short-term considerations, on political stunts and on winning the next election. Most eschew the vision thing. What we do not get is long term planning, long term vision, the establishment of projects – a national arboretum for example, that might take a century to realise. Parliament has less and less influence over the shaping of decisions or the expression of the popular will. There is little debate about policy, whether in parliament, in its committees, or even, it sometimes seems, in Cabinet itself. It is mostly about political advantage or creating the public relations appearance of doing something.

Down the track, I fear, a sense of disengagement, apathy or impotence will settle around the idea of continuing public involvement in the national capital project. Territorial government pretends it doesn’t care much, focused on short-term management and short-term income maximisation by selling off the primary asset intended for the funding of the ongoing Canberra – its land supply.

The point is – the most important point – is that the very term “capital” means something more than a place where one sites a city. It also involves the sense of being a treasure – working stock from which one improves, repairs, develops and adapts. It is a treasure belonging as much to all Australians as to those of us blessed to be here. Attending to the task of stewardship seems to have proven too hard, or too boring for those who have been trustees. It is a matter too important for politicians. It really is time for citizens to get involved by their own mechanisms, outside conventional politics, before the whole edifice tumbles down, the capital distributed to creditors.

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