Do we need a federal capital, anyway?

This is the Centenary year of Australia’s federal capital, and while Canberrans will be celebrating, it is not clear that anyone else will be doing so. Canberra is not widely popular. It gets lots of visitors, for a visit to the national capital has become a rite of passage for Australian families and couples. And those who come seem to be impressed, for there is a lot to be impressed at. In its design, layout and the integration of the built and the natural landscapes, Canberra is a work of art, and in its major buildings it contains much that is beautiful, valuable and of national importance.

But its beauty and attractions set up a rival emotion, which is that of envy. Why isn’t my home town as good as this? And that can led to the assumption that the visitor is somehow paying for the good things that the people who live in Canberra enjoy. One federal Minister who was responsible for the national capital, when I had a role in its planning and management, told me that there was no reason why the people of Canberra should  enjoy facilities that were denied the people of his home city. He seemed unaware that most of these were provided by the ACT government, not the Commonwealth, and that his home city could easily do the same.

The cross that the federal capital bears is that it is the home of the federal government, and that is not popular at all, at any time. No federal government is. I have heard people in Alberta speaking of ‘Ottawa’ in terms of loathing, and heard equivalent tones in California about ‘Washington’. The speakers are not talking about the city at all, but about a level of government that acts in ways that affect them. There is still a sentiment in Western Australia that that state is wealthy enough, and confident enough, and populous enough, to go it alone, as a new country, one that wouldn’t have ‘Canberra’ on its back all the time.

I have encountered this kind of sentiment over the last fifty years, and have come to accept it as one of the natural costs of federating. No one alive today can remember what it was like when there were six self-governing colonies, all with, or preparing to set up, their own armies and navies, all with their own customs systems, posts and telegraphs and public services. It was obvious enough that, given a common language, common heritage and similar histories, the colonies should federate, but it did not at all happen overnight. I can remember asking my mother’s mother, who was thirteen years old when Federation occurred, what it felt like when that happened. ‘It was a good thing, dear’ was her reply. This was in the 1960s, when she was in her seventies.

It was a good thing, and one of the inseparable consequences of the coming together of the colonies as a single nation was that the nation should have a separate and distinctive capital city. No existing colonial capital would do, because it would derive too much consequence and wealth from being also the home of the national government. So the compromise was that the new capital would be in New South Wales somewhere, and not too close to Sydney, and until it was built and able to house the federal parliament, that body should sit in Melbourne.

And so it was. The site and the name were chosen in 1913, the parliament moved in 1927, in 1956 the then Prime Minister, R. G. Menzies, decided that it was time to move the bulk of the public service there as well. What we have today is a city of around 400,000 people that is, for its size, the most creative, well-educated and energetic city in the country. I have lived there for most of my life, arriving in 1943, leaving in 1950, returning in 1961, leaving for overseas in 1964, returning in 1966, leaving in 1971, and returning again in 1980. It is the only place in the world that I know that has got better as it has got bigger. There are some I know, whose judgment I pay attention to, who fear any further increase in population.

Canberra’s Centenary year is an opportunity for all of us to reflect on what we have learned over the past century. In my first post for this year I argued that we still have a lot to learn about how to be decent citizens, indeed, decent adults. But the growth of our nation, and the beauty and liveliness of its capital city, at least give us reassurance that we have got some things more or less right.


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