Book Review

Canberra, Paul Daley, 2012

canberra-paul-daleyThis is small book is another in the city series published by Newsouth (University of NSW). I have previously reviewed Hobart (click here) and Adelaide (click here). Paul Daley has told a set of stories about Canberra, the National Capital. Sadly he seems to not have invested the time to gather local knowledge about the city, its people, its life style and its complexities as a 21st Century city of 380,000 people.

The author has defaulted to telling much of the story of the establishment of the national capital, put too much emphasis on dealing with the perceived cultural cringe and attitudes towards Canberra and has allocated a token amount of the book to dealing with some local personalities and their stories. This book is a view from inside that media bubble that exists in Canberra as the National Capital. This book is not about Canberra, the city of 380,000 people.

Many Canberra based journalists, and just about all the federal politicians,  stay within their own bubble and have become removed from the real complexities of the world in which most people exist. While I recognise that the author is located inside this bubble, he at least seems to be a not quite part of the hardcore mainstream who permanently inhabit the dungeons of Parliament House and never see the daylight or smell any roses. Most of the journalists who habit the infamous political and media space bubble have set views on many aspects of Canberra and they find it impossible to consider views outside that culture of comfort they inhabit.

One example of this is when journalists have spent too much time close to politicians and planners and have accepted the spin about how the residents complain too much about planning decisions. The norm is to class such residents as NIMBYs rather than address and discuss the issues they raise. This is a derogatory term meaning that residents oppose everything and therefore they are classed under the phrase: Not In My Back Yard.

Paul Daley quotes from an old guard of the former Labor Government who said that Canberra has a population of 350,000 and that when it comes to planning it also has 350,000 planners who want to have their say. You could not have more accurately have summed up the current political situation whereby politicians, planners and journalists have removed themselves from being interested in the needs and aspirations of citizens. Such a clichéd view of the world has dominated our society for several decades.

This view is echoed in Paul Daley’s book. What Paul Daley missed was that Canberra has a highly engaged population. This intellectual and creative base is ignored  by local and federal politicians, is mocked by most journalists, is hated by local developers and their mates in the bureaucracy of government planning and development agencies. I think we see which side of the fence the author has chosen to inhabit.

I have the view that many involved in battles with the local planning authority are proud to be labelled a NIMBY. They are looking forward to seeing how the city changes and could be redeveloped, wish that climate change was addressed in new developments instead of being ignored (Green Wash at best); and despite the best efforts and myths put out by many journalists such as the author of this book, they accept that urban infill is to happen. But they are very annoyed by the lack of good design, absence of intelligent planning and definitely do not want any more of those cheaply rendered crap units built in the tree-lined and presently rich in biodiversity neighbourhoods/ our back yards! Various versions of this could have been a very interesting story told by the author.

The book is a good read for anyone who has not read other books on Canberra or at least is looking for an accessible introduction to how and why the city is where it is. I suspect there are many other books that perform this function.

What the author failed to do as part of his research was to undertake the exercise that Peter Timms did in preparation for his book on Hobart. He needed to get out and wander into the many nooks and crannies of the city to meet a far greater diversity of peoples. Instead he has travelled down the road of a heritage researcher and concentrated on a few of the interesting and intriguing tales to do with the establishment of the national capital.

I have to congratulate the author on hitting the nail on the head in dealing with the great myth that Canberra was designed by Walter Griffin and Marion Mahoney. They won the design competition, but to this day Canberra planning has been dominated incompetent and mean-spirited planning authorities and architectural professions. The city has some great design elements but most of what has followed has been bad planning and development that is gradually trashing any former design successes. This is not a well planned city. It has some great assets, but many amazingly terrible planning outcomes. Planners and their developer mates are not designers and it shows in how the newer suburbs are being developed.

Then there is that clichéd description of the book by the publishers.

“Canberra is a city of orphans. People arrive temporarily for work, but stay on because they discover unanticipated promise and opportunity in a city that the rest of the country loathes but can’t really do without,” says Daley. “In Canberra, people don’t ask you where you went to school, as they do in Melbourne, or where your house is and how much you paid for it, as they do in Sydney. They ask you where you’ve come from. And how long you’re going to stay.”

For the publisher and the author here’s another version: People are born in and live in Canberra happily by choice; people move here for the quality of life – by choice (that includes me); loads of people outside Canberra love the place; and yes loads of people outside Canberra go on about it ( as others do about cities they do not live in); loads of people depart for other cities, as they do from other cities for a host of reasons, and many of those return – by choice.

Besides his many walks up Red Hill, which is a great place to go, I strongly suggest that the author needs to come down occasionally from above the clouds and travel outside his bubble amongst some other people outside his usual comfort zone. Then he just may start to see the Canberra he missed. It is not all beautiful and cozy, and it has a lot more complexities than the few he spoke with and loads more than were reflected in the great superficial exercise run recently under the auspices of the now almost forgotten, Canberra Centenary Celebrations.

Without too much thinking, I can suggest just a few of the stories missed in such a book on Canberra: The Gus’s coffee shop battle for outside seating; the demise of the Capital Cinema in Manuka; the national cultural institutions and their connections to the life of Canberra; the lack of planning for community cultural facilities; the great planning wars that have greatly effected the lives of Canberra citizens for several decades; bureaucratic mysteries such as the mistake to protect an overpass bridge supports following the lessons learnt from the tragedy of the Hobart Bridge collapse – the barriers were located incorrectly and now protect the side solid earth embankments instead of the thin poles in the centre that hold up the overpass; the irrelevance of the National Capital Authority – being a good idea at the time but now well passed its used-by-date; the sad saga of very good public art in Canberra under the former Chief Minister that was cancelled due to the no-conservative lobby assisted by the local journalists; the rise of the two supermarkets and the demise of the local shops; the day bodies floated in from Queanbeyan to Lake Burley Griffin; stories around what happened in 2003 with the bush fire that entered the city and could have easily penetrated as far as Parliament House; the early years of Summernats and riots in North Canberra; Tilley’s cafe and wine bar and how the boys tried to have it closed down; the death of Civic as  place to be seen and promenade due to the rise and rise of the Big Box Mall known as the Canberra Centre; Braddon’s change of life from semi industrial to cafe culture; Queanbeyan as the gateway to Canberra; how the brothels were once in many suburban shopping centres till they were all shunted off to the industrial estates of Mitchell and Fyshwick; how local journalist love to keep alive the resentment of the existence of the ACT Government (rather than being a department of the Federal Government); how previous Commonwealth planning bureaucrats planned for great freeways to bisect Canberra – and hence why Canberra did not get a good transport system including trams or light rail; the good times and bad times of a working life in the Commonwealth bureaucracies; the atrocious driving habits of Canberra drivers despite how wonderful the roads are; the mystery of why Canberra residents are not seen walking in their suburban streets; the short-lived Melbourne Cup holiday that was killed off by the restaurant industry as everyone went down the coast for long weekend holiday instead of having the traditional long public servant Melbourne Cup lunches; and there’s many more.


Recommendation: rating 6/10

Reviews of this series: Hobart / Adelaide / Canberra


Paul Costigan


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