Invisible Canberra

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were in Adelaide, staying for the weekend with a friend. Over dinner one night my girlfriend commented on some comic greeting cards she’d seen in a newsagent that day and remarked, half-jokingly, that they seemed at least half as rude again as any she’d seen in Canberra. To which our friend’s Adelaide-native mother commented quite seriously: “Yes, I guess in Canberra they have to be more PC than here”.

Now, stop and think about that for a moment, and you’ll realise it’s an entirely illogical thing to suggest. Cardmakers do not manufacture a different set of cards to cater to some politically extra-sensitive Canberra market. The idea gets more ludicrous the more you think about it. Yet my Adelaide acquaintance was expressing a notion that you encounter surprisingly often once you venture outside our capital. To many, Canberra is not a city, it is the Australian government – and so the city’s greeting cards must toe the line accordingly. In the imagination of many Australians, Canberra equals policymaking, and the independent life of the city, or the people who live in it, simply does not exist.

Art critic Robyn Archer, who is directing next year’s centenary celebrations, touched on this in a speech she made last month: “Canberra is not the same thing as our federal government”, and nor should it be “described relentlessly as an enemy of the people”. Her target was the common practise in our media of using the word “Canberra” as a shorthand for “the federal government”. And she’s quite right on this: it does, after all, make no sense to say: “Canberra has imposed a 30% tax on tobacco companies”, or whatever. The tax has not been imposed by some kind of collective decision taken by a referendum of Canberra-dwelling people. British people do not say “London” when they mean “our government”. “Paris” does not send French troops to Afghanistan. How come Canberra must take the flak for all of our government’s misadventures?

Fact is, Canberra has become generally identified with its functions in the national bureaucracy, and everything else about the city has become, for many Australians, invisible. To be sure, this has been easy because Canberra is quite the lightweight as far as population and commerce are concerned. But that doesn’t excuse the entire city’s people being besmirched by constant association with our politicians. Most of Canberra has nothing to do with the politicians. We should be grateful for that.

Is this nitpicking? Probably. Am I merely preaching to the converted by saying this in a Canberra-bound university newspaper? I don’t think so. I think we Canberra locals are just as much to blame for this as anybody else. Do we not, when we go interstate, talk disparagingly of our hometown as a whitewashed land of civil servants and red tape? Do we not reinforce the image of Canberra as the policymaker and nothing else? I think many of us do. I personally don’t even like Canberra all that much, but what I dislike about it has nothing to do with its being the seat of the federal government. It’s odd to think that for much of the general population, we politically uninvolved Canberrans are, effectively speaking, invisible people.

On the other hand, last year when I was in Queensland I met an Australian man of my age who had sincerely never heard of Canberra. I suppose Canberra-the-Policymaker is at least a step up from that.

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