What's Great About Canberra

Some fresh young migrants to Canberra complain about the city. It doesn’t have any graffiti-lined alleyways, enough cafes, any swank bars or funky places to eat, much live music or a cool post-communist chic a la Berlin. Apparently, there also isn’t anything to do. But it does have some perks.

For starters, it has the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, among others, which feature works from artists who are a touch more talented than your average graffitist. It hosts the Groovin the Moo music festival annually (Dizzee Rascal headlining this year) and a live music scene that is easy to plug into (try listening to “Local ‘n’ Live” on 2XX for info). There are at least eleven cafes on campus and another eight between us and the city. There’s also parliament and Australia’s only policy school (Crawford at the ANU). If you give two stuffs about what’s going on with public affairs in this nation you might want to familiarise yourself with them.

Next up is the environment—you’re living in the Bush Capital. There are deciduous European trees on the streets and native wildflowers in the yards that make the city an ocular feast in autumn and spring. You can reach a nature reserve in ten minutes by bike from just about anywhere. You can drive to a national park in fifteen. If you live in the suburbs you’ll occasionally find a kangaroo mowing the grass in your backyard. But sure, if you prefer concrete, bad air, living in a shoebox and exercising in a gym where everyone’s body odour is recycled through the air conditioning maybe you’d be better off in New York.

Then there’s the community. This isn’t hugely important to most students who can socialise on campus, but it should be noted that several ACT sports competitions are larger per capita than their Sydney equivalents, and you don’t need to travel for 90 minutes to get to a game. The ACT also has small but dedicated groups for just about any hobby, from war gaming to orienteering through to Baha’i.
Yet people still say there isn’t anything to do. Perhaps they mean there isn’t much nightlife. But if your idea of “something to do” is going to a dark room full of strangers to pay overprice to drink poison and talk about the same shit you always talk about then I’m suspicious you’re boring, not Canberra.

Allow me an academic explanation; we’re at a university after all. There is a great paper by Canberra MP Professor Andrew Leigh and UQ Professor Paul Frijters called “Materialism on the March”. It discusses the difference between conspicuous consumption—buying things for their signalling abilities, like tennis attire or a delightfully indie bag—and conspicuous leisure—being really good at actually playing tennis, or having a solid grasp of modern art, for example. One could simplistically say that investing a lot of time in conspicuous leisure leads to having a personality while conspicuous consumption merely suggests you have one.

The paper conjectures that investing in conspicuous leisure is a poor decision in circumstances where you won’t form long term, deep relationships with people, because in such circumstances people can’t get to know you enough to be exposed to your leisure investments. Such conditions tend to prevail in places with high migrations flows and large populations—places like Sydney. In such places people are incentivised to invest in outward signs of personality rather than actual personality.

This phenomenon plays out in Canberra. In part because of the limited nightlife people instead engage in activities, like clubs and coffee dates, that require getting to know people. As a result, many Canberrans need to be interesting if they want to have friends, so they have hobbies and opinions, read books and generally develop interests.

A virtuous cycle forms that encourages less and less investment in the things required for nightlife signalling—manipulative flirting skills, expensive clothes and a kitty for taxis and cover charges—and more and more in conversation topics. In Sydney you might ask someone what they do for a living. They tell you they are a banker. An hour later and you still don’t know whether they are a stockbroker or the receptionist, whether they have any hobbies or who they vote for. But hey, at least you’ve learnt about all the neighbourhood bars where you enter through a crawlspace and drink out of a jam jar—how fascinating.

Sydney and other cities where there are “lots of things to do” are founded on three dynamics—trends, the Rat Race and the Game—none of which are wholesome or meaningful. In contrast, being happy in Canberra is more dependent on interpersonal skills, honesty and character. In Sydney you might be judged by what shoes you’re wearing (because what else can people know about you?). In Canberra you’re more likely to be judged by whether you are boring or not. I know where I would rather live.