Thursday, October 29, 2009

Canberra is not the problem

Paul Keating says "Canberra was in essence a great mistake".

Malcom Fraser says the new Parliament House should not have been built.

They are both wrong.

Canberra is a nice city, yes. With lovely people and a beautiful environment. But it is not un-Australian.

If anything it is the most Australian of Australia's cities, inland, small, friendly; with big backyards.

Jack Waterford cogently argues that it is not Canberra that is out of touch with the rest of Australia, but Parliament House that is out of touch with Canberra.

I've extracted highlights below the fold.

"My guess is that opposition to shifting the Australian capital to Sydney or Melbourne would be even more fierce today than it was 110 years ago; this time, however, probably joined by the citizens of NSW and Victoria as well as all the other states.

Each of these cities is a beautiful thing, Sydney more organic, for what that is worth, than Melbourne but neither is so well planned or designed that it could easily cope with the transport and other problems of plonking a parliament in a prominent place, let alone the infrastructure, buildings and insignia of a national capital...

When Keating was prime minister he would muse aloud, sometimes, about having the executive government thrown out of Parliament House. It would, he thought, be good for Parliament, as a legislature, and for improving the quality of administrative government.

I think he was right on that. One does not hear him on the subject now but it would be even better if the press gallery was thrown out of Parliament at the same time. Not prevented from reporting Parliament and the politics in and around the building, but forced to headquarter itself elsewhere, in the process being forced to inhale some of the air of Canberra as opposed to the air-conditioning of its mini-city.

Relocating ministers to offices in their departments could serve as a partial antidote to their increasing tendency to see comparatively little of their departmental advisers but to live cheek by jowl with political advisers. Minders themselves spend more time liaising with minders in other political offices than in dealing with departments.

Building, for our Prime Minister, a proper lodge with adequate living quarters and public spaces for entertaining and conducting cabinet, etc, and a reasonable "west wing"-style prime ministerial office, would give the position the dignity it holds in our constitutional system (whether in its present monarchical or later republican form).

Just as importantly, we might get a better parliamentary service from a building no longer so dominated by the "need" to give so much accommodation to ministers or for prime ministers and other ministers to colonise parliamentary spaces for their press conferences and functions, and by the way that ministers feel able to alter parliamentary timetables and routines simply for their personal convenience.

This is not to say that governments would not have the numbers in the Parliament, or be in a position to arrange matters according to the incumbents' view of the world. But a controlled distance between executive and Parliament might increase mutual respect, and, possibly, help restore a few balances.

A part of Keating's lament is that while one is slaving away at Parliament House, a run down to Manuka for some Chinese food does not always seem attractive. No doubt it is different these days in Double Bay, where he presides over coffee and croissants most mornings.

But his comment conceals a truth which reflects on journalists and minders as much as on politicians. Parliament House is a city in itself, down to its own cafes. A good many people who work there leave it only to fall into bed. Or, leaving late, only to go to bars patronised by journalists, minders and politicians, before falling into someone else's bed. The politicians who fly in and out according to the sitting schedule experience very little of Canberra. Those parts of Canberra, chiefly Manuka and Kingston, which were created for this sort of bizarre lifestyle, bear very little relationship to the way most Canberrans live, or the way most Australians live. It may suit politicians to pretend that they hate Canberra and can never wait to leave it, and that leaving Canberra is re-entering the real world.

The unreal world, however, is not "Canberra", but the life of the suitcase, the non-stop meetings, pretending one is living in a university college or boarding school, and the Holy Grail and other such hangouts. Young (mostly) unmarried journalists like to affect the same sort of ennui, anomie and world-weariness, and tend to blame Canberra rather than themselves. Merchant bankers and young lawyers, I am told, have many of the same problems in Sydney, if at about thrice the expense."

Related Posts

. "The young men in Kevin Rudd's office could get old and not even notice"

. Canberra in Autumn

. Not leaving Canberra