A stab in the back for the heart of the nation.

I had three people bag Canberra to me today. First, I watched a video embedded in this link, in which Former Prime Minister Keating described it as ‘a great mistake’. Malcolm Fraser then described Parliament House as ‘not meritorious in itself’. He was trying his hardest to be nice.

FIve minutes later I was instant messaged by a friend who lives there. Unprompted, she concurred, delivering the pithy soundbite they were aiming at: ‘the can sucks… :( ‘

And it’s true.

I spent three years living there, and discovered a simple truth: the layout of a city affects your life.

If I was miserable there, at least some of the fault rests on the shoulder of Mr Walter Burley Griffin, the American architect who won the design competition for the nation’s capital.

Canberra has too much parkland. There’s more straggly grass and native shrubs than Kevin Rudd has committees of inquiry. While it looks frikking lovely on google maps, it is too expensive to light these areas at night, and means the distances in the capital are not walkable. Even in the suburbs, the city is so lightly populated that only the most generic of shops can survive within walking distance of one’s home. It’s bland.

Some blame should also go to the nuff-nuffs who decided that Canberra should be inland, while every other significant settlement in Australia is on the coast. It’s cold there. If Sydney and Melbourne couldn’t agree, at least the capital should have been in the balmy, blissful surrounds of Merimbula.

You could locate the steering house of a modern economy there, and fill it with staff before morning tea. And then you could go for a surf.  I’ve been to Merimbula, and they do very good fish and chips.

Meanwhile, Canberra’s public transport you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. Hourly services. Nothing after seven on weekends.

You have to pay public servants a premium to work for the federal government. Most of them were born and bred in Melbourne and Sydney and they love to escape for the weekend, and then eventually give Canberra the flick. If you put the capital somewhere less bucolic, public service staff retention might improve.

Are we stuck with the Can? Keating said that if you properly depreciate the billion bucks we spent on Parliament House in ’88, we can walk away from the asset in about 25 years. His plan is this: relocate to Garden Island in Sydney.

Bring it on. Your thoughts?

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

26 thoughts on “A stab in the back for the heart of the nation.”

  1. The problem with Canberra isn’t the city; it’s the mindless Public Service work that occupies most of the population. I think the work of the city affects lives more than the layout.


  2. I agree that the layout of the Can really does suck. But i’m with the previous commentor. Sort of. If you move to Canberra to work for the government or on the fringes of government, you quickly find you are moving in a very small circle. Everyone knows everyone. And the thing is, the people who’ve been there a while seem to believe they are important because they know people are government ministers or heads of department. There is no denying that power resides in Canberra but it is overstated. When you live in another city you’ll still have the same claims to self importance going on, but they will come from bankers, miners, tv execs, artists… There is always someone else who values something else and it makes for a more interesting conversation.


  3. What a shit hole.

    Move it to somewhere that people give a shit about and perhaps we’ll retain good minds for the public service.

    Unfortunately it is a destination of transients who, whilst often being the best and brightest in their fields, often just want to get the fuck out of there to somewhere that matters, with a beach.

    Sorry about the swearing, just wanted to make a point.


    1. Consider it expectations management, Jen. As Clown2 says, you can have a good time there, for a while at least….


  4. I feel that Canberra gets more of a bad rap than it absolutely deserves. It’s not BAD – it’s just not very GOOD. you find yourself drifting along doing the same thing, over and over, but if that thing is reasonably fun – like red wine and cheese, or weekends in Jindabyne, then it’s a bit like life on medication: all the sharp highs are removed, but everything is comfortable enough to avoid precipitous lows, as well.

    I do have one idea though – how about a train line from Tuggers through the southside to Manuka and Kingston, under Parliament house and the lake to Civic, then up north? one line, perhaps 4 trains – it’s not very far, and Canberra is very long and narrow, good for trains.


    1. I like your thinking! but subways require what they call a ‘pedshed’ or a dense area within pedestrian distance of the stop. Maybe Woden plaza fits the bill, but most of the subway stops would be near about a dozen unrenovated 1950s style homes, a mob of kangaroos, a needlessly big freeway and an IGA.


  5. I don’t want to offend Canberra-ites, but here’s the thing…whilst I agree that Canberra is not as bad as people sometimes make it out to be (hey it’s quiet, safe, ‘pleasant’), that’s as much a reflection of how bad people make it out to be as much as anything else…The problem is not the work – much of it is really interesting to many people (including myself) and public servants in the states and territories enjoy working in their public services. It’s Canberra. It’s soulless. Nothing happens. Everyone knows everyone and so life becomes becomes monotonous, plain and uninteresting. It’s so clique-y and sometimes people there are so judgemental. Part of the reason for its boring-ness is that it’s so spaced out and there are few centres of any real activity, but part of it is just Canberra. Having moved there from Melboune and having now just recenty moved back to Melbourne, all I can say is that I want those three years of my life back. Anywhere would be better as our national capital – I’d pick Bonnie Doon over Canberra.


  6. The public circus… keeping so many useless people in paid employment… And some useful people who just aren’t doing a lot.


  7. I feel I must step forward and shoulder some of the Canberra blame-game. My great-great-great-great grandfather (Senator John Croft) was instrumental in picking Canberra as the site of our national capital. As I hate to believe ill of my forebears, I can only imagine that the other sites were absolute shit-holes. Be grateful, at least it wasn’t Moe!


  8. Jarrett, do you mean the Aussie idea of democracy or owning a house on a 1/4 acre block? The former is worth keeping (I can say this now the Howard era is over), for the latter – if you still beleive in it, look no further than Canberra to change your mind. There is pretty much no high density housing there (some improvements in the last 5 years I’ll grant) and it really makes it less livable. Less density make it harder for local shops and PT routes to survive. Which in turn makes it harder for community to survive – it becomes a car culture where you only talk to people you know. I was born in Canberra and I moved away when I was 19 (along with all my school friends). What struck me about Melbourne was that people were friendly, strangers saying hi on the street. I thought the big city would be unfriendly but in fact the density makes us live better together. It’s just a reality that if everyone lives on their 1/4 acre it makes for a bad city to live in.


  9. Puffin, even Canberra is developing high-density areas, though admittedly it’s at an early stage. The Strategic PT Network Plan that I’m working on is all about helping organise the development of additional density around high-quality PT corridors.

    The Aussie values I was referring to are a certain humility toward the land itself, particularly in the organisation of the axis system around Mt Ainslie, the protection of almost all the hills, the half-buried Parliament House, and thus the general sense that the capital is laying low relative to the landscape.


  10. It appears that Canberra is quite an important topic for all you public servants. Saying that, just be thankful that Australia is not Myanmar.

    Apart from the obvious soul-crushing impact of living under a despotic regime, Myanmar also moved their capital recently from Yangon (Rangoon for all you colonialists) to a city called Naypyidaw.

    The Government decided it was sick of living in fear of a Buddhist monk led revolution and moved the entire capital inland into the middle of a jungle swamp. Then they fortified the city and moved in a large portion of the army and public servants.

    Unfortunately, the malarial ramifications of moving a bunch of city-slicker public servants into a swamp was not thought through resulting in a lot of sick days (legitimately taken as opposed to their Australian counterparts). Furthermore, the most popular entertainment in the place is apparently prostitutes brought in from the border towns, resulting in rampant AIDS issues.

    Think about how lucky you were that all you had to deal with was a few kangaroos, biting cold and inadequate urban planning before dissing our nation’s capital. Yes it sucks, but at least, relatively, it was better than catching AIDS off a malarial hooker.


    1. YES i WAS THINKING OF MOVING To Myanmar for my pension years so as to write the great pot boiler novel ,BUT crumbling ruined RANGOON ,NOT THE NEW CAPITAL ..I HAVE HEARD CANBERRA HAS MORE SEX SHOP VIDEOS THAN ANY OTHER CITY..BUT HEY ONE DAY IT WILL BE LIKE WASHINGTON DC ..,grubby and delightfully decadent ..but IT NEEDS someone like Donald Trumpe to set up a developer driven real estate model so they can build a BROOKLYN style into the planning model.Kevin Rudd or Keatings kids might do something like that hey..??? a chip off the old blocks that becomes the renegades to olden days socialist theories.
      Give Canberra time to become like Rome the eternal city…ITS NOT TIME YET.




    MY Mates and I quickly drove on to Thredbo in the FE after looking at the war memorial. Yes its like a great big University sort of place ,all academic ,with a direct line to the ABC tv so it must be the most boring city in Australia in which to live.
    Later on post education years,… I met a whole bunch of Canberras sons and daughters
    (1975 )and they were all wealthy senators daughters and bureaucrats sons mainly drug addicts and alcoholics. Fun parties were that lefty Murdoch Uni crowd .
    Apparently the great Whitlam coup had happened in education and they got even more money to waste on stuff that ordinary people are not interested in ..like bad comedey on the ABC tv.
    Australia then lost how to, laugh at itself as it was banned to be anti the LABOR party and the WORKING CLASS in those days.
    It sort of still is, post RUDD who is retarded I think .

    But now days there is a rumour that they (Canberra)needs different housing since the 100 year old celebrations led by that GAY women from Adelaide Rbin someone or tother…who likes Berthold Bretch. Cant think of her full name overrated but with the propaganda corps .
    Anyway to solve not only the transit RAIL problem and HOUSING CRISIS why not move all the people that are unemployed and on the dole to CANBERRA and give them a job building apartments.., sort of six stories high.NAPOLEON built a new Paris after the revolution with the help of Baron Houseman and it would free up Sydney and Melbourne and save on stamps and food vouchers.


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