Aerial panorama of Canberra, including Parliament House
Recording date:

The annual Canberra Day Oration, presented by Emeritus Professor John Warhurst AO, and titled 'A Pleasant Drive from Sydney: The Mystery and Magic of Canberra'. 

Professor Warhurst is a career academic in political science with a particular interest in public education. His research interests include Australian political parties, interest groups, elections, lobbying, religion and politics. In 2009, he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia for service to higher education, particularly in the field of political science, as an academic, author and commentator on national and international political issues, and to the community.

In association with The Canberra and District Historical Society.

Transcript of 2016 Canberra Day Oration: ‘A Pleasant Drive from Sydney: the Mystery and Magic of Canberra’

Speakers: Julia Ryan (J), Emeritus Professor John Warhurst (W)

Location: National Library of Australia

Date: 12/03/2016

J:             Well I think I can say good afternoon, just, and welcome to the 2016 Canberra Day Oration and I’m Julia Ryan and I’m currently President of the Canberra and District Historical Society who’s organising this with the help, of course, of the National Library. I acknowledge that we are meeting on the traditional Aboriginal lands and I pay respects to their elders, past and present.

Our 2016 orator probably needs very little introduction but I’m going to do it anyway. He was educated in Adelaide, appointed to many tertiary institutions in South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and the United Kingdom, and of course our own Australian National University, where he worked in the research school of social sciences and then returned as Professor of Political Science, a position he held from 1993 to 2008. He is now of course Professor Emeritus.

Active in the Australian Republican Movement, he was national chair from 2002 to 2005. And Professor Warhurst has many publications, I’m not going to read them all out here but salient ones include the Politics and Management of Australia’s Bicentenary, obviously in the 1980s, The Church and Public Debate in 2004, Behind Closed Doors: Politics, Scandals in the Lobbying Industry, 2007 ... as you can see highly relevant ... and Charity and Justice: St Mary MacKillop and Australian Society in 2012. Now that’s ... he’s ... many known to us all and of course a frequent contributor to the Canberra Times where I’m sure we all read his columns. So without further ado, Professor Warhurst.


W:          Thanks very much, Julia. Is that better? Can people hear me? I’ve titled my oration ‘A Pleasant Drive from Sydney: The Mystery and the Magic of Canberra.’ I too would like to begin by paying my respects to the Ngunnawal people and to Aboriginal elders past and present including any elders present today. I respect that they are the traditional owners of the land on which we are meeting.

Thank you to the Canberra and District Historical Society for doing me the honour of inviting me to give this Canberra Day Oration for 2016. I’ve looked at the list of the previous orators as you do and I’m humbled to be considered worthy of joining their company. The first one was given by the renowned physicist, Professor Mark Oliphant of the ANU in 1962 and other orators have included the jurist Michael Kirby, the fire-fighting chief Phil Chaney, the Parliamentary Officer Harry Evans, and last year, the author Marion Halligan.

I think a lot about this city, which has been my home for nearly 30 years in all. That thinking sometimes occurs when I fly into our big new airport, frequently on a little Dash 8 plane, and I have the chance to see our city from the air. I can see a city that’s still growing into its skin. I’m grateful for the opportunity to add my thoughts to productive conversations about the place of the national capital in the Commonwealth of Australia. They’ll be the thoughts of a political scientist but they’ll also be the thoughts of a citizen with a much wider interest in sport, culture and religion. And perhaps because I’m a political scientist with these interests I’ve always seen myself as a close observer of institutions and people.

My first observation is that Canberra and its people are full of contradictions. We are torn between being proud that we are Australia’s best kept secret and between wanting recognition and acclaim from Australia at large, and sometimes from the world. We are torn between protecting our existing city and the lifestyle we love, and wanting some growth to enhance our opportunities to do things in Canberra rather than having to go elsewhere, especially to Sydney, to do some of those things.

We’re not sure whether we want to be a little city or a bigger one, so we can’t agree on an optimum size for Canberra. We are torn between being happily different, a public service town, and wishing we were more like the rest of Australia sometimes. We are divided between those who are comfortable to be dependent on Sydney or New South Wales or the Commonwealth, and those who enjoy the relative independence that self-government brings and want to expand that independence further. It’s these contradictions, I think, which produce tensions which may be generally healthy, but which can flame up into ugly divisions.

The first part of my oration is about the location, the size and the character of Canberra. And it’s those characteristics I think which first and foremost define us. Let’s start with the most obvious location ... characteristic, our location. When the national capital was located in this particular place it had to be no closer than 100 miles from either Sydney or Melbourne. At that time 100 miles must have seemed like a very long way indeed, certainly long enough to guarantee the city a separate and independent existence. But that’s no longer the case. When the Australian actor, Simon Baker ... some of you will know him, of The Mentalist television fame ... visited Canberra late last year for a private preview of the Tom Roberts exhibition, he was talking up the exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, he apparently liked the exhibition, which is a good thing, but according to reports was initially less keen on Canberra. And in answer to a typically cringeworthy question which we all sometimes ask, about what he loved about the capital, he replied initially ‘well it’s not far from Sydney, it’s a pleasant drive’.

He’s right, of course, in a way, we shouldn't mock him too much for that answer. Canberra’s now much closer to the western spread of Sydney in a way that could not have been predicted at the creation of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901 or at the foundation of Canberra in 1913. Canberra has a special relationship with Sydney. We’re even second home to an Australian Rules Football team of which I’m a member, called Greater Western Sydney. We have our own local newspaper for which I’m a columnist, The Canberra Times, which seems to be heading towards a merger with the Sydney Morning Herald.

Down the highway, Sydney is a cultural and sporting outlet for an increasing number of Canberrans, who go to Sydney to shop, to see shows and for surgery. In these ways we recognise that there are needs that Canberra cannot always provide. It is indeed a pleasant drive either way, whether by car or by bus, and day trips which I know many of you will know are now a comfortable possibility. Sydney is also home to both Kirribilli House and Admiralty House, making it an outlet or even a semipermanent home for both our Prime Minister and our Governor General, who should live in the Lodge and at Government House, Yarralumla as a sign of their national roles and responsibilities.

Now in reality only Sydney-based prime ministers are attracted to a home in their own city, I think, rather than Canberra, and some may have a half-hearted commitment to living in the Lodge. Prime ministers from other states, for practical reasons as much as anything else, will all live fulltime in Canberra, always bearing in mind that in our system of government they still represent an electorate elsewhere.

We certainly should worry about prime ministers who choose not to live here, like John Howard, and campaign against that disrespectful choice so long as we understand that the rest of Australia doesn’t really care. It’s just politics to them, and these details of who lives where are not high on their list of priorities. That is why when we voice our outrage, and a good bit of outrage is always a good thing, I think we should always craft our response in terms of the insult this privileging of Sydney is to the other capitals in our nation, not just to Canberra if we really want to have an impact on nationwide public debate.

Sydney has a special place in our lives, but the Canberra–Sydney relationship is actually symbolic of the relationship between the national capital and Australia’s two biggest cities, Sydney and Melbourne. Between them they are the powerhouses of the federation, the economical, political and cultural hubs of our nation. Canberra can never hope to match them, and their elites are not bothered by any threat from Canberra. They own us, they own Canberra in economic and political terms, and it’s some of their citizens in my experience who also find it hardest to settle here, because they’re used to life in a much bigger city.

In my view a more interesting dynamic within our federation, within our nation, exists between Canberra and the other four capital cities: Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart. They recognise the danger of Canberra to them, because it’s a code for the longstanding golden triangle of Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. They’ve always had a more ambivalent relationship towards the nation as represented by Canberra. This is shown in various ways; they are less likely to support initiatives that come from Canberra, referendum results show this. But ironically, they are cities of comparable size, and speaking as a member of the Adelaide diaspora, their citizens usually settle well into Canberra.

At a more practical level these other four state capitals also see Canberra, I think, as a threat to their place among the top six cities of the nation. One recent example of—and this is for them has practical consequences. One recent example of this was the outcry in Hobart over the suggestion that Canberra should have a place in the annual test cricket calendar. One Tasmanian cricket official slammed Canberra cricket officials as so-called fat cat bureaucrats; we've heard that term before in our political past. While an aggrieved correspondent to The Canberra Times from Melbourne—presumably a Tasmanian in exile—claimed that until the ACT produced its own test stars, well, Canberrans can just take a flex day and catch the bus up to Sydney. I’ll come back to this type of characterisation of Canberra citizens in a while because it sums up some common feelings about our citizens and inhabitants, our city in other parts of Australia.

The size of Canberra is a second issue. In national terms ... and that’s one of those tensions that I don’t think we’re quite sure about how big we want Canberra to be ... in national terms Canberra is just a medium-size city. From Melbourne and Sydney you’d probably say it’s a small city. In international terms it certainly is a small city, and I’d like to suggest that the Australian Capital Territory was actually made too small when it was created more than 100 years ago, understandably given the times, and with hindsight should not only have been further from Sydney but have larger boundaries, ‘cause we’re now spilling over to what we know as the Canberra region; the greater Canberra region should actually be the ACT. And such a situation would also have the side effect of making local ACT politics more diverse, and in my view healthier, because it would have a hinterland outside of the capital city itself. But that’s for another day I think and that’s not the main issue I want to address now.

Canberra remains too small to impress some Australians, including, according to the Treasury head John Fraser, recently some prospective senior recruits to the Commonwealth public service. He is apparently thinking of ways or processes of restructuring, of employing senior national Treasury bureaucrats in Melbourne and Sydney, rather than Canberra. This view that talented Australians and their families don’t want to come to Canberra is also found in some sectors of the not-for-profit sector, it’s not just the Treasury. In a recent case that I know a national church agency was moved from Canberra to Sydney in part because it seems because of the acceptance of this line of argument: that a good candidate for the top job wouldn’t want to come to Canberra. I think that’s a dodgy argument, by the way.

There are two genuine issues here, though. One is the mindset of potential Canberrans who come from Sydney, Melbourne or from big cities around the world, and we see this at the ANU occasionally. Some people, including some Australian diplomats, just like living in bigger cities and Canberra will always struggle to satisfy them. Life in Canberra. Another is the need of— and this was the need that John Fraser was referring to —the need of some dual career families, for two well-paid senior satisfying jobs in a big city. The bigger the city the better are there chances of two jobs. And there’s nothing much other than unrealistic population growth that Canberrans can do about this either other than in some cases enlightened recruitment policies that cater to this need where possible. But I would say not by locating one of the partners in Sydney or Melbourne.

The size of the Canberra population is also a factor in one of my interests, and that is construction of male national sporting competitions. Sadly Canberra has already lost the Canberra Cannons, the much loved Canberra Cannons, national league basketball team quite a few years ago now, and it’s also lost its national league soccer team, Canberra City. Football Federation Australia chief executive David Gallop commented recently that his league would only expand into markets with populations of at least a million people. I mean, on hearing this, former A league for Canberra ... and that’s a slogan ... boss, Ivan Slavich, disputed this reasoning but was despondent about any future success in attracting a national team in that particular league, the soccer league. Same thinking also applies to Australian rules and threatens even sometimes the Canberra Raiders and the ACT Brumbies from time to time. What really flourishes of course in Canberra is women’s elite sport through the Canberra Capitals, basketball, Canberra United, soccer and the ACT Meteors in cricket. And perhaps that’s where ACT government money should be directed.

Now some of us may be very satisfied with the current population of Canberra and there are many reasons why that would be the case, for aesthetic and/or sustainability reasons, environmental sustainability, population sustainability, management ... manageable traffic, clean air, quiet living and so on. But we can’t escape the fact that it does constrain our lifestyle in a number of ways, unless we are happy to go to Sydney for some things, and— here’s the rub— can afford to do so. And this is one of the tensions we can’t avoid.

We do need stadiums that are suited to the needs of national level sporting competitions and big enough to attract crowds that are large enough to sustain such competitions. And while respecting heritage values, and here I’ll probably get into trouble, and admitting that I live far away in the inner north, I’m on the side of those who recognise the need for the capacity of Manuka Oval, as it used to be called, to grow eventually to about 20,000. And I think the GWS home ground in the Homebush precinct in Sydney— some of you may have been there—which is about that size, a boutique stadium in modern terms, is a model of what Canberra should aspire to if we are to hold our own in the AFL competition and be more attractive to national and international cricket.

Now the reference earlier by a disgruntled Tasmanian living in Melbourne to fat cats takes us onto the subject of our character and reputation. I always dismiss the wilder and most superficial of the criticisms of Canberra, and we all know there’s plenty of them, but strangely they do keep coming. Did anyone notice the recent woefully silly description of Canberra by a journalist from The Telegraph in London quoting Bill Bryson and The Economist in a piece on one of our later stars, King Kyrgios of Canberra, as the article was called. Our city was apparently Pyongyang without the dystopia, and the suburbs were supposedly reminiscent of a Stepford Wives set etched upon the moon. And The Canberra Times helpfully encouraged self-flagellation by reproducing this nonsense.

But it’s not just outsiders, there is also some self-hatred within Canberra, I think, particularly when it comes to matters of self-government, about which opinions differ. I am enthusiastic supporter of self-government and a defender of the ACT assembly. Local critics, I think, slip too easily into blaming the evils of self-government for anything that annoys them— that is anything the government does that annoys them—as if greater size alone would save the day. Surely we only have to look over the border to the characteristics of the government of New South Wales paraded regularly before the Independent Commission Against Corruption to show the limitations of a much larger polity than the ACT. But we never learn. Did anyone notice the recent Canberra Times letter from a Yarralumla resident about alleged local government incompetence which characterised the ACT as Lilliput? Ouch.

Nevertheless there are aspects of the characterisation of Canberra that are real and so do matter. We are seen by other Australians as different in many ways. I don’t mind that, in fact it should be taken as a compliment. But it does build the perception of us as the odd one out. Some of the characterisations may seem trivial, such as the frequent dismissive comments about Canberra’s weather. How can you live there? Say friends and relatives elsewhere. It’s just too cold. But they accumulate in the popular imagination anyway. More significantly Canberra is seen as a public service town and as such therefore not a place where real work is done by real Australians. There is a negative caricature of public servants which does not give them due credit and Canberra takes some of the brunt of that perception and that’s ... negative perception remains alive in some quarters, as they say. The fleeting experience of federal MPs who come to Canberra for sittings of parliament doesn’t help as they don’t ever really get to know the city. Ninety-nine per cent of them anyway.

Canberra’s also seen as politically different. Summed up in former Prime Minister John Howard’s famous phrase which is—there’s variations on this famous phrase about Canberra —that it looks Killara but votes like Cessnock. In fact, that’s not true. Canberra is superficially a Labor town because it regularly returns Labor territory governments and Labor Party representatives in the House of Representatives, but it doesn’t always do that, and that is too narrow a characterisation anyway. Canberra doesn’t look like upper class Killara and certainly doesn’t vote like working class Cessnock. It’s more correct to see Canberra as a socially progressive city that voted overwhelmingly for a republic in 1999, can support centre parties like the Australia Party a few years ago and the Australian Democrats also a few years ago, and is as Green a city as you’ll find anywhere. On both sides of major party politics it produces leaders who initiate progressive social experiments which stand out from the rest of Australia. For this reason I like to think of Canberra as countercultural in the best sense. It’s also statistically a more godless place than any other state or territory, as measured by the census, and this irreligion has an impact on our public policy preferences, I think.

Those examples and that characterisation might make those who are happy to fit into that mould preen themselves with pride, but it makes the rest of Australia think that Canberrans are out of touch, and perhaps even see Canberra as a tall poppy that should be cut down to size at every opportunity. Indeed there is a legitimate sense in which living in Canberra, wonderful Canberra, can produce a false sense of how the rest of Australia thinks. I always used to tell my political science students at ANU to remember that. Different and much less sympathetic attitudes to refugees and asylum seekers are one contemporary example. There are, of course, Canberra-size parts of the bigger state capitals which think just like Canberra, we shouldn’t forget that. But they are overlooked in public popular commentary because they are submerged in a larger location. Australian public debate is conducted in terms of states and sometimes cities, rather than parts of cities.

Anyway rather than concentrating on difference which I think is an important topic I like to think of what I call the mystery and magic of Canberra. The first and biggest mystery to me is why Canberra cops the criticism that it does from the rest of Australia. I’ve raised some possibilities about difference and about tall poppies and about other aspects of the Canberra experience, about it being a political city, of course. None of those things would engender love in the rest of the country. But I’m using the term mystery here in the sense of a puzzle, a conundrum, something difficult to understand or explain.

One of the mysteries is what goes in Canberra and by that I mean not just the physical place but the state of mind. It is almost as if there are two Canberras: one where people live, laugh and work, and another where politicians reside and where Canberra does this and Canberra does that to the rest of the nation. This applies in a number of ways but especially perhaps when governments are cutting welfare benefits or other benefits. Or bringing down budgets. Canberra then becomes code for the Commonwealth Government, and political processes are not well known or appreciated in the wider community, and I think we forget that here in Canberra. Otherwise successful and well-educated people around Australia treat Canberra like a black box. Many don’t even know the difference between government, parliament and the public service, much less the technicalities of policymaking timetables and parliamentary processes and senate voting reform and double dissolutions and all of these sorts of things. They also don’t know much about the so-called faceless diplomatic community, as I saw it referred to, and its work. The CSIRO and its great scientific work and so on. Canberra is a mystery to them.

This ignorance actually generates other Canberra industry, including the lobbying industry made up of many national associations and hundreds and hundreds of independent commercial lobbyists, so it’s not all bad for Canberra. In one way, in that way. It generates specialist employment, we understand in Canberra employment, even though recent research has shown that only 14% of national associations are based here in the capital city. But it does perpetuate an air of mystery about the whole city. For many people, even if they have come here on school trips to see our national institutions as many do, Canberra as a whole remains a big unknown. This ignorance can lead some people into deliberately making Canberra the subject of misconceptions for their own benefit. In American terminology, Canberra is what is known as inside the beltway, what goes on in Canberra then becomes so-called insider gossip and is played upon by political leaders for their own purposes. And remember that increasingly Australians are rejecting insider politics. There’s a growing lack of respect for politicians and this can lead into cynicism about Canberra, which is where they are supposed to all be found.

In Tony Abbott’s last days as Prime Minister, for instance, when he was under pressure from within his own party, he famously declared that ‘I’m not going to play Canberra games’. As if that was a message that the rest of Australia understood. The message was ... I think in Mr Abbott’s mind ... that the national capital was different and was self-obsessed and the press gallery was here and therefore not to be taken seriously. He claimed, wrongly as it turned out, to still have the support of wider Australia.

In another way I think Canberra’s ruling values are also a mystery to many people. By that I mean government-centred rather than market-centred values. The heart of Canberra is the public service of the kind— and those who work with the public service—but the public service of the kind that motivated the great nation-builders of the past in the Australian Public Service. They established a public service town in the best sense of public service, but those days are mostly forgotten.

The great work of the public service, here in Canberra and elsewhere, doesn’t gain the respect it should in the wider community. One reason for this may be that some of it is secretive such as the work of the various intelligence agencies, so can’t be talked about, but there’s more to it than that. Just as it is often repeated that scientists, the scientific community, are poor at communicating the importance of their work and so don’t get the respect and funding they deserve, so is this one of the weaknesses of the public service as a whole. This is one of the weaknesses of the public service as a whole. I was often struck when teaching the sons and daughters of public servants at ANU that many of them could not explain just what their busy public servant parents actually did. One department or another, but what did they actually do? They presumed it was important but for many of them it remained mysterious.

Now I want to move on to the magic. The magical attraction of Canberra is manyfold, and here I use the term magic to mean enchanting and exciting, rather than the supernatural. It’s a magic that makes the city Australia’s best kept secret among those who love it. Rather than being a city without a soul, as was once famously said, it is one with a very special one. I’ll begin with the national institutions, among which I’ll include my own ANU but also the National Gallery, of course, the National Library here, the Australian War Memorial, the National Archives, the National Portrait Gallery, the Film and Sound Archives and I’m sure I’ve forgotten one. I have forgotten the Museum.

We are very fortunate to have half a dozen or more great national institutions within a stone’s throw of each other and for us citizens it’s not just their quality, I think, but their accessibility which should be seen as a treasure for all of us who live in Canberra. When its Director, Dr Brendan Nelson, described the War Memorial as the soul of the nation and claimed that every Australian had a responsibility to visit it during the commemoration of World War I, centenary of World War I, I felt a little uncomfortable at what I believed was an overstatement and a glorification of military values alone. But I do think that taken as a whole, these situations do represent our nation, their health and growth currently under threat—and I’m a great user of Trove—should be seen as essential nation-building.

Secondly, there is our environment and lifestyle. We are the city of nature and of four seasons, we are the city of liveability and walking and cycling for entertainment and fitness, we are indeed the bush capital. We are a city in the country, where city meets country. Even Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, our bête noire at the moment because of his dangerous claims on our public service assets, once described Canberra as a living breathing example of regional development. To have the national institutions and the lifestyle of Canberra juxtaposed is for me doubly magical.

Thirdly, Canberra’s a new city that embodies the best of the Australia that was forged after 1901. It is the federation city. Much of my life has been spent in new institutions, a new school in Adelaide, a new university, Flinders University, as a student, almost 30 years as a staff member at a relatively new national institution, the Australian National University. For me there is something magical about that experience, it is about being part of building something from scratch about which you can be especially proud. For that reason I love Canberra and I love the name Canberra and the names of its streets and suburbs. Some of them, like the names of our past prime ministers, reflect our post-1901 heritage, so it is a combination of the old and the new. I also love the new names of our Legislative Assembly electorates, Brindabella, Ginninderra, Kurrajong, Yarrabee and Murrumbidgee. With their indigenous resonance, and their freshness, they are beautiful names for electorates in our national capital.

It’s that love of the new which means that I’m not afraid personally of change, especially when it involves our nation. Some find magic in the past where I’m more inclined to find it in the present and in the future. And talking of that future there are some threats to the future standing of Canberra, some of which I’ve canvassed. These include the current threats to our employment base but also, and I think more importantly, the threats to our place in Australia’s identity and self-image. If the latter threats to identity and self-image are met, then that will take care of the former because one follows the other. So what do we do? Such threats must never be met by explanations that look like narrow self-interest or even calls to leave us alone in some sort of splendid isolation. We can do better than that. We have a better story to tell. We have to make measured, rational arguments in defence of our city and our capital territory and we must always present ourselves as a twenty-first century city. Unfortunately we are let down by our present old-fashioned coat of arms, which doesn’t portray us as a modern Australian national capital; Canberra needs a new one. 

No city can be all things to all people, that’s true. We must also develop and be comfortable with that fact, a realisation of that fact. We can’t have it all. Canberra will never be everyone’s cup of tea, it is not on the sea although we have our lakes, it will never be as big as Sydney or Melbourne or even Perth or Brisbane, but big is not necessarily better. It will never have the vibrancy of Paris or New York, and that means some people won’t want to come here to live and work. We have to accept that, but we have our open spaces and we’re surrounded by beautiful mountains. Others will retire elsewhere for family and other good reasons after their working lives come to an end, but people everywhere relocate, we must accept those losses of our friends too and keep in touch with them. We have a great community, and one to be proud of. Canberra brings together wonderfully smart and generous people, as I know through my current involvement in that social and intellectual powerhouse, the University of the Third Age.

In looking to the future, there can’t be just one vision for Canberra. There will be variations on a theme, but any vision, any story we tell for the rest of the nation must include becoming a more respected national capital and the recognised centre as a national capital for national public administration of the common good. But above all we must be self-confident rather than self-deprecating. I do see too much of that sort of negativity around me from time to time. We have a lot to be happy and confident about; we will undoubtedly play an essential part in Australia’s national future. Thank you.

[End of recording]