Canberra is the capital city of Australia, a fact known to less than 1 per cent of the world’s population and to only slightly more of Australia’s. Curiously, ignorance of Canberra’s existence has persisted despite every child being forced to visit the city in Year Six, leading experts to conclude that many pupils find the experience either traumatic or entirely unmemorable.
Situated an exactly equal distance between Sydney and Melbourne, which is to say much closer to Sydney, it’s located in the Australian Capital Territory, so called because of the popular belief that being sent there is equivalent to a death sentence.
Some say the name comes from the local Ngunnawal term for ‘roundabout’, although other scholars have challenged this, suggesting that it refers to the local practice of filling out elaborate tree bark forms for even the most trivial of requirements. Regardless of the term’s origins, in contemporary Australia it simply means ‘toxic nest of politicians’.
The idea for Canberra came about during the discussions that led to Australia’s Federation, when representatives from colonies other than New South Wales refused to agree to the capital being in its obvious location, Sydney. Sydneysiders readily agreed, believing that their city would be more vibrant and interesting without the presence of federal parliament, a belief that was vindicated until the recent introduction of lockout laws.
After Federation, Melbourne was given the parliament for a few years to placate the Victorians. During this period, a committee was tasked with choosing the ideal location for the new capital. They failed to agree, so the group instead achieved a classic Australian-style compromise that left everybody equally unhappy, and settled on an area in southern NSW that European settlers had hitherto ignored.
Located on a plateau that was significantly colder than everywhere around it, the area that became Canberra had been used by local Aboriginal tribes as a meeting place, until they began to realise that gatherings held there tended never to resolve anything, instead deferring any difficult question to a subcommittee, independent report or plebiscite. They had ultimately abandoned the site, considering it unlucky.
After an international competition to design the city, Walter Burley Griffin was chosen as Canberra’s architect, thanks to a plan developed with his wife, Marion Mahony Griffin*. It’s often assumed that his bold vision of axes converging on Capitol Hill dazzled the judges, but, in fact, the Griffins’ was the only entry.
As Americans, the Griffins were fans of grand planned capitals in the style of Washington DC, not realising that Australia had a minuscule population and was unlikely to need more than a few tin sheds and a pub.
The centrepiece of the Griffin design was the large lake that now bears their** name, constructed, as per the rest of the city, as a huge pit into which Australians threw their tax dollars. The lake is known today for its landmark waterspout, which expends considerable energy propelling water high into the air before it ends up exactly where it began, an apt tribute to the function of the federal parliament.
Building the national capital
The construction of Canberra began in 1913, but very little of note happened until the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975. Twenty-four hours after the first occasion on which Australians paid attention to events in their capital, they returned to their own lives, vowing never to make the same mistake again.
A new Parliament House was opened in 1988, and was then the world’s most expensive building, for no good reason. It is burrowed into the side of Capitol Hill, a design inspired by the architect Romaldo Giurgola’s travels around Australia, when he regularly heard residents of other cities describing Canberra as a hole.
The building is adorned by a giant metal flagpole spike, designed to ensure that none of the capital’s hot air balloon traffic flies over the secure building. Nevertheless, these craft, which drift aimlessly around fuelled by hot air, have become another well-known symbol of the city.
Canberra was once known as the most permissive place in Australia, with relatively relaxed rules about buying fireworks, marijuana and hardcore pornography. But upon learning that regulatory oversight had led to Canberrans having uncontrolled fun, legislators soon put a stop to it.
The city is also the home of Cockington Green, a mock village of tiny houses, and the ACT Legislative Assembly, a mock tiny parliament.
* Who received absolutely no credit, as per standard practice at the time.
** Mostly his.
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