The way we were

Not altogether surprisingly, the centenary this year of the foundation and naming of Canberra as the national capital of Australia has passed without any conspicuous celebration of the event beyond the confines of the city itself. Conceived to embody and represent the aspirations of the new Australian nation, unfettered by the rivalries and jealousies of the states, Canberra has always been held in grudging regard by the very nation it was established to serve – the grudge perhaps greater than the regard. In Australia, ‘Canberra-bashing’ has assumed the status of a national sport. It is our democracy’s crude way of complaining about the perceived evils and intrusions of big government made bigger and more powerful by its unassailable powers of taxation. While the Australian colonists of the 1890s had finally overcome their doubts about a national federation, as citizens and voters in the new polity they were markedly less enthusiastic about what they saw as the contrivance of a bush capital. Its history of stop-start development and the compromises imposed on Walter Burley Griffin’s vision from the outset were later bleakly summarised by the American planning historian John Reps who observed that Canberra had been ‘conceived in controversy, born in competition and nurtured in conflict’.

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