Canberra

‘Orange balloons. Orange streamers. Orange shirts.’ Cathy McGowan’s memoir is saturated and literally wrapped in the colour. Cathy Goes to Canberra begins with an account of the election of her independent successor as Member for Indi, Dr Helen Haines, in May 2019 – ‘with orange everywhere’.

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In a long career talking to and about politicians, I have learned one thing. While many fantasise about being prime minister, the key driver is to get close to the centre. Christopher Pyne captures this immediately in The Insider, comparing the political world to the solar system in which the skill is to know one’s place relative to the sun (the prime minister), and the aim is to get as close to the sun as possible. To be an insider, to know how things work, with privileged information that few others share, is the allure.

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Canberra by Paul Daley & The Invisible Thread: One Hundred Years of Words edited by Irma Gold

by
April 2013, no. 350

Canberra leads a double life: by day the federal capital, crafting legislation and performing on the world stage; at night it is transformed into a suburban neighbourhood where people cook their meals and pay their bills and water their gardens. But a pervasive view of Canberra is that it is the home only of public servants on secondment; that it is just a waste of a good sheep paddock. This is a stereotype in which I was instructed pretty much as soon as I arrived in Australia in the early 1990s. On my first visit to Canberra I saw exactly what I had been schooled to see: low-rise buildings emanating a dull power; orderly but sparsely populated streets. Not until moving here at the end of the 1990s did I come to know the quotidian nature of the town, the disorder lurking just below the bureaucratic structures, and the raffish, dreamy quality that is a remnant of Walter Burley Griffin’s adulterated plans.

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I n 2013, Australians will celebrate the centenary of modern Canberra. This singular anniversary – intensely local but also emphatically national – commemorates not the actual building of the capital (that process was fraught and would not gather pace until the 1920s), but rather the optimistic laying on 12 March 1913 of three foundation stones for the grandiosely named Commencement Column on Capital Hill where the Australian Parliament, seat of our increasingly raucous national democracy, stands today. The high point of the ceremony was the naming by Lady Denman (wife of the governor-general) of Australia’s new capital as ‘Canberra’.

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Every day for the past few months, the Sydney linguist Michael Walsh has been sitting in the Mitchell Library poring over old manuscripts. He is extracting old wordlists of Aboriginal languages from the library’s rich collection of early British settler diaries, missionary field notes, and unpublished historical documents for a project funded by the State Library of New South Wales and Rio Tinto. This week, Michael sent me twelve scanned pages of a leather-bound diary he discovered which belonged to Richard Tester, who had recorded his daily adventures in 1860, travelling overland from Kerkaraboo on the Wakefield River to Melbourne and the goldfields.

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In his Canberra 1913–1950 Jim Gibbney summarises the indecisions which accompanied the establishment of a site for Canberra around the turn of the century. When finally, in De­cember 1908, Yass-Canberra was decreed the Seat of Government, it brought to a close nearly two decades of hesitation – at least Australia knew where the Federal Capital was to be situated, if not what kind of city it was to be.

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