Wednesday, August 20, 2014

In praise of the Berra

When I first moved to Canberra, almost as an accidental intersection of geography and employment after the Sydney Olympics, I used to say “if you had lived in Sydney and one day you woke up and discovered you were in Canberra, you would think you had died.” Then I changed my mind. It took ten years but it was inevitable. Berrans are a hardy bunch – they can withstand the hot winds of summer and of Australia’s Parliament, the chill flurries from the Snowy Mountains and the chilling news of budget cuts. The Berra is half-way between everywhere.

When I first moved to Canberra, almost as an accidental intersection of geography and employment after the Sydney Olympics, I used to say ‘if you had lived in Sydney and one day you woke up and discovered you were in Canberra, you would think you had died’.

Canberra in the rain from Black Mountain

Then I changed my mind. It took ten years but it was inevitable.

Until recently I had never heard the phrase ‘The Berra’. Then suddenly a friend temporarily exiled to Darwin by circumstance used it. It reinforced an important realisation. Though politicians and their entourages and all the assorted hangers on that surround them and gawp at their every move think of Canberra as the home of the national Parliament and national government, for others it’s just home. For many it always has been.

I have lived all around Australia in four states and territories, in cities and towns and minute villages that disappeared almost as soon as I had moved into them. In some you could barely breathe out without crossing their boundaries.

 Canberra has a subtle beauty. It is like Vancouver in its connection to the natural surroundings and, in recognition of this, is full of outdoor shops selling cold weather gear for skiing or walking or spending a night in a blizzard. It’s a perfect intersection of exotic nature and Australia’s native bush.

'I have lived all around Australia in four states and territories, in cities and towns and minute villages that disappeared almost as soon as I had moved into them. In some you could barely breathe out without crossing their boundaries.'

In summer and school holidays the Berra empties as half the population and their children debouch to the coast – which is astoundingly very close. It’s especially close compared to the long haul both north and south from the heart of Sydney before you hit coast without city attached.

Berrans are a hardy bunch – they can withstand the hot winds of summer and of Australia’s Parliament, the chill flurries from the Snowy Mountains and the chilling news of budget cuts.

Half-way between everywhere
The Berra is half-way between everywhere. On my 50th birthday I celebrated one day in Sydney with friends, drinking wine on a balcony in Darlinghurst. The next day I sat drinking tea around a smoking campfire near the source of the Murray, miles from cities and signs of the future. It’s a regional city, with all the advantages that brings, but is also the national capital with major cultural and education institutions.

Black Mountain Tower and the city from near the National Carillion

I realised that if you hate the Berra then you hate Australia. You hate the very idea of Australia. You hate Australia as distinct from whatever specific state or territory or city or town you like within Australia.

The Berra is a symbol of the great nation-building era after World War II. Australia was overrun with the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the Hydro Electricity Commission, the National Capital Authority, the CSIRO, all needing engineering, learning, science - not to mention migration.

Innovators and experimenters
This is why Tasmania and Canberra are so alike. Many of the engineers who worked on the Snowy also worked for the National Capital Authority and the Hydro in Tasmania. They were a great generation of nation-builders – innovators and experimenters who shaped the post-war world. In the Berra I can sense their legacy. To walk into Old Parliament House is to feel the era – never mind the educational exhibitions and displays. The bare walls and floors alone convey it.

Even though Menzies was initially wary of the Berra, he came to champion it as part of the building of a modern Australia. Not all his successors are so far-sighted. If you are part of the scheme to eviscerate Australia as a nation, turn it back into a series of fiefdoms run by warlords and robber barons you will hate the Berra.

'The Berra is a symbol of the great nation-building era after World War II. Australia was overrun with the Snowy Mountains Scheme, the Hydro Electricity Commission, the National Capital Authority, the CSIRO, all needing engineering, learning, science - not to mention migration.'

The opposite of the idea of the Berra is the Rum Corps, the original source of the Pig Snout Trough approach to ruling Australia. Pig Snout Trough hates the Berra. I’m sure I remember reading once about a large consultation that was carried out, using focus groups and surveys, to determine the views held about the role of the states by Australians from all walks of life. One focus group, consisting only of senior NSW public servants, was adamant that the best thing that could be done was to abolish states entirely. Was this story true or just something that should be true? It’s hard to tell. Whether anyone actually said it, it needed to be said. Pig Snout Trough loves states.

We have neglected the maintenance of our physical infrastructure and frittered away the legacy of community action and government response in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The same thing has happened with our social infrastructure, with assets like the public service, and community assets like womens shelters and co-operatives and mutual societies, being run down, sold off or handed over. Those who originally established them, often at great financial or personal expense, would call down plagues upon their sadly diminished successors.

The Berra is the home of much of the Australian public service. For all its conservatism and rigidity, the public service is another national asset, constructed over decades. Like all major institutions, private or public, it ranges between sad mediocrity and inspiring brilliance. Yet, whenever a politician complains about bureaucrats frustrating their ambitions you can be certain that it is some public servant making sure that politicians behave as they should, don’t dip their hands in the public purse and do minimal damage to the fabric of Australia. It’s true that the public service can be short on ideas and slow on the uptake but it also ensures some sort of continuity and makes sure the country still functions, no matter how incompetent the government of the day, year or decade.

See also

Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans
‘In many ways design is a central part of the vocabulary of our time and integrally related to so many powerful social and economic forces – creative industries, popular culture, the digital transformation of society. Design is often misunderstood or overlooked and it's universal vocabulary and pervasive nature is not widely understood, especially by government. In a rapidly changing world, there is a constant tussle between the local and the national (not to mention the international). This all comes together in the vision for the future that is Design Canberra, a celebration of all things design, with preparations well underway for a month long festival this year. The ultimate vision of Craft ACT for Canberra is to see it listed as a UNESCO City of Design and to add another major annual event to Floriade, Enlighten and the Multicultural Festival, filling a gap between them and complementing them all’, Designs on the future – how Australia’s designed city has global plans.

The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future
‘The never-ending election campaign that became the never-ending election tally has turned into the unpredictable second term government. What does this new world of fragmented politics mean for Australian arts and culture and the organisations, artists and communities which live it and advance it? There are a series of major factors which are hammering arts and culture organisations. These intersect and mutually reinforce one another to produce a cumulative and compounding long term disastrous impact. All this is happening in a context where there is no strategic policy or overview to guide Government. It is critical for the future that the arts and culture sector think broadly about arts and culture, build broad alliances and partnerships, never forget its underlying values and draw on its inherent creativity to help create a society based firmly on arts and culture’, The big picture and long view – creating a cultural future.

Land of hope
‘There were times in our past when Australia was seen as the great hope of the world – when it offered a vision of a new democratic life free from the failures of the past and the old world. It seems we have turned from our history, from the bright vision of the nineteenth century and the great nation-building vision of the period after World War 2, with its sense of optimism and fairness, towards something much more pinched and narrow – mean and weak-willed. For such an optimistic nation we seem to have developed a ‘half empty’ rather than ‘half full’ view of the glass – and the world. If we want to live in a land to be proud of, a fair country that truly inherits the best of Australia’s traditions, while consciously abandoning the less desirable ones, we need to change course – otherwise we will have to rebadge Australia not as the land of hope but instead as the land without hope’, Land of hope.

Floating world
‘Australia’s national capital is a strange floating world by a mountain lake. Reflecting the dream-like nature of the city, the lake is not a real one and the city is a compromise between warring states’, Floating world.

High country
‘When I moved to Canberra, I discovered that I had come back to the country where I grew up—the dry, high winter country in the shadow of the mountains’, High country.

Wide brown landing
Some days you realise suddenly that Canberra was deliberately located in the mountains. Perhaps it was fear of Russian invasion - imperial rather than communist. Perhaps it was to avoid overlap with the two warring imperial powers of the time - NSW and Victoria', Wide brown landing.

Nation building
‘My uncle was a navigator on the bombers that burned Dresden. My father was an engineer who built dams. He was part of that generation which helped build a modern Australia that embodied diversity and tolerance – his generation turned from dam busters to dam builders’, Nation building.

Murrumbateman Field Days
‘The other day I went to a Murrumbateman Field Day. I have to do things like this, because so many of my relatives now live on the land, and have a pressing need to buy heavy duty agricultural tools or baby goats or water tanks. All this is totally irrelevant to me practically speaking, but endlessly fascinating’, Murrumbateman Field Days.

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