Created | Updated Jan 28, 2002
Canberra rates as the safest city in Australia, with about one person murdered each year per 300,000 inhabitants. Some may say that person is the lucky one.
- Sydney Morning Herald (4/3/97)
Officially billed as 'The Bush Capital', for the sheer amount of greenery that obscures vital road signs and pedestrians, Canberra could just as easily be known as 'The Capital of Roundabouts' and by those individuals not living there is generally referred to as 'Bloody Canberra', in honour of Canberra holding the Parliament of the Commonwealth1 of Australia. Canberra is thus two distinct entities which blur into one in most Australians' minds. Firstly, it is a real place, the capital city of Australia where over 300,000 people live. Secondly, it is a symbol, a concept, or metaphor for the Federal Parliament, holding all that is bad about politics. You'll find that confusing the latter with the former may result in a violent reaction from a resident of Canberra.
ACT vs Canberra
Often the ACT (Australian Capital Territory) is confused with Canberra. The ACT is the Territory which contains Canberra, its major city. In fact within the ACT there are three villages which are not part of Canberra: Hall Village, Sutton and Tharwa. A satellite city, Queanbeyan, is just over the New South Wales border and is regarded by many as being more an ACT city than a New South Wales city.
Canberra is a designed city, or at least began that way, though in later years it's become more of a cobbled-together city. It is at once both majestic and bland, sweeping and souless, grand and dull. Its grand avenues and monumental buildings are the very things that many see deprive it of its soul.
By 1899 the idea of a Federation for Australia had been knocking around a bit and gaining support. A few conferences were held and on Friday 3 February, 1899, the Premier's Conference on Federation finally reached some decisions. The first sitting of Federal Parliament would take place in Melbourne, but in the long-run it needed a new home; somewhere free of the jealousies of the two main contenders, Sydney and Melbourne. Thus was born the idea of Canberra. A few rules were added to the effect that it should be in NSW and at least 100 miles from Sydney.
It then took a few years for the powers to be to get their backsides into gear and it wasn't until 1 January, 1901, that Australia, formerly a loose collection of colonies, actually achieved federation status to become the Commonwealth of Australia. The Federal Parliament set up shop in Melbourne, and Victorians2 began arguing that the (still in the works) national capital should also not be too far from Melbourne, since that was the current seat of Parliament and the temporary national capital.
The Site is Chosen
The years until 1908 were spent with politicians, surveyors and the like wandering around various parts of NSW prodding at the ground and nodding knowledgeably. They submitted their findings and eventually it came down to a choice of nine sites: Albury, Armidale, Bombala, Dalgety, Lake George, Lyndhurst, Orange, Tooma, Tumut and Yass-Canberra. A marathon ballot in the House of Representatives resulted in the locations falling by the wayside one by one until it came down to Dalgety and Yass-Canberra. The final ballot resulted in a 39-33 win for Yass-Canberra3.
Now there was a site, but it still wasn't until 1 January, 1911, ten years after the Federation was established, that 911 square miles of land in the Southern Highlands of NSW between Goulburn and Yass was granted to the Commonwealth by the NSW Government and they could finally vest the Australian Capital Territory in the Commonwealth.
Now, there was a site, the boundaries were defined and it was vested. However, the question remained: what to actually put there? It was decided to hold a worldwide competition to design Australia's capital city. Bona fide applicants to the competition received the results of the engineering, sewerage, and water supply surveys, a map showing the complete contour survey of the city site drawn on a scale of 400 feet to 1 inch and giving contour levels at intervals of five feet, and a contoured model of the city site made to scale. If the idea of designing not only a whole city, but a capital city didn't whet their appetites enough, prize money was offered: £1750 for first prize, £750 for second and £500 for third. As a first pass, they wanted to see a city that would cater for a population of 20,000 but would also permit it to grow indefinitely.
Finally in 1912, after perusing 137 entries, the judges decided on an American's design. Walter Burley Griffin envisaged a simple design with two large lakes, the Capital on Camp Hill, and administrative and parliamentary buildings sweeping down to the lakeside. Two roads would traverse the lakes to public gardens, the city centre and a university, while broad avenues would converge on Capital Hill in concentric curves.
However it wasn't until 1913 that they got around to actually doing anything about that wonderful, artistic design. On Wednesday 12 March, the Governor-General, Lord Denman, his wife, Lady Denman and the Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, performed a quaint ceremony to lay the foundation stone on Capital Hill.
In order to make sure that at least some of his plan was instituted without the usual problems associated with anything political, Walter Burley Griffin stuck around as the Federal Capital Director of Design and Construction. Despite the weight of his title he oversaw the 'Griffin Plan' until the end of 1920.
The Australian War Memorial was founded in 1925. Then in 1926, the first issue of the Canberra Times, then a bi-weekly publication, was produced.
Parliament House Completed. Or is it?
Not before time, on 10 May, 1927, a throng of some 30 to 40 thousand people gathered in Canberra to see the Duke of York open a door. It wasn't just any old door, it was two huge doors that both led into Australia's Parliament House. With this simple act, and a speech, Parliament was open for business. Just to show that politics isn't all speeches and pomposity, Dame Nellie Melba sang 'God Save the King', and the poet Furnley Maurice wrote an ode for the occasion entitled 'On the Opening of the Federal Parliament in Canberra'.
Still, one man wasn't impressed; he just wanted to watch the opening, but he wasn't even allowed to do that and was led away by policemen for being inadequately dressed. That man was King Billy, the traditional tribal chief of Canberra. It was undoubtedly not this King that God was being asked to save.
So there it was - a Parliament. Finally Canberra had the building it was built to support.
Well, not quite.
You see, despite its grandeur, it was a temporary Parliament House, though it bore little resemblance to most other temporary structures.
Parliament began sitting and the world moved on. In 1931 the Canberra Airport opened bringing the world even closer. Sadly in 1937 the world contained the death of the man who designed Canberra. Walter Burley Griffin died at Lucknow, India, on 15 February, 1937.
Parliament, being what it was, couldn't just sit still in their new home and in 1946 were debating the establishment of an Australian National University; though the debate was mostly centred around the important issue of what to call it. The Opposition Leader of the time, Mr Robert Menzies favoured 'the Canberra University', though as luck would have it he lost that debate and left the name free for the Canberra College of Advanced Education to rearrange in 1991 to become the University of Canberra.
Parliament Grows, Parliament House Stays the Same
In 1948 disaster struck. The Federal Labour Caucus voted to support an increase in the size of the nation's Parliament from 75 to 122 and gave the Senate an additional 24 new mouths to feed. Unfortunately, the original Parliament House was only built to house a 75 member House of Representatives and a 36 member Senate. The main worry was that the rearranging could well mean the end of the floor-level public galleries.
With Walter Burley Griffin long gone from the scene, and only bureaucrats to handle things, the Griffin Plan was beginning to look a little tattered around the edges. After a few suburban mistakes the Federal Government formed a new commission to co-ordinate the Development of Canberra as an administrative centre. Thus in 1957 was formed the NCDC (National Capital Development Commission4). The NCDC would provide an opportunity to revise and update Walter Burley Griffin's original plans for the city, since, in the words of the Member for the ACT, some sections of the capital 'need only a high wire fence round them to look like a good poultry run'.
The NCDC played happily up to and through 1965 when they finally began to fill Lake Burley Griffin by blocking the Molonglo River and displacing the golf course that was previously situated there (thus turning the course into a huge water trap).
In preparation for the decimalisation of the Australian currency the Royal Australian Mint was finished in 1965. It was opened by giving the Duke of Edinburgh the enormous responsibility of pressing the two buttons that would start the production line for the pressing of one cent coins.
Three years later, in 1968 the Canberra College of Advanced Education was founded, thus paving the way for the aforementioned name change in 1991.
Then, like any good story, there came the revenge of King Billy, or at least his ghost. In 1972 an Aboriginal 'Tent Embassy' was erected outside Parliament house and resisted many calls for its removal.
What with all the administration, departments with long acronyms, and the losing of a valuable golf course, it was felt that Canberra might be seen to be lacking in the social graces. To rectify this the National Australian Gallery, a post modern design of 7000 square metres, was built at a cost of $54 million and opened by Queen Elizabeth II. To show our appreciation to Her Majesty and her loyal husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, they were treated to a private viewing of Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles. Despite this, Australia remained a member of the Commonwealth.
Would the Real Parliament House Please Stand Up?
Then, in 1988, with Australia's bicentennial celebrations in full swing, it was felt now was a good time to open the real Parliament House, as perhaps no-one would notice. It seems few did. The turnout to the opening, again done by the tolerant Queen Elizabeth II, had only 25,000 spectators; not even a quarter of those expected. The Leader of the Opposition was quoted as saying that the real Parliament House would 'fulfil the aspirations of all people for good, honest, fair and progressive government'. Which is the sort of statement that makes those in Public Relations glad only 25,000 turned up to hear it.
Self Government Realised
Despite being reasonably well run, the Federal Government decided that the ACT needed its own Government. Twice it asked the people of the ACT if they wanted Self Government, and twice the answer was a resounding 'no'. Naturally they gave in to public opinion and in 1989 there one of the most bizarre elections on record was held. The Australian sense of humour shone through with the many less than serious parties such as the Sun-Ripened Warm Tomato Party, and the Party, Party, Party. There were even a number of candidates standing on the sole policy of abolishing themselves out of Government should they win. The ballot paper turned out to be well over a metre wide and rolled happily up both walls of the voting booth. It's a credit to the ACT voters that there were a great number of protest votes, but even more importantly, the Sun-Ripened Warm Tomato Party (at 2 per cent of the vote) out polled both the Democrats (at 1.6 percent of the vote) and the Nationals (at 1.3 percent). Unsurprisingly, a clear result wasn't forthcoming.
King Billy's ghost raised his head again in 1992 when the Aboriginals from the Tent Embassy occupied the old Parliament House in commemoration of the 20th Anniversary of the 1972 'tent embassy'.
The City Centres
Canberra revolves around four city centres which, when coupled with the astounding number of roundabouts, can make Canberra a dizzying experience. The original city centre is imaginatively known as 'Civic' and there are still a number of buildings there dating from the early days of Canberra, like the Sydney Building and Melbourne Building. The next city centre was Woden, then came Belconnen, and the most recent is at Tuggeranong.
Each city centre, except Woden, is graced with a lake. Civic backs onto the original man-made lake, Lake Burley Griffin; Belconnen sits on top of Lake Ginninderra; Tuggeranong is built on the other side of the imaginatively titled Lake Tuggeranong. It appears unlikely that Woden will ever receive a lake since there is now nowhere left to put a body of water of any consequence.
No description of Canberra would be complete without a mention of the roundabouts which gave Canberra its unnofficial name of 'The Capital of Roundabouts'. The very word 'roundabout' can reduce even a brave driver to tears after even a day's drive in 'The Bush Capital'.
Canberra was designed with circles and curves in mind and it seems the designers took the concept just a little too far. There are few roads in Canberra that you can drive without hitting at least one roundabout, and with the newer areas, almost every major intersection has a roundabout. In fact it's got to the stage, in some of the very new suburbs, that even minor suburban streets have their own baby roundabouts. This has led to the theory that roundabouts in fact breed; a rumour the city planners are keen to encourage since it would quite neatly let them off the hook.
Aboriginal Tent Embassy
Located on the prestigious King George Terrace, it was arguably first founded in 1972 as a protest against all that had been done to, and hadn't been done for, the Aboriginal people of Australia since white settlement. While of a ramshackle nature, it's a friendly place for to visit. Almost annually one can also see the 'Get rid of the Tent Embassy' protests.
All Saints Church
This church originally began life in the 1860s as a funeral railway station at Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney. In the 1920s it became redundant and started a new life as the home of a two-up school and haunt of tramps and vandals. That life ended in the 1950s when it was bought by the Canberra parish and the 782 tonnes sandstone moved in 83 semi-trailer loads.
Australian National Gallery
Opened in 1982 by the Queen, it finally gave the National Collection (70,000 works gathered over 60 years), which had been rotting in a suburban warehouse, a home. Its outdoor sculpture area provides a good, free, place to lunch. Wandering inside is also worth it, for no other reason than to view Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles, which at $1.3 million, has 'saw them coming' written all over it.
Australian National University
A large, sprawling campus with plenty of space to laze the day away. With the usual facilities of café, bar, bookstores and the like that are normally available to students it's almost a mini-city in itself. Oh and, apparently, some teaching or some such goes on here too.
Australian War Memorial
For those in a melancholy mood, or wanting to learn more of the more violent side of Australia's history5. At one point they attempted to introduce a fee for entry but were soundly ignored and most of those responsible for collecting the tickets just ended up wandering around looking bored.
Black Mountain Tower
Initially the cause of much controversy, it was soon dubbed the 'Hypodermic Needle'. The Tower is a 194 metre high telecommunications needle which dominates the Canberra horizon. While there is a bit of a view following the winding road trip to the top of the Mountain, you really have to pay to go up to the Tower Galleries to get the best view of the Canberra landscape. For anyone who likes good food and has a dollar or a hundred to spare it also contains a revolving restaurant.
One of the few historic buildings in the Territory, the farmhouse is a simple stone building now overlooking Lake Burley Griffin. It was built in 1858 on Duntroon property by Blundell, a bullock driver on the station.
A gift from the British Government in 1963 to mark Canberra's 50th Anniversary. Its 53 bells are tuned over 4.5 octaves and provide a nice musical diversion while the tourist enjoys a little rest after the long walk from Commonwealth Park.
Much prettier than such a grandiose name suggests, this large area is home to small lakes, waterfalls, sculpture and peaceful areas where you can while a quiet hour away. To one end is Regatta Point where a the curious can learn more about the City they're currently visiting. From there you have a good view of the Captain James Cook Memorial Fountain.
With one of the best views of Canberra that can be reached without paying money, Mount Ainslie is much visited by tourists. For those in need of a little entertainment, the winding road to the top has become the unofficial 'Lover's Lane' of Canberra.
National Botanic Gardens
On the lower slopes of Black Mountain, this provides a pretty, relaxing expanse for the weary. On a hot day especially, the Rain Forest Gully is a welcome relief. They do some kind of conservation work on native species there as well.
Parliament House (Old)
Now turned into a gallery of sorts, it has rotating displays of national significance such as the Portrait Gallery, Flags of Australia and an annual display of Political caricatures. Easy for a casual tourist to find as it is located just across the road from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
Parliament House (New)
Dominated by a great flagpole, which weighs 220 tonnes, this new building brings a new meaning to 'indulgent'. With large halls, large offices, gardens and the grass going right up over the top it's an architect's dream. Still, for a bored tourist, it's a curiosity not to be missed, even if for no other reason than being able to walk all over the top of politicians (when sitting).
A village at the South end of Canberra it's closer to becoming part of the ever growing Tuggeranong every day.
Tidbinbilla Space Centre
For those with transport, and an interest in places beyond this one planet, the visitors centre has continually changing displays detailing the various space missions, past and present.
Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve
While you're at the Tidbinbilla Space Centre you might as well go the extra distance to the Nature Reserve even though an entry fee is now being charged. With numerous Bar-B-Que areas, walking tracks, a Bird Sanctuary, Koala enclosure, Kangaroo enclosure and informative visitor's centre, a day can easily be spent here.