Canberra: A Grand Social Experiment
2017 Canberra Day Oration
Talks / Lecture
2017 Canberra Day Oration
12 March 2017
Virginia Haussegger AM, Director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra presents the 2017 Canberra Day Oration.
*Speakers: Julia Ryan (J), Virginia Haussegger (V)
*Location: National Library of Australia
J: Well welcome again, everyone, and I’ve already introduced myself so I don’t have to do that again but I’d like to acknowledge the indigenous owners of the land we’re meeting on and pay my respects to their elders past and present.
The Canberra Day Oration which you’re all here for today on the very day was inaugurated by the Historical Society and it has been continuous every year since 2002 though there were others before that. In the last couple of years it’s been supported as well by the National Library and some of you are here from the National Library publicity and some from our Historical Society and it’s lovely to see how many of you have come to hear Virginia. And I’d like to introduce Virginia Haussegger. She began as a reporter and presenter on 7:30 Report, the ABC, on Channel 9 and on Channel 7 but we Canberrans have known her as the ABC news presenter for 15 years until last year. Last year she moved to the University of Canberra where she’s Director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation, an adjunct professor in the Institute of Governance and Policy Analysis. She publicised with her exhibition, Eye on Afghanistan, the plight of women and children in that sad country. She’s the author of Wonder Woman, the Myth of Having It All, she’s a member of the Order of Australia for her significant service to the community and in her advocacy of women’s rights, gender equity and the media. And provocateur of several controversies. Virginia Haussegger, I’d like to introduce her with her somewhat unsettling title, Canberra, A Grand Social Experiment. Thank you.
V: Thank you, Julia, for that very warm welcome. I don’t know about provocateur. That’s not an unsettling title I hope because it’s hopefully not an unsettling speech. Thank you so much, my apologies for being a little late. So I know some of you at the front here were discussing plan B if Virginia doesn’t get through the traffic and the car show. Fortunately my favourite researcher is here among us and I’m sure Megan Shelley could have taken over for me in a very grand way. But look, it is an absolute delight and a great honour to be asked to come and give the Canberra Oration. And I’m delighted and I want to thank you warmly for this honour. And yes, as Julia said, my title today is Canberra, A Grand Social Experiment but look, speaking to all of you as members of the Canberra Historic Society and friends I feel much like a priest on Sunday preaching to the converted on the virtues of Canberra, our great city.
What an honour it is to be here today. In truth Canberra has given me a great deal. Canberra has helped me shape the person I’ve become, the person I believe I am meant to be but it’s not the person I thought I would be. I came here in 2001 on a very, very cold wintry September weekend not long after meeting my husband, Mark, and getting together in Sydney – Mark and I weren’t married then but we decided that we wanted to uproot and leave Sydney and start somewhere fresh together. And to start afresh with Mark coming here my hope and dream was to come to a city that was easy to live in, that was welcoming and that was known to be a great place to bring up children as I wanted to start a family and that’s what I thought Canberra would be all about for me, that I’d become a mother and have a thriving family. But it didn’t turn out that way, it didn’t turn out that way at all. In fact it turns out the universe had very different plans for me. And Canberra would provide the perfect platform for those plans to take shape and I’m deeply grateful that that happened. You see I believe Canberra is a place of creative incubation where tremendous support is offered and indeed given to those who want to try and do something, those who want to try and make our world a better place in either a small way or in a bigger profound way. Canberra is one of those places that offers extraordinary support, encouragement, warmth, partnership and collaboration.
But look, none of that lofty stuff was on my mind the day I arrived. As I say it was a very wintry September weekend, it was the 3rd of September that I was to start my job at the ABC as the ABC TV news newsreader. And of course the 3rd of September, just before September 11. Now when we arrived Mark and I drove down the highway as you do and we arrived in Canberra very late on a Saturday night and turned up at the – I’d like to say hotel that the ABC put us up in but it was more like a motor inn and as we – I entered the room feeling freezing cold and I noticed the beige carpet and the beige curtain and the beige bedspread and the beige couch and the beige towels and then I opened the beige curtain to see what sort of view we might see and I saw a beige wall. We eventually ventured out to try and get some food late on Saturday night only to find that there was absolutely nothing open, there was no way that a kitchen would be able to provide us a meal after 11pm. Mind you we’d just come from living in Sydney in Potts Point where everything was open all the time and just a hop and a skip up the road we’re at King’s Cross where everything was open always. So to encounter a small city at that time as we moved around Kingston and Manuka looking for somewhere to eat and I don’t believe even McDonald’s was there at the time. Anyway next – so we went to bed hungry.
The next morning we woke up and I decided to unpack a lot of my stuff and I’d brought along my 50 odd TV jackets and what have you and so by the time we got a little bit organised and then ventured out into the cold and realised how cold indeed it was and ventured back into the motor hotel room to get more clothes and more scarves we then found ourselves in Manuka eventually and sat down at the only café that seemed to be open to order breakfast only to have the waitress say oh you’re too late for breakfast, we don’t serve after - I think it was 10:30 or it might have been 11:00. Now by this stage the wind was sweeping through Manuka, my scarf really wasn’t cutting it and I burst into tears. I think I was just hungry and a little bit frustrated, burst into tears and I remember saying to Mark, what have I done? What have I done? I had lived in five capital cities for the ABC moving around for various programs and I had never worked in Canberra before and as I said earlier I’d come to Canberra with very lofty ideas in mind and suddenly you know in the blink of I think 12 hours it seemed to be a very different place than I’d hoped. However you all know that there’s a happy ending.
My speech today is as much a small survey of some of the unique oddities and historic quirks of our fair city as it is about my own journey to loving the national capital which I endearingly often refer to to my journalist colleagues as the notional capital. Our city, Canberra, with that persistent chip on its shoulder is synonymous with so much that people outside of it love to hate. Politicians, roundabouts, frosty windscreens, biting cold mornings, biting cold afternoons, biting cold evenings, scorching dry heat in summer and the searing sun. Yet for the people of Canberra there is a tremendous amount of pride that comes with belonging to our great city. A knowledge that Canberra has an abundance of beautiful architecture, it is rich in culture, opportunities and natural wonders if you know where to look. Of course the history of Canberra did not begin with the Walter Burley Griffin plan in 1912. It’s said that the Ngunnawal people who lived on the land here in Canberra, Yass and the Goulburn region lived well, never having to travel too far to find good sources of food from the bush and the Murrumbidgee River. The dating of tools and charcoal found in Tidbinbilla suggests the Ngunnawal people lived in this region for some 25,000 years before white settlement. What I find remarkable is when we look at those very early pictures from March 12, 1913 when Lady Denman stood in the sparseness of Canberra beyond the ceremonial dais on Capital Hill we can see the sheep roaming freely about and Lake Burley Griffin was all but a grassy paddock.
Now despite our city’s obsession with Walter Burley Griffin’s plan I don’t believe that anyone could have foreseen the direction that Canberra would take over the next 100 years. As part of our designation, as a bit of a social experiment city, Canberra has always tried to be a place of firsts. For instance the Monaro Mall now known as the Canberra Centre was the first fully air-conditioned mall in Australia. Equally as impressive was the role that Honeysuckle Creek played as the first tracking station to beam images of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon in 1969. I was all of five years old when that happened and I remember the moment very well because I was wearing my favourite blue tutu as I sat with my mother watching - and my uncle – watching Neil Armstrong land on the moon in 1969. Little did I know that the images were being beamed with the great help of that first tracking station at Honeysuckle Creek and that one day I also would share a destiny with that area, that region.
We’ve always looked higher as a city however with the first astronomical observation occurring in Canberra right back in 1911 at the Mt Stromlo site. Canberra had the first female Labor and Liberal state or territory leader, one after the other. And look, it’s important to remember of course that powerful women have always been a fixture in Canberra. Marion Mahony Griffin, wife to Walter Burley Griffin, a talented draftswoman who drafted the original competition-winning design for Canberra was in fact the first female licensed architect in the world. Lady Denman, another powerful woman associated with Canberra, wielded great influence and held a significant social position in the community and yet there she was the day before the official naming ceremony with no time for dress fittings for guest entertaining, no, Lady Denman was busy out rabbit-hunting with some of the locals.
This cultural quirk has stayed with the city, a place where great and consequential decisions are made on a daily basis all around our city and yet to be a Canberran is to be down to earth and neighbourly much like the residents of a regional town. According to research conducted by the institute to which I am now associated, IGPA, the Institute for Governance for Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra, according to research done by the Institute relative to the rest of the country Canberra has the highest average income, the highest level of postschool qualifications - we have more PhDs per capita – the highest work participation rates, the highest self-assessed health status and the highest levels of participation in sport, recreation and culture. I suppose if you take that at face value Canberrans are all just a group of rich academic snobs who like to think they’re pretty active.
My experience has been to the contrary of that and I’m sure many of yours have been too although we’ve all known one or two middle-aged men in lycra. Indeed there might be a few of those among us. No, I think Canberra’s true value lies in the emphasis we place on community both in our civic pride and our community engagement. And just on that note I want to read to you something that I came across just recently written in The New York Times about Canberra. This is written in 2014. To stand atop a Canberra hilltop is to contemplate the stark charm of the Australian bush, vast, grassy fields, swathes of eucalyptus forest and Instagram-worthy sunsets. This outpost is Australia’s national capital, not as is commonly thought the glitzier city of Sydney three hours’ drive north. In Canberra there are no beaches or iconic opera houses and European chic is best sought an hour’s flight away in Melbourne but with the bush capital – what the bush capital lacks in big city tussle it makes up for in big sky beauty, breezy civic pride and a decidedly hipster underbelly set on an artificial lake and spreads across a valley between mountain ranges. Canberra is the Brasilia of Australia designed by Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, two American architects. Which I thought was a beautiful way of putting it but very descriptive of Canberra indeed.
Which then took me looking a little bit further – so that came out in mid-2014. Later in 2014, in October another piece from The New York Times about Canberra. It’s titled Want an Easy Life? Try Canberra, Australia. Now this piece came about as a result of the OECD in 2014 rating its 34 member states for liveability. It rated among its 34 member states 362 regions on nine measures of wellbeing and the top scorer was Canberra. It top scored particularly for civic engagement and security which I think is very interesting. And as a reminder, and I’m constantly saying to people, that we live on the seventh level of heaven here in Canberra. We have a – not only a beautiful city, we are wealthy, we are educated, we are healthy and we are safe. Interestingly in that particular survey by the OECD, of the top 10, five of them were Australian states but interesting to see that Canberra’s right up the top there.
Now Australia led the country by country rankings followed by Norway, Canada, Sweden and the United States and just in case you’re interested the bottom were Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Turkey and Mexico, were deemed to be the hardest places to live in the OECD. But interestingly The New York Times piece talks specifically about Canberra and security and civic engagement as being great attractions for Americans. It went on to say that many Australians see their capital city as something of a backwater although The New York Times writer then goes on to point out all the great attributes of Canberra and particularly the natural beauty attributes. And it’s a reminder, it’s a little funny thing but when that piece came out there was a great deal of talk in the Australian media including in my own newsroom about the value of Australia and the value of Canberra as an attraction, tourist attraction and the great value it held for international guests. It’s almost like coming back to that cringe I mentioned earlier that – and something that Robyn Archer spoke a lot about during our centenary year, that we need to be reminded by others outside of our own fair city to really appreciate how indeed – how lucky we are.
Just about all the Canberrans I know care about making this city the best city it can be. In 2003 Canberra was the first place in Australia to begin to phase out smoking in public venues like bars, pubs and clubs and I still find it absolutely surprising when I’m interstate and out - standing outside or sitting outside at a café and someone lights a cigarette because in Canberra we haven’t been doing that for many, many years.
Canberra was importantly also the first place in Australia to decriminalise abortion. Amazingly two states are still yet to do that, Queensland and New South Wales. We were the first place in Australia to extend the right to a civil partnership for same sex couples and the first place to bring in same sex marriage although it was for only a blissful weekend before it was struck down by the High Court but nevertheless something that Canberrans ought be proud of. The ACT Government has committed to funding a local safe schools program to ensure that LGBTQ teens are not discriminated against. The government has also committed to Canberra being powered by 100% renewable energy by 2025. Now this is simply the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ways that Canberra is pushing the rest of the country forward. And quite frankly fitting, it’s fitting that the home of government should be a shining light to the rest of the country on that ethical and fair treatment of people with a values-based politic.
Interesting when I did – interestingly when I did arrive in Canberra, not long after my arrival in 2001 I was asked by a small community group to come and talk to their group and so I started doing a little research about Canberra before the various things that I’ve mentioned today but started doing some research and I came across a very old well-thumbed book in a second-hand bookstore in Civic that told me that Canberra – and unfortunately I’ve lost the book and such a shame because it’s a gem but it told me that Canberrans were famed for two things, for their gardens or having affairs. And it went on to explain that you can tell the sex life of a suburb’s inhabitants by the state of its gardens and you only need to look at Forrest and Yarralumla to know that a lot of people weren’t getting a lot of it. But those gardens that were left somewhat neglected you could be assured that the occupants had a very healthy sex life. Now I don’t know how you judge that, I don’t know but it was the first time I heard one’s gardens in a capital city referred to as a barometer for one’s sex life but I must admit ever since, whenever I drive around Yarralumla and Forrest I do note the gardens that are looking a little neglected.
One of the most intriguing features of Canberra is our lack of front fences. According to a curious Canberra article this dates back to a debate between Walter Burley Griffin and John Suleman who took over the planning of Canberra from Griffin and was a proponent of the garden city idea. Initially the government cared for hedges that ran along property borders, ensuring that they never got too high, the idea being that they had to stay at a minimum height to allow for friendly chats between neighbours or perhaps to encourage nosy neighbours. Such a small decision has had such a unique effect on our suburbs where unlike many other parts of the world we don’t seek to put up fences or walls. To the contrary I think and believe that Canberra is a place that goes out of its way to break down walls and break down cultural barriers. Which of course means that Canberra will never have a flourishing fencing industry but that’s beside the point.
It would be remiss of me to talk about Canberra without mentioning the federal government, the single greatest provider of jobs to our local economy. In fact another IGPA piece of research, the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, estimates that a loss of even just a thousand public servants from 2011 levels would have placed a $110m hole in the ACT budget. Our public servants are of course an essential feature of the Canberra landscape and I don’t think this city will ever see a life after Lanyard’s. However it wasn’t until federal parliament moved from Melbourne to Canberra in May 1927 that the local population of public servants in Canberra grew. According to a social history collected by the Australian Public Service Commission housing for public servants remained an issue well until after the second world war which is an interesting thing because homelessness as many of you know remains one of the biggest issues plaguing Canberra with an estimated 2,000 people homeless and itinerant in our city every night.
Canberra like any city has its flaws but yet we hold the enviable position of one of the most liveable cities anywhere in the world. Our social housing is peppered across the city with older suburbs like Reid and Red Hill often housing our most disadvantaged along with our most advantaged residents. Perhaps this is why we struggle to identify social disadvantage in our town as it’s hidden in plain sight amongst our affluent and highly educated but not relegated to poorer neighbourhoods or just the inner city as is so common in other states. Our egalitarian attitude to social housing is I believe a trademark of Canberra and examples – and a good example of egalitarianism which are also to be found in our community priorities, to end gendered violence, grow our local economy and invest in public infrastructure.
This egalitarianism can even be seen in the design of Lake Burley Griffin with Burley Griffin insisting that, and I quote, the lake front by right belongs to the people, not a foot of its shores should be appropriated by individuals to the exclusion of the people. It should be made so alluring that the fixed habit of people to seek its restful presence at every opportunity, the slopes leading down to the water should be quiet stretches of green except where formal treatments are demanded. And as we talk now that vision has largely remained true. You only need to contrast that to the shores of Sydney Harbour to once again understand what a very different place Canberra is. In Sydney along the harbour houses line the waterfronts like centennials sentinels, keeping the rest of the population from enjoying the view except from select vantage points.
In Canberra every week hundreds of Canberrans flock to walk or cycle around Lake Burley Griffin or they take to the water to row or sail and enjoy the great feat of human engineering and what a great feat it is. I find it quite frankly extraordinary to imagine Lake Burley Griffin not being there and that once upon a time it was indeed just grassy paddocks. The lake is a focal point for our city and quite rightly our celebrations and it is shared equally among its residents and visitors. We see our community spirit every day, most recently in the decision to display the Australia Day ad featuring two patriotic Muslim girls waving Australian flags at the Canberra Theatre and those of you who saw this and certainly saw the news stories on the ABC about this would know that it was very, very controversial. The ad itself was first displayed in Melbourne as part of a Federation Square celebration of Australia Day and immediately taken down once there was a – some controversy whipped around it and a lot of social media suggesting that the fact that they were two Muslim girls, Australian girls waving a flag was inappropriate.
It made me tremendously proud to know that Canberra immediately – the ACT Government instantly decided that it was an appropriate image to be placed here in Canberra and beamed it out on the screen at the Canberra Theatre. Now as you would know also that followed with threats of violence against the Theatre including bomb threats and being a member of the Theatre’s Board of course I was very, very concerned about that as we all were but nevertheless it didn’t deter the decision to show that extraordinary and beautiful ad along with the other ads celebrating Australia Day. And I was very proud when I saw a lot of social media, despite the negatives that were experienced in Melbourne, a lot of social media instantly referred to it as being a great thing that only Canberra would do and as I said that made me very proud and it looked beautiful to see those smiling faces beaming out from that great big screen at the front of the theatre. Thousands signed online petitions to put the advertisement back up when it was taken down in Melbourne but Canberra as I say very quickly put it up and kept it up.
Stories such as this, of community spirit, and of standing up for progressive values are not isolated in Canberra. Whether it be over 5,000 people turning out to the Tara Costigan Walk for Change to end domestic violence or an ever-growing attendance at the ANZAC Day dawn service with the latest ANZAC Day service seeing some 65,000 people turn out in the dark attending the War Memorial. Canberrans show up for the things that matter and always vote with their vote.
So I have one final thought to share with you today and it’s in response to a very popular pastime of Canberra bashing, that is as you all know the tendency of the other big cities to bully and demean Canberra. I believe in this city that really began in the speck of an eye of an architect, designed with the influences of the greatest European cities and with the purpose of becoming the seat of Australian Government that we have succeeded in carving out a distinct identity as the progressive heart of the nation. And although there is still much more to do to properly recognise our indigenous people, to end the homelessness in our city and to tackle rising rates of domestic violence as well as cut the cost of living that is – and rising inequality, there is plenty to do but Canberra can be very, very proud of its identity and its rich cultural roots. In a country where every other city seems to be known for something big, a big bridge, some even a big banana, a big square, a big pineapple or even a big mining boom, our small city of just over 400,000 people as you all know is known for its big heart. Thank you.
End of recording