Canberra: real life need not apply

RARE AIR: Parliament House in Canberra is a place apart from the average person.

RARE AIR: Parliament House in Canberra is a place apart from the average person.

A hefty jolt to western Sydney politics occurred at the by-election for the safe Labor seat of Penrith on June 19, 2010. The Liberals’ Stuart Ayres won that election with a 25.7 per cent two-party swing.

In every election since, western Sydney voters have played a major role in determining who governs. The federal election last July was no exception.

Politicians pay western Sydney more attention these days. But do we have better representation? Is our political system working well enough for us?

One part of federal politics that needs more discussion is Canberra, the nation’s capital and home to our most important institutions: the parliament, the High Court, the major federal departments and the offices of the prime minister and the governor general.

The idea of putting these things in a city out in the bush is in the constitution that founded Australia on January 1st, 1901. By 1927 Canberra was under way.

The journalist W. Farmer Whyte reported from Canberra from day one. His columns were published in newspapers across Australia.

In one column – December 20, 1929 – Whyte writes, “It is holiday time. Ministers are scattered to the four winds, and most of them have their private secretaries and some of them have taken departmental officials as well. Other officials are packing up their traps for Melbourne and Sydney – mostly Melbourne, for that is where most of them have come from. Their homes are now in Canberra, but their hearts are elsewhere.  At holiday time they cannot get away quick enough.”

Whyte wrote this when Canberra was two-years-old. Recently we discovered that holiday time in Canberra remains much the same.

It was very hot as we left the outskirts of Sydney, and storms raced across the tablelands.

Rain threw the smell of crushed eucalyptus and wet hay into the car. Lake George was enjoying its soaking.

Over two evenings, we enjoyed Canberra’s civilised suburbia, its craft-beer pubs and outdoor dining, with the streets swept spotless and local gardens thriving.

The contrast with under-funded western Sydney high streets was obvious.

The National Gallery was empty, and we walked alone among Sidney Nolan’s 25 Ned Kelly paintings. I wonder what else tells so much about Australia’s violent and troubled past?

Then, across the way, we are delighted the National Portrait Gallery continues to offer the nation’s best curation of pies – and some interesting portraits of our nation’s heroes.

And we visit Parliament House, which turns 30 next year. W. Farmer Whyte would have been impressed by its splendour.

My guess, though, is that Mr Whyte would have been saddened by the feeling of absence within our parliament’s halls and corridors during these summer months, as well as for the many other months of each year when the parliament does not sit and the place is empty.

In 1929 Whyte wrote, “It is surprising how widespread the feeling is that Canberra is a bad dream, and that one day the people will wake up and find it is no more – that the nation has decided to ‘cut the loss’, and have the capital located in a more sensible place, instead of being miles away from everywhere.”

Today Canberra remains distant, without public affection. Not even our prime minister sees it as his home. Canberra does a weird thing to our democracy. It takes our local representatives to a place where normal folk rarely go.

This means the work of our MPs escapes proper scrutiny, which isn’t good at a time when people across the world are questioning the worth of their politicians. Our nation has produced something very strange with this child of the Constitution. We need to talk about it.

Phillip O’Neill, director

Centre for Western Sydney

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