Canberra is the Best City in Australia

My speech at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas is over the fold.

Canberra is the Best City in Australia


Andrew Leigh
Member for Fraser


Festival of Dangerous Ideas
Sydney Opera House
3 October 2010

I begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet today.

Coming to Sydney to sing the praises of Canberra, I feel a bit like recruiters for the First Fleet must have felt when telling Londoners about the wonders of Australia. Your streets may be a little crowded at times, but the notion that a paradise lies southward is just too fabulous to be believed.

Indeed, I recognise that for some Sydneysiders, the only way you’d contemplate a move to Canberra is in leg irons. We’d love to welcome you into our city, but I hope that even if you end this talk unpersuaded to pack the car and drive on down the M5, you’ll take away from my talk a few ideas about ‘the Canberra model’, and how the rest of Australia can learn a few lessons from the way we run a city.

First Impressions

First, a confession. I wasn’t born in Canberra. I was born in King George V Hospital in Newtown, less than 10 kilometres from where we are now in the Sydney Opera House. As the child of academics who worked on south east Asia, I grew up variously in Sarawak, Melbourne, Jakarta and Banda Aceh.

But the largest part of my schooling was in Sydney, and like many Sydney school children, I visited Canberra every two years or so. My memories of the trips are dominated more by the journey than the destination. Cool kids on the back seat, nerds up the front. Endless games of ‘truth, dare, double-dare, torture, kiss or promise’. And the time a boy in my class overslept and his mother followed the school coach down the Hume Highway, tooting until it finally pulled over around the Big Merino, and he sheepishly stepped on board.

My first serious impressions of Canberra came when I moved to the city in 1997, to work as an associate for Justice Michael Kirby. It was a Sunday afternoon, and it was my 25th birthday. Having just graduated in law, I couldn’t imagine a more exciting job to be starting, so I turned the music up and accelerated down the highway. It wasn’t until the blue lights began flashing in the rear vision mirror that I realised what I’d done. When the officer came to the window, I was still too stunned to say the one thing that might have gotten me off ‘You know – it’s my birthday today.’ I still wonder whether he chuckled as he wrote 3 August onto both the birthday and date fields of the speeding ticket. It’s the last time I’ve been fined for speeding.

Arriving in Canberra, the first thing that strikes you is that even as it approaches its centenary, the city remains a ‘bush capital’. As you drive over the hill approaching Canberra, you see… well, let me quote from a newspaper report that accompanied the 1906 scoping party to choose a national capital.

‘In a district of fine landscapes, Canberra is one of the most picturesque of spots and presented a charming spectacle this morning under the sun from an unclouded sky. It was a clear, frosty morning, such as can be enjoyed at these high altitudes, where a deep breath of the air is like a draft of champagne. Canberra, which lies below Mount Ainslie, and about 200 miles from Sydney, is 2000 feet above sea level... the visitors caught sight from a high ridge of a beautiful panorama – an extensive plain ... the white homestead of Duntroon, nestling beneath a hill whose green dome contrasted in a striking degree with the higher and rugged peaks behind, and the rich blue of the mountain ranges still further off, with their tops of snow’

In the century since that passage was written, the decision not to allow development on the mountains that ring the city means that many of the 357,000 people who live in Canberra can look up from a suburban street and see a hill covered in gum trees. It also means that Canberra is a bird-watcher’s paradise, with pairs of rosellas and king parrots, not to mention squadrons of cockatoos and galahs. And if you get through Spring without being dive-bombed by a magpie, you’re doing well.

But when I first arrived in Canberra as a ‘cosmopolitan’ Sydneysider, I wasn’t going to let a little thing like natural beauty seduce me. I’d heard all the jokes about Canberra: ‘they spoiled a perfectly good sheep station’, ‘a cemetery with lights’, ‘best viewed out the window of a departing airplane’. After watching a promotional video about the city, Bill Bryson suggested renaming the campaign: ‘Canberra - Why Wait for Death?’. Responding to a ‘Live in Canberra’ campaign, NSW premier Morris Iemma called our city ‘Six suburbs in search of a soul’.

And there are a few jokes that Canberra adds to the mix. We do have an astounding number of roundabouts. And as you come down Northbourne Avenue into the city, there really is a sign that reads ‘City Centre’. Brothels are legal, regulated, and restricted in their location, which means that many end up in the light industrial suburb of Fyshwick.

But despite its quirks, a funny thing happened over my first few months living in the city. I began to like Canberra. Working as associate to Justice Michael Kirby at the High Court, I loved my job, and I realised that if you want to put in long hours and catch up with your friends, it helps to be in a place with fabulous restaurants and near-zero commuting time. I rollerbladed around Lake Burley Griffin, mountain-biked on Mount Majura, and popped off for day-trips to the nearby ski-fields.

One day, I was working on some legal research on the 9th floor of the High Court, while the annual hot air balloon festival was taking place on Reconciliation Place, which is right next to the High Court. Much as I tried to concentrate on the Commonwealth Law Reports, it was difficult to keep focus as inflatable bottles, kookaburras and koalas floated past. Eventually, I gave up trying to read the law reports, and watched as the balloon pilots took it in turn to drift down towards the mist-covered lake, firing up the burners just as the basket touched the surface, and leaving a line of ripples on the water as the balloon soared up again.

Choosing Canberra

When Canberra turns on its charm and offers that perfect day where the sun shines, the water glistens and the temperature isn’t too cold nor too hot, it’s easy to see how the city charmed the Federal Parliamentarians who visited in 1906 and 1907 on their tour of potential sites for the new nation’s capital. Federal politician King O’Malley once of the decision about where to site Australia’s national capital ‘I want us to have a climate where men can hope. We cannot have hope in hot countries.’

It is often said that success comes from a lot of hard work and a bit of luck. Reflecting on the cities which could have become the seat of government, Canberra had plenty of luck. At the outset, the city wasn’t the preferred location of either the media or the politicians. But for the perfect Canberra day on 13 August 1906 and then again on 23 August 1907, the parochial interests of a Premier and the change of heart and vote by a Victorian Senator, our nation’s capital could have been somewhere entirely different.

On the banks of the Snowy River, 50 kilometres south-west of Cooma, lies the town of Dalgety. With one pub and 75 residents, you’d hardly know that the town was named in the 1904 Seat of Government Act as the location of the new federal parliament. But state and local interest collided with the desires of national leaders. Dalgety was located in the electorate of the then Home Affairs Minister Sir William Lyne.  Keeping with the traditions of Macquarie Street NSW Premier Joseph Carruthers refused to cede the town to the Federal Government believing Dalgety to be too close to Victoria. Carruthers valiantly declared Tumut, Yass or Lyndhurst as the only sites for the national capital. By coincidence, all three towns happened to be in the Premier’s electorate.

Dalgety remained the favourite of Victorian and Western Australian senators who made numerous attempts to have it reinstated as the site for the capital. But Carruthers’ determination to act in the interests of New South Wales was such that he threatened to take the Federal Government to the new High Court for trespass should any survey pegs be driven into the ground.

Eventually, the Dalgety-backers gave up, and by 1907, there was a growing consensus that the site of the capital should be located somewhere within the triangle formed between the towns of Goulburn, Yass and Queanbeyan. With the trout-fishing contingent now having shifted their support to Tumut, the decision came down to Canberra versus Tumut. In December 1907, the House of Representatives voted 39 to 33 in favour of Canberra. But in the Senate, Canberra and Tumut were tied with 18 votes apiece.

Canberra owes its status to a Melbournian who believed the future lay in agriculture and mining.  Anti-Socialist Senator James McColl changed his vote and backed Canberra. Then, like now, the numbers in Australian politics were finely balanced. But the new Labor government of Andrew Fisher showed that a close vote doesn’t stop you moving forward (sorry, couldn’t resist). A decision was finally made to select Canberra as the national capital.

Besides its unique history, Canberra was also ahead of its time in terms of its planning. In a male-dominated era, the city can boast the influence of a woman’s contribution in its visioning. Modern Canberra was designed by a couple who had never visited Australia, much less Canberra itself. A colleague of Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Burley Griffin heard about the Australian government’s competition to design the national capital while on honeymoon with his wife Marion in 1911. Although it was Walter’s name that headed the entry, theirs was very much a collaborative effort. Without Marion’s elegant drawings, it is unlikely that Walter’s design would have grabbed the judges, and lifted it above the other 136 entries in the competition. Walter and Marion should be regarded as co-contributors to the design of Canberra.

Walter Griffin is said to have vowed to enter only one international design competition in his career, and the couple gave the Canberra plan his all. The Griffins’ ideas were ahead of their time. They embraced what was the then new science of town planning.  They were enthused by the Federal Government’s decision to make the land leasehold, rather than freehold.

Writing to the Australian Government, Walter Griffin lamented that the grant of freehold land had caused speculative holdings which had perverted the development of Washington DC. He believed that whoever owned land had influence and control over governments.

Walter Griffin considered that a city’s architecture, landscape and town planning ought to be integrated into a humanised and romantic environment. For a city to flourish Griffin believed it needed a community with ‘great democratic civic ideals’. He wanted our capital to be a place where citizens enjoyed a high quality of life based on ‘egalitarian legislation, genuine public spirit and organic scientific cities’. Speaking in Minneapolis in 1912, he told the audience:

‘We can all be interested in the Australian Federal Capital city not so much for what it is now or will be necessarily, but because of what it stands for; as an opportunity, the best, I believe, so far afforded for an expression of the democratic civic ideal and for all that means in accessibility, freedom, wealth, comfort, conveniences, scale and splendour’

Griffin in 1913 was appointed as the Director of Design and Construction of the capital and famously drew up the contract himself. The terms placed effective control of the project in Griffin’s hands and were humiliating to public officials, in particular to the head of the Department of Home Affairs and the Director General of Commonwealth Works.

Yet despite the lull in construction that occurred during World War I, the results were superb. Looking around at the building we are meeting in today, I wonder whether this great Sydney Opera House would have been even closer to its creator’s vision if Jørn Utzon had had Walter Burley Griffin’s contract negotiating skills.

The Griffin vision may live on in the city but the city’s success has also been due to the Prime Ministers who have called Canberra home. Andrew Fisher recognised the need for Canberra to have an art collection that befitted a national capital. Joseph Lyons laid the foundation stones for the National Library, saying:

‘for a young country like Australia, cut off by distance from direct and intimate contact with the progress and thought of older and more experienced nations, there was a greater need for the gathering into the National Library the greatest amount of literature and material possible’

A generation later, Ben Chifley saw the passing of the Australian National University Act, establishing the basis for what was to become one of Australia’s greatest universities.

Other Prime Ministers saw different virtues in Canberra. John Curtin liked it because he felt less vulnerable to those pressing special interests upon him.

The Country Party’s Earle Page, though only Prime Minister for three weeks, helped Canberra in a very practical way. Faced with a Canberra-bashing West Australian member of Parliament, Page induced him to visit for a weekend, whereupon he took the man trout fishing one night (he caught three large ones), hare shooting the next morning, and quail shooting in the afternoon. Henceforth, Page records, the West Australian parliamentarian became a Canberra enthusiast.

For Canberrans, the nation’s history is our local geography, with suburbs named after the great nation-builders, from Deakin to Curtin, Scullin to Chifley. On this front, you can’t help but feel sorry for Gorton, the only former Prime Minister to make his home in Canberra after retirement. The powers-that-be decided not to name a suburb after him because of fear that Canberrans would confuse it with the already-gazetted Gordon.

Speaking of names, I can’t help pointing out that Canberra is the only Australian capital city named by its Indigenous people rather than the white interlopers

Prior to white settlement, Canberra was best known by the local Indigenous people as the place where they held corroborees and feasted on bogong moths. White settlement began in the 1820s, when Joshua John Moore established a homestead on the Acton peninsula, where the National Museum and the ANU now stand. He called it ‘Canberry’, which he understood to mean  ‘meeting place’ in the Ngunnawal language. Newspaper proprietor John Gale claimed that actually the word meant something else. He argued that because of the prominence of Mount Ainslie and Black Mountain, the word Canberra meant ‘women’s breasts’.

As a politician in the present environment, it would be unwise of me to call either a farmer or a newspaper proprietor a liar. So I’ll leave it to others to judge the historical truth. But either way, it’s got to be better to let your traditional owners name your city than to name it after a bloke who lived on the other side of the world and inherited his title from his dad. Lord Sydney, Lord Melbourne, and Lord Hobart, I’m talking about you.

In his History of Australia, Manning Clark wrote of Lord Sydney that ‘Mr Thomas Townshend, commonly denominated Tommy Townshend, owed his political career to a very independent fortune and a considerable parliamentary interest, which contributed to his personal no less than his political elevation, for his abilities, though respectable, scarcely rose above mediocrity.’

Lord Hobart was a Tory who purchased his way into politics, representing one of the famous ‘rotten boroughs’ as the member for Bramber in the UK House of Commons.

And then there’s the Lord Melbourne. After his wife had an affair with Lord Byron, Melbourne famously referred to the poet as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’. Yet there was nothing safe about knowing Lord Melbourne. As British historian Boyd Hilton wrote ‘it is irrefutable that Melbourne’s personal life was problematic. Spanking sessions with aristocratic ladies were harmless, not so the whippings administered to orphan girls taken into his household as objects of charity.’

Admittedly, Canberra has its own ties to the darker side of life. One of our great bars is Tilley’s café, located in Lyneham in the inner north. Founded as a women’s space in 1984, the café originally operated on the rule that men could only enter if accompanied by a woman. The space quickly became popular as a lesbian venue, and as a live music venue, hosting everyone from Missy Higgins to Luka Bloom. Tilley’s was named after Matilda ‘Tilly’ Devine, the Sydney brothel madam who made her money from visiting US servicemen during World War II, and who was known for her utter ruthlessness in dealing with her rivals, including fellow Sydney madam Kate Leigh (no relation, so far as I’m aware). The NSW press may have called Tilley ‘the Worst Woman in Sydney’, but she’s now been immortalised in one of my favourite Canberra bars.

Australia’s Most Liveable City

But the seedy side of life feels far away most of the time in Canberra. Our home is in Hackett, a 10-minute drive from the city centre, and a 5-minute walk from the base of Mount Majura. When international guests come to visit, we’ll often pick them up from the airport (15 minutes away), then take them up for a walk to Mount Majura. The suburb is designed with walkers in mind, so footpaths conveniently allow us to cut through the streets and make our way up to the bush reserve. If we time it around dusk, the rosellas will swoop over our heads, the kookaburras will be letting out their belly laughs, and the kangaroos will be coming down to the edge of the reserve to graze on the thicker grass. After seeing the wildlife, we’ll probably stroll down to Wilbur’s, our new local café in the Hackett shops, which serves macchiatos and muesli in the morning, before switching in the afternoon to Coopers and gourmet pizza. The café is run by the three sons of James Savoulidis, a Greek entrepreneur who opened the first pizzeria in Canberra in 1966, and taught Gough Whitlam to dance the Zorba a few years later.

If we wanted different cuisine, we could easily enjoy terrific Ethiopian in Dickson, fabulous Chinese in Campbell, delicious Vietnamese in Griffith, or great Turkish in Barton. Or for that matter, we could pick up some fresh-baked pastries at Cornucopia or Silo, and have a picnic on Aspen Island in Lake Burley Griffin, at the foot of the National Carillion. If it’s a weekend, we might take the visitors to our favourite wood-carver at the Kingston Bus Depot markets, to the local farmers’ market at Exhibition Park, or to the Trash and Treasure market that the local Rotary Club have been running at Jamison since the 1970s.

We have a significant migrant base – not to mention nearly 80 embassies and High Commissions. I won’t pretend the city is free of racism, but I can’t imagine a race riot ever taking place on its streets. Canberrans are tolerant on other dimensions too. Canberrans wanting to worship can choose from Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Reformed, New Life, Christian Life Centre and Uniting Churches.

You can pray with the Salvation Army or at the Baha’i temple, the Synagogue, the Mosque, the Tibetan temples, the Hindu temples and the Buddhist temples.  If orthodoxy is more to your liking, there are Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, and Macedonian Orthodox Churches to choose from. Yet I’ve never heard a murmur from my churchgoing friends about the fact that the local ABC radio station uses the frequency 666, and most people seem quite relaxed about the group of witches that are said to gather on the slopes of Mount Ainslie.

Social Capital

There are many reasons to love Canberra, but the number one reason is its social connectedness. Since time immemorial, people have enjoyed the simple pleasure of sharing time with friends and neighbours; of working collectively together in clubs, groups and associations; of strengthening the social ties that bind us together as a people.

In this speech, I will refer to these ties as ‘social capital’, by which I mean the networks of trust and reciprocity that link multiple individuals together. These bonds exist between two friends who meet on Friday night for a beer. Such networks link together the members of a local cricket team, who know that trusting teams win more games. And social capital joins together co-workers, who find that working together gets the job done faster.

Social capital is the idea that the ties that bind us together have a value in themselves. The other main types of capital are physical capital – such as machines and roads, and human capital – such as knowledge and skills. Social capital is a bit controversial in some circles, but that was once true of human capital too. In the 1960s, people debated whether you could place an economic value on people’s skills like the value that you placed on a bridge. Eventually, we agreed that human capital had economic value. More recently, people have been debating whether social capital like interpersonal ties are economically important. My guess is that in a generation’s time, social capital will be accepted as just as important as any other form of capital.

It is easy to see how trust greases the wheels of commerce. A plumber who turns up on time and charges the quoted price is a guy you’ll hire again. The barista with a smile helps ensure that her customers will come back for their next day’s coffee. A boss who encourages workers to knock off early on quiet days is more likely to find employees willing to stay a little longer when times are busy. As Adam Smith once pointed out, when two people are repeatedly interacting with one another in a market, they are more likely to behave well towards one another in their society.

Of course, social capital isn’t invariably good. Criminal gangs rely on trust, and so are a form of social capital. But equally, such gangs have human capital and physical capital. The world would be a safer place if Osama bin Laden had fewer friends – but that doesn’t negate the general rule that societies are healthier if they have more social capital.

My interest in social capital came while I was studying my PhD at Harvard, where I worked as a researcher for Robert Putnam. Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, showed that social capital in the United States had declined from 1960 to 2000. The more I read about Putnam’s research, the less confident I became about the notion that the social fabric of my own country was as intact as a brand new pair of Speedos.

To test the theory, I began collecting snippets of evidence from Australia. How had community organisations fared? Were people more involved in politics? What about workplace engagement? Were churches emptying out? How about sports? Do we volunteer more or less? Can we drop in on our friends without calling to make an appointment?

Just as some people collect coins and others collect Pokemon cards, I collect pieces of data. Through dusty libraries, emails, telephone calls, and online, I have been steadily accumulating as much evidence as I can about community life in Australia. In a decade of on-again/off-again research, I have compiled a mountain of statistical evidence about social capital in Australia since about World War Two. The result is a book called Disconnected, and published this month by UNSW Press.

The data clearly point towards certain conclusions. When it comes to organisational membership, surveys show that we are less likely to be active members of any association today than we were in the 1960s. This is partly because organisations themselves have gone out of business. There are fewer associations in Australia today than in the late 1970s, and the average age of members of organisations has risen. This is also because existing organisations have shed members. As a share of the population, mass membership associations peaked in the late 1960s and have declined markedly since then.

As to people giving their time, Australia saw a rise in the share of people volunteering in the late 1990s (perhaps because of the Olympics), but volunteering rates are probably still below their post-war peak. And the proportion of us who give money to charity has stayed stable over recent decades.

One of the forms of civic activity that has suffered most over recent decades is religious participation. This is partly because Australians are becoming less religious over time. But it is mostly due to declining attendance among believers. Among the faithful, the share who attend a church, synagogue or mosque today is substantially lower than in the past. Younger Australians are considerably less likely to attend a religious service than their parents or grandparents.

Political life has also taken a hit. Since about 1960, the share of Australian citizens who cast a valid vote has fallen. Across all major parties, official membership numbers have collapsed. Among those who remain, many are inactive. Australians have low levels of confidence in politicians, which will make it difficult to reinvigorate our democracy.

In workplaces, unions have traditionally been one of the main forms of social capital. In three decades, the share of the workforce in a union has dropped from around 50 per cent to under 20 per cent. The institutions that have emerged to replace unions – such as employer-sponsored telephone helplines – make little attempt to perform any social capital function.

When it comes to sport, Australians are about as likely to watch a live sporting match as in the past. But we are substantially less likely to play an organised sport. On the cultural front, moviegoing rates are substantially lower than in the 1950s and 1960s, and rates of participation in cultural events (such as museums, art galleries and botanic gardens) have dropped since the early 1990s.

In tracking informal socialising, I found evidence of a decline in the number of close friends and neighbourhood connections from the 1980s to the 2000s. On average, Australians shed two friends who would keep a confidence, and half a friend who would help them through a difficult patch. Compared with respondents two decades earlier, the typical Australian in the 2000s has one and a half  fewer neighbours of whom they could ask a small favour, and three fewer neighbours on whom they could drop in uninvited. We are also more likely to live alone. In response to those who claim that informal socialising has merely moved online, I argue that new technologies may end up reducing trust and reciprocity rather than increasing it.

The last set of indicators are those relating to trust and honesty. Here, the picture is more positive. Interpersonal trust has risen slightly, and ratings of the ethics and honesty of professionals have improved (though bankers and lawyers have slipped backwards). It is also true that the best long-run measure we have of crime trends – the homicide rate – peaked around 1990 and has declined since then.

To the extent that social capital has been eroded in Australia, I conclude in Disconnected that there are several plausible explanations. The share of people working long and unsociable hours has made it more difficult for people to participate in community life. The feminisation of the workforce – on balance a terrific development – has meant that organisations historically run by housewives have struggled to stay afloat. Ethnic diversity – again a development that I think has been on balance a great strength for Australia – tends to be associated with lower levels of social capital.

Technologies have also played their part. With the growth of television, many of us have replaced friends with Friends and neighbours with Neighbours. It’s handy to be able to use ATMs and scanners rather than bank tellers and checkout staff, but that’s two more human interactions that we miss out on each day. Lastly, the growth of car commuting not only saps hours from our day, but makes us more frazzled when we return home.

The difficultly with these explanations is that we can say good things about most of them. Australia is clearly better off on balance for being a more ethnically diverse nation, in which more women participate in the paid workforce than in the past. Long working hours mostly reflect the preferences of workers, not bosses. Few of us would voluntarily relinquish cars, televisions or ATMs.

What this means is that any attempt to increase social capital in Australia will not involve a backlash against the causes, but new and innovative strategies to make us more socially connected. We need to shape a better future, not simply try to revive the past.

In thinking about how to boost social capital across Australia, it is worth asking the question: Where is social capital strongest? In which Australian city are people most likely to give time and money, engage in the political process, and participate in local sports?

Given the title of this talk, the answer is unlikely to surprise you. On virtually every social capital measure, Canberra is at or near the top. Canberra has the highest share of charitable donors and the highest volunteering rate. In a given year, 85 percent of Canberrans give money to other causes, compared with 73 percent of those in NSW. When it comes to giving time, 38 percent of Canberrans volunteer in a given year, compared with 33 percent of Victorians.

This weekend we’re celebrating not only the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, but also what Roy and HG have tagged ‘the Festival of the Boot Parts 1 and 2’ – or should that be Parts 2 and 3? So what do we know about attendance at sporting events? According to the latest data, 47 percent of Canberrans attended a sporting event in the previous year, compared with 44 percent nationally. There’s an even bigger difference when you look at those who actually take the field. 41 percent of Canberrans say that they play organised sport, compared with around 30 percent in the rest of Australia.

On the cultural front, Canberrans are twice as likely to attend an art gallery or museum than other Australians, more likely to go to the movies, and significantly more likely to go for a stroll around the botanic gardens.

Now, I know what you’re going to say. What’s the point of going to watch live sport when you can’t cheer for the  Raiders, the Brumbies, the Canberra Capitals, or the Prime Minister’s XI? Why go to your local gallery when you know that Canberrans are choosing between seeing Alfred Deakin’s portrait at the Museum of Australian Democracy or Ned Kelly’s death mask at the National Portrait Gallery? Sure, you’re saying, I’d go to the botanic gardens more often if I knew that the cool solitude of the National Botanic Gardens was no more than a half-hour drive from my front door.

Fine, let’s look at a few kinds of activities that other places pride themselves in. It’s true that we don’t have a Sydney Opera House, but we’re significantly more likely to have attended a musical or opera than NSW residents. We don’t have a Melbourne Arts Centre, but we’re more likely to likely to have gone to a theatre performance than Victorians. For that matter, Canberrans are more likely to have gone to a zoo, a pop music concert, or a dance performance than other Australians.

Perhaps less surprising is the fact that Canberrans are also more engaged in the political process than most other Australians. Across the country, 7 percent of enrolled voters failed to show up, while 5 percent showed up but voted informal. Put those two figures together, and you get a worrying 12 percent of the electorate who failed to cast a valid vote. Canberrans are both more inclined to show up, and less likely to vote informal. So the share of Canberrans casting an invalid vote is 10 percent.

Don’t get me wrong about this: 10 percent of the electorate failing to cast a valid vote is 10 percent too many.  In my own electorate of Fraser, I’m especially concerned that the number of informal votes rose from 2679 in 2007 to 5171 in 2010.  That’s more than five thousand people whose vote didn’t get the chance to affect the outcome of the poll. But it’s nonetheless true that people in the ACT are more likely to cast a valid vote than in most parts of the country.

So why has the ACT cracked the secret of social capital? Part of the answer lies in commuting times. The typical city-dweller in Australia with a full time job spends 270 hours a year commuting to work – the equivalent of 11 days a year. For Canberrans, it’s 182 hours a year, or more like 8 days. For Sydneysiders, the number is 13 days. That means Canberrans who work full-time have 5 more days a year than Sydneysiders to spend with their friends.

On top of these factors, Canberra’s physical environment is highly conducive to social capital.

There are so many local parks that it’s hard to kick a football without hitting one. Cycling paths are an integral part of the city’s development. Front fences are banned, which makes houses more open to the street. And neighbourhoods are designed around small commercial centres that typically contain a mini-supermarket, a café or bar and a restaurant or two. In other Australian cities, you have to burn a litre of petrol to buy a litre of milk. But plenty of Canberrans can walk down to their local shops. Canberrans don’t have to choose between living in the suburbs or having walkable access to neighbourhood shops. Many of us have both.

In terms of public housing, Canberra has always had a policy of spreading public housing across the territory. Indeed, all but three Canberra suburbs include some public housing. The policy focus today is to mix public housing not just within the same suburb, but within the same development.

State and territory governments in the rest of Australia could readily adopt many of the urban design features that have worked in Canberra. Wherever possible, new developments should be designed to be walkable, with plenty of parks, and small commercial centres dotted through the development. Although suburban Canberra does not have the population density to support the kind of sidewalk life that New York urban activist Jane Jacobs would have loved, the place seems to support high levels of social capital better than any other part of Australia.

Of course, urban form isn’t the whole solution to social capital. In Disconnected, I also argue that people should use their local stores, donate money and try a new activity each day. I advocate harnessing new technology to build face-to-face connections, not replace them. And I suggest that people should host a street party (my wife Gweneth and I have hosted ours three times over the past six years). Creating social capital can be fun too.


Last Thursday, I stood amidst the crowd at the opening of the National Gallery of Australia’s new Indigenous wing, which will house the world’s largest collection of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art. Like Canberra itself, the wing is an amalgam of the rest of Australia: South Australian Mintaro slate, Queensland red ironbark and Kimberley green marble. Amidst these beautiful natural materials, the wing showcases the art of a people who are perhaps the world’s oldest culture, and contains everything from dot paintings to modern art. To quote Seamus Heaney, it is the kind of place where hope and history rhyme.

If Canberra were a person, I like to think that it would be an egalitarian patriot, the kind who knows the past, but isn’t bound by it. Canberrans may be home to the Australian War Memorial, but we were the only state or territory to vote for Australia to become a Republic in the 1999 referendum. Canberra was the first jurisdiction in Australia to have a bill of rights, and the ACT government is committed to halving carbon emissions over the next decade. On most issues, Canberra is a touch more progressive than the rest of Australia.

In 2013, Canberra will celebrate its centenary. Already plans are in place to use this chance to re-engage Australians with their capital, and build legacies that last well beyond the celebration itself. Walter Griffin said that he was designing a city for a nation of ‘bold democrats’. We need to use this chance to think about how we want Canberra to develop over the century ahead.

Canberra happens to be my home, but it is our national capital. In this talk, I have tried to persuade you that the story of this extraordinary city is one of which all Australian can be proud. But Canberra is more than its parliament. It is also a place that takes seriously its environmental responsibility, and prides itself on its Indigenous heritage. In an era when Australians are becoming disconnected from one another, Canberra has some of the highest rates of civic engagement in the nation. Canberrans are more generous with our time and money, more engaged in our local community groups, more likely to play sport with our friends and neighbours, and more likely to participate in cultural activities. Part of the reason for this is that we spend less time in the car than most other Australians. But I suspect that we owe a debt to Marion and Walter Griffin for helping to forge a city in which local communities really mean something.

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