Celebrating Community

My Chronicle column this week celebrates the community spirit of the Canberra northside.
Celebrate the Spirit of Community, The Chronicle, 3 December 2013

Former Labor Senator Bob Carr once said that to truly be grounded in your community, you need to know something about its history and its geography. You need to know the stories of the people who’ve lived in your neighbourhood, and how their lives have been shaped by the physical nature of the place you love.

One of the delightful features of this year’s Canberra Centenary program has been ‘Parties at the Shops’ – a chance for local communities to celebrate the things that are special about their suburb. You might need road signs to find the local shops in Canberra, but our suburban communities are something to be proud of.

I’ve enjoyed participating in many local community celebrations, including the 50th anniversaries of Hackett (in September) and Watson (in November). Both are 1963 suburbs, and the celebrations gave a chance for some of the original residents to share their stories.

The Hackett celebration featured a bevy of local performers and a reminiscing corner with early photographs, including from now closed Hackett School. As long-time Hackett resident James Walker told a Chronicle reporter, ‘so many people were ripped from their previous lives and moved here and had to sort of band together. A tradition has grown up that you know your neighbours and are aware of things happening.’

At the Watson celebration, organiser Julie Smith and her team were inspired by the fact that the streets of Watson are named after lawyers. So they asked lapsed lawyers Gary Humphries and me to debate the topic: ‘That Federation is a Failure, Canberra is a Catastrophe and Lawyers are Laughable’. I drew the short straw getting the affirmative case, so employed the old debating trick of entirely redefining the topic.

Both Hackett and Watson are fortunate to have strong community groups doing innovative things for their suburbs. Hackett’s Music in the Park organised by John and Christy Murray brings together local bands in the Bragg Street Park. Watson Community Association has prepared a brochure on Watson and its history, discussing its Ngunnawal heritage and the role of the CSIRO Dickson Experimental Station for agricultural research.

One of the great things about civic life is that community engagement begets more community engagement. So it’s probably no accident that postcode 2602, in which both Hackett and Watson are located, was recently revealed to be the most generous postcode in Australia according to tax donation statistics.

In 2010, I wrote a book titled Disconnected, which documented the decline in community life since the 1960s. I still believe the basic argument of that book is right: data on churchgoing, political party membership, union membership, civic associations and sporting participation show that Australia has experienced a decline in civic engagement.

And yet the strength of many Canberra communities gives me hope that Australia can achieve a broad-based renewal of social capital. Canberrans are better connected with our neighbours than people in any other state or territory in Australia. It’s one of the many reasons why I am so proud to represent my neighbours in the federal parliament.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and his website is www.andrewleigh.com.

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