Canberra

20 to 23 January 2020

Despite being Australia’s capital, Canberra has a reputation for being boring and sleepy, even soulless, too full of politicians and not enough fun. “Pyongyang without the dystopia,” is how the Economist once described the city. It is true that Canberra is small and utilitarian and the shops in its main shopping centre all close at 5.30pm on the dot. It is also true that its purpose built layout, the vision of architect Walter Burley Griffin, is heavy on municipal buildings and not so easy on the pedestrian.

But – **SPOILER ALERT** – we loved it. A lot. In fact our day roaming inside its institutions is right up there with our day walking the base of Uluru as an Australian experience for us. And it beats Sydney and Melbourne hands down to vie with Adelaide and Hobart at the top of our top five State or Territory Capitals.

And here is why…

Stefan had been to Canberra before and the one place he remembered and wanted to return to was the War Memorial. Now, we know from our travels so far, that Australia loves a war memorial big or small but even in Melbourne’s impressive Shrine of remembrance he said “wait until we get to Canberra“. And its true they don’t come bigger than in Canberra. Before arriving at the War Memorial, the enormous sculptures lining Anzac Avenue set the scene. We particularly liked the Greek memorial with its half buried column surrounded by amphitheatre. We hadn’t seen one of those for a while!

There is something uniquely neutral about the way Australia tells its war stories, something I had noticed way back in Emu Bay and more recently again in Melbourne. Here in Canberra though it was particularly obvious. In telling the stories of the ANZACs campaigns in Turkey in WWI it told both sides without demonising a foreign enemy. It really is as though they have taken Ataturk’s words to heart. “There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours“.

There is no glorifying or romanticising or even fervent nationalism, instead stories told through beautiful sculpture and objects

and it was careful not to leave out the stories of the women, including indigenous women who served.

Above the museum, the tomb of the unknown soldier is simply beautiful. The marble mosaics glow gently in the half light. It recalls the luminescence of the Taj Mahal and the intricate designs of the Islamic art of Spain and North Africa.

Walking back down Anzac Avenue we tried to work out where this city reminded us of with its wide leafy avenues, its giant mosaics, its grand yet simple civic buildings and its socialist realist sculpture and then we remembered…

We’re pretty sure that Burley Griffin did not look to Albania for inspiration but Canberra could very easily be Tirane‘s twin.

Our (long) walking tour took us across Lake Burley Griffin, passed the library that could double for Tirane’s opera house and along the walk celebrating Australian of the Year.

We were heading to another location central to The Castle, the High Court of Australia, ultimate venue for Daryl Kerrigan’s fictional challenge of the Australian constitution. (No spoilers here, you will have to watch the film to find out what happens in the end but as closing legal arguments go there are not many better than that of his hapless lawyer at first instance, Dennis Denuto. “It’s the vibe. It’s the constitution. It’s Mabo. It’s justice. It’s law. It’s the vibe and, ah, no, that’s it. It’s the vibe. I rest my case.” )

Resisting the urge to ask where the Kerrigan case had been heard we walked on in through the vast glass facade and through security.

Sadly the court wasn’t sitting, it was its summer break, but that meant that we could roam its courtrooms pretty much alone except for the brilliant guides. In Courtrooms One and Two the guides spent lots of time with us helping us understand how the High Court sits in the hierarchy of Australian’s court system, sitting to hear constitutional and criminal appeals cases that have made their way through the State or Territory court system.

The guide in Court One was particularly knowledgeable about the British court system. We shared our fondness for Lady Hale and he told us about their own Mary Gaudron, born like Lady Hale into a working class family and flying to the top of her profession despite its inherent sexism. There were a distinct lack of women in the portraits of the High Court’s first sitting in its original home in 1903 and even in its first sitting in its new home in 1980 so it was good to see that the Chief Justice of the High Court is currently a woman, Her Honour Susan Kiefel. With the guide we reflected on the court’s need to do quite a lot more work in its representation of Australia’s indigenous population.

Behind the High Court and in front of the old Government House, built in 19 sits an enduring and living monument to the absence of representation of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Established in 1972 in response to the Australian Government’s refusal to recognise Aboriginal land rights and, despite being blown away by a storm in 1974, has remained as a permanent reminder of the continuing struggle of the First Australians.

With Parliament also on its summer holiday, we had the marble foyer completely to ourselves. Well, just us and the security guards.

In both the Lego model and real life the Upper and Lower chambers were familiar, based in layout on the UK Parliament. The colours were given a distinctly Australian twist with the green of House of Representatives muted to reflect the green of eucalyptus and the red of the Senate deepened to reflect the red of the centre. In the corridors outside we found another great guide who was able to help us understand Australia’s hybrid of the British and American systems, an attempt to take what works from each.

Women’s role in Parliament was celebrated in the corridors with a beautifully bright portrait of Australia’s first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, shining out in a long line of dull white men in dark suits and also an equally vibrant Linda Burney, the first Aboriginal women elected to the House of Representatives.

The exhibition of gifts given by foreign visitors to Parliament was very entertaining. Whilst Poland gave an etched crystal vase and Canada a soapstone dancing walrus, the gift from the UK was a little odd. Fire damaged relics of the Blitz hit House of Commons seemed a strange thing to give.

Canberra is a purpose built city, the compromise of a battle between Melbourne and Sydney to claim the prize as Australia’s capital but long before Burley Griffin was charged with designing this new political and administrative centre, this was the land of the Ngunnawal, the Ngambri and the Ngarigu peoples. Inside the controversial architecture of the National Museum of Australia I went in search of their stories.

We have learnt so much in our travels and our reading about the First Australians deep connection to their country and the pain of the dispossession caused by the European invasion. I sat and watched a series of films of the Ngambri people and it is clear that connection to the land and to their ancestors does not dim with the coming generations.

There is an undeniable and innate sense of belonging to both people and place that makes the forced separation of children from their families so unimaginably cruel. The objects chronicling the stories of the Stolen Generation will bring a tear to the eye even for those who haven’t seen Rabbit-Proof Fence.

Being reminded again of all this made us all the more determined not to mark the coming Australia Day when we got to Sydney…

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