Growing sadly into anonymity

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I FIND it difficult to think about Canberra’s 100th anniversary without a certain sadness. Crazy, I know.

We’re now 385,000 strong; we live in the most beautiful surroundings; and ours is probably the most convenient city in the world where nothing is more than half an hour away. We have fine hospitals, great schools, top universities, grand galleries, magnificent research facilities, splendid restaurants, lively theatres, jobs for all and an easy passage to holiday spots at the coast or in the mountains.

And all achieved in 100 years! What could one possibly find to be sad about? Indeed, the Canberra I discovered in 1964, arriving as a reporter for “The Age”, was a horse and buggy joint by comparison, a collection of disconnected buildings and suburbs pretending to be a capital city but not making a terribly good fist of it.

But at its core was a communications network that made it very special. It was intensely local – the commercial radio and television stations, the ANU, the hospital by the lake, and most particularly “The Canberra Times” were all focused overwhelmingly on our smallish community. And despite the sneers of the Duke of Edinburgh that Canberra lacked a “soul” we knew we belonged to something unique.

And it just got better. For example, after I joined “The Canberra Times” in 1990 and became arts editor and a columnist, it was perfectly possible to engage the community in all sorts of interesting ideas.

When I proposed an award of Canberra’s Artist of the Year, for instance, every arts group in the city nominated a candidate; when I suggested “The Heart of the Nation” as the motto for our rego plates, it was adopted in short order by the government of the day; when we were forgotten by the national organisers of the walk of reconciliation in favour of the Harbour Bridge, I was able to initiate our own walk across Commonwealth Bridge with the warm support of the local police; and to my astonishment hundreds turned up on a cold and windy Sunday.

None of that was any credit to me; it was simply an illustration of the community spirit that found expression in a place where we all came together each day for a chat.

Today, while the ABC local radio does a fine job, the commercial stations are hardly a focus for Canberra news and views; and the channels ignore us. The “Times” has become the hybrid “Canberra Morning Herald” with a local content written either by kiddywinks or (with one honourable exception) garrulous old grumps. Circulation is collapsing and this at a time when at last we’re big enough to support a paper that could really reflect its readers’ interests, intelligence and sense of humour.

But there could be no better illustration of the drift from unique community to metropolitan anonymity than appointing a professional festival director, Robyn Archer – rather than one of half a dozen outstanding local luminaries – to run the centenary celebrations. I’m sure she’s a fine entertainer and an excellent artistic director. But it’s impossible to escape the impression that the entire schedule of events has been imposed from the lofty heights rather than arising from the community itself. It might be great on paper but is it really “ours”?

And that, alas, is both symptomatic and sad.

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Robert Macklin
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