Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Canberra still safe from naval bombardment

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BRISBANE -- Australia's capital, Canberra, turned 100 years old this week. But instead of singing "for he's a jolly good fellow,'' the rest of the nation just stepped up the ridicule of our venerable seat of government.

Why national capitals are subject to derision is something of a mystery, but few dispute that "Paris, London, Rome" has a romantic ring that "Canberra, Washington, Ottawa" can never quite match.

It may be that democracy breeds a contempt of the political process.

Those who flock to Rome gaze in rapture at the old Roman Senate but barely cast a glance at the Piazza del Parlamento.

Canberra has for years been the subject of unfair accusations it's the country's most boring city.

Few Australians (apart from Canberra residents) took offence at travel writer Bill Bryson's immortal line: "Canberra. Why wait for death?''

The truth is Canberra is an attractive city clustered around a giant artificial lake and populated by the most educated and well-remunerated people in the nation.

Which, in Australia, is reason enough for it to be subject to a never-ending barrage of insult, invective and outright libel.

Birdsville is a tiny town on the edge of the Simpson Desert with one pub and more flies than residents.

But there are few native-born Australians who would not laud it as anything other than a national treasure and the very cradle of our national identity.

That said, there is no hiding from the incontestable fact that while Canberra has been many things, "cool" has never been among them.

Born long after the major centres of Melbourne and Sydney, it's like the last child in a large family -- an afterthought that is indulged, spoiled and eventually resented by its siblings because it gets so much attention.

Once a sheep pasture, it was created in 1913 about 200 kilometres from the coast in the now-endearing belief it would be safe from naval attack.

Australia's founding fathers deliberately chose a cooler climate because they thought people "thought" better in the cold.

Canberra, to those brought up in the nation's sprawling cities or untamed rural provinces, can seem odd simply because it is planned.

That quite sensible approach to monitoring and controlling the city's growth remains today.

Even the ancient profession of prostitution is legalized and kept confined to a few suburbs where zoning allows for "light industrial'' enterprises.

The result can be an unsettling experience for the uninitiated, with many an unwary newcomer taking the family car to Macca's Muffler Repairs and finding themselves cruising by "Chantel and Destiny's Love Emporium."

As the centre of national government and hosting the headquarters of many national institutions including the military, the city is regarded by a surprising number of adult Australians as little more than a boarding school with a liquor licence.

People get sent there by their employer, settle in a few suburbs close to the national parliament and dream of escape.

They weekend in Sydney or Melbourne, fly home for holidays, complain miserably of their predicament to friends and family, and when their term ends, return home and join the rest of the country in denigrating Canberra.

It's hardly fair. Canberra is a worthy tourism destination for all Canadians who wish to get a taste for our art, our culture and our unique approach to the great democratic tradition.

Just be careful on the traffic roundabouts. As Bryson noted, they are so large you can actually get lost in them.

Michael Madigan is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in Australia. He writes mostly about politics for the Brisbane-based Courier Mail.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2013 A11

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