Canberra: The (Surprise) Capital

Australia’s Coat of Arms (on the door to Old Parliament House) features the kangaroo and the emu. Why? Because neither is capable of walking backwards.

We arrived back in Sydney from Hobart with just enough time for a good night’s rest (thanks to the whisky) before hopping in a car to head to Canberra (pronounced Ca-buruh). Haven’t heard of it? That’s too bad. It’s the capital! That’s right, here you were wandering through life like the rest of us thinking Australia’s capital was Sydney. Well, sorry to rock your world. Or, more likely, this has not rocked your world because

(a) you don’t really care or
(b) this is not something you’ve even thought about until the beginning of this paragraph.

Regardless, I love visiting capitals. Washington, DC, Montevideo, Rome, Asunción, Moscow…capitals offer a unique window into a place. For me, visiting them is pure pleasure.

For Trevor, this particular segment of the trip was, shall we say, pure, unadulterated, absolute misery.

“You know the best part of Canberra?” Trevor asked.

“No.” I responded.

“Seeing it in my rearview mirror.”

If he said it once, he said it about a million times. And, what’s even more amazing, he said it to people who lived in Canberra. And they didn’t seem fazed. It was like they were used to it and almost felt the same way. One life-long Canberra resident told me,

“The government gives us a bad name. When they do something, it’s always, ‘Canberra did X’ or “Canberra did Y.’ And it’s never good stuff. It makes us seem like we’re the bad ones.”

Canberra is filled with vast expanses like this one looking from the War Memorial toward Parliament House

Canberra was selected as the capital in 1908 because both Sydney and Melbourne wanted the distinction, but Australians living outside of these two urban centers didn’t feel good about either choice. Too much power, they said. Canberra, which allegedly means “meeting place,” was selected.

Like Washington, DC, it’s a planned city. Also, like Washington, its founders turned to a foreigner to design the city. The Americans chose a Frenchman (Pierre L’Enfant). In the case of the Australians, they hired an American, Walter Burley Griffin, a Chicago-based landscape architect.

I’d love to tell you it is a beautiful city, but that’s not exactly what it is. It was hot and extraordinarily spread out. I guess Walter made nice use of the hills and the city is built around a manmade, moat-like lake with a big fountain in it. But if you don’t have anything nice to say…why not turn to two other Americans to describe it:

Walter Burley Griffin said:

“I have planned a city not like any other city in the world. I have planned it not in a way that I expected any governmental authorities in the world would accept. I have planned an ideal city, a city that meets my ideal of the city of the future.”

Bill Bryson, author of In a Sunburned Country (a book about Australia) simply said,

“Canberra: Why wait for death?”

What did impress me were the handful of locations we visited during our 24-hour stay. We visited the War Memorial, Old Parliament House, and Parliament House. Let’s take them one at a time, shall we?

The War Memorial

The War Memorial

To call it moving is an understatement. Australia is a young country and what it lacks in history, it makes up for in fervor. Having participated in every major world conflict since the Boer War, Australians have lost 102,825 men, women, (and children) in combat since 1885.

Every Australian killed in combat is listed here. Visitors leave poppies in remembrance.

The tomb of the unknown soldier, the exhibits about Gallipoli, the stories from WWII, and so much more combined to provide an incredibly powerful and moving experience. I think my biggest takeaway from the War Memorial is that Australians have never participated in a war of their own making. Instead, they’ve gone to support other countries. (Although they were targeted by the Japanese in WWII).

As Trevor pointed out, Australians aren’t necessarily patriotic in the flag waving, chest-beating sense. Instead, they support their fellow man. I’d say fraternity is a more powerful cultural value in Oz than Patriotism.

Old Parliament House

First, a quick bit of background. Starting in 1788 when the First Fleet arrived, “Australia” was a set of colonies — not unlike our own original 13. And that worked fine for a long time – much longer than our own. I suppose Australians were more docile than Americans. By the end, there would be six colonies (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia, and Western Australia).

Then at the end of the 19th Century, the movement for federation finally gained momentum. On January 1, 1901, Australia executed its own Constitution. Interestingly, both Fiji and New Zealand participated in the early stages of the process, but ultimately backed out. The Australian Constitution even includes a provision, not likely to ever be executed, which would allow New Zealand to become part of Australia at any time. [Word of caution: Use care when sharing this knowledge with Kiwis!]

Old Parliament House

Between 1927 and 1988, the Australian Parliament met in Old Parliament House, which at the time, I suppose, was just Parliament House. But when they moved to a new Parliament House almost thirty years ago, its name became Old Parliament House (and I thought the Australians were good at nicknames).

The building certainly harkens back to yesteryear and highlights the unusual place Australians occupy in the world. What do I mean? I’m talking about two perspectives on the “Old World(s).”

First, across from the main into the Old Parliament House, is the “Aboriginal Embassy,” which is a small handmade shack. At the time of my visit, it was empty.

The Aboriginal Embassy

Second, as soon as you walk inside, you’re greeted by an imposing, larger-than-life statue of His Highness King George V of England. I suppose it reminded Parliamentarians about the nature of Australia’s role as a member of the Commonwealth

His Majesty King George V.

And that’s today’s Australia. Still caught between Europe and the Indigenous Australians who occupied the continent, untouched for almost 40,000 years.

The building itself was exactly what you’d expect from a government building constructed in the 1920s. It was grand and intimidating. I enjoyed Trevor’s narrating the exhibition about Australia’s 29 Prime Ministers.

“This guy was rich.”

“This one was a crook.”

“This one was a rich crook.”

“This guy can down a schooner of beer in one gulp.”

He went on like that for almost all of them. Impressive coming from a guy who really doesn’t have a lot of time for “government.” Although, I think most of his negativity is aimed at the ATO (Australian Taxation Office), rather than the whole government. But, who’s keeping score, really.

Parliament House

The entrance hall is covered in (Italian) marble. The building was built to last 200 years.

Let’s fast forward to 1988 when the Parliament rejected Parliament House in favor of Parliament House, which led Parliament House to earn the designation “Old.” Like trying to figure out what time it is in Australia, it’s difficult to work out, but trust me. That’s how it happened.

The Australian House of Representatives

Parliament House is the equivalent of our own Capitol Hill. Since Parliament directs the ATO, it’s the epicenter of everything Trevor hates about Canberra. So much so, that he refused to pay for any portion of the tour he’d arranged for us. And, ironically enough, the effort required to pay for the tour was a challenge not worthy of the electrons it would take to describe it. Suffice it to say, I had to work with no less than seven bureaucrats in order to fork over the money. I started to appreciate Trevor’s frustration.

When our tour began, we were greeted by Michael, a Danish guide who seemed to be a favorite of everyone we encountered while walking around the building. His tour of Parliament House was a rapid fire hour of power. He showed us the ins and outs, the front and back, the highlights and lowlights. He was great! Even though he kept calling me “The Man from Virginia”(I’m from North Carolina).

He saw me taking notes and offered to give me a brochure, which he kindly left at the front desk in this envelope.

He had a favorite tactic. He’d pose a question and give us options:

He’d boldly — spitting on us in the process more than a few times — say something like, “How many points on the Australian star? Seven, Eight, or Ten? Question for the Man from Virginia!”

“Ummm. Seven?” I said without much confidence.

“Are you sure? Final answer? Phone home?”

“Eight!” I said more confidently

“Wrong. Should have stuck with your original answer. It’s SEVEN!”

It went on like that for the entire visit.

On top of Parliament house is a 220 ton steel flag holding apparatus that reaches 265 feet in the air.

I learned a lot. For example, my favorite fact from the day: Australians living overseas are represented by the member of the House whose district is closest to them. So, the 250 Aussies living in Antarctica full-time are represented by a guy from Tasmania. Other facts I learned by getting the question wrong:

  • The kitchens are capable of producing up to 8,000 meals per day
  • The flag flying on the top of the building is as big as a double decker bus.
  • There are 4,500 rooms in Parliament House

I could go on, but let’s just say…our capitol building is better than theirs. Go America!

As an aside, on the road between Canberra and Sydney, you can find the “Giant Merino.” Australians apparently really like big “things” with gift shops in them. Trevor indulged me a visit.

Canberra is an unusual place. It’s huge, which I suppose was an intentional decision on the part of Walter Burley Griffin to represent the vastness, expanse, and opportunity of Australia.

Next up? A visit to the beach. Don’t miss it! Be sure to “like” GreenerGrass on Facebook by clicking here!

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1 Response

  1. February 16, 2017

    […] Trevor and I spent some time exploring Tassie and Hellberra….I mean Canberra, the concession was a weekend away for him, his wife, their son, and – most importantly – […]

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