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Highway One – Canberra

ABBOTT PROOF FENCE

Parliament House: your one stop heroin "shop of state"The ACT  is a place where prostitution is legal but, the Supreme court says, gay marriage isn’t.

Continuing in the fine tradition that a marriage is between a man, his Supreme Court, his wife and his escort service, Canberra has sanctity of traditional marriage well covered.

Perhaps it is little wonder there is also a major drug problem, a problem which isn’t much talked about.

What does it say about our governance that Canberra is the place with the largest volume per capita of heroin consumption and that Parliament House is known to be the epicentre of needle collection? This was put to me by a long term heroin user who also told me the story of his arrival from Sydney to Canberra. He’d left Sydney in the hopes of drying out and starting anew. He had expected to find Canberra a sleepy place filled with upstanding bureaucrats and, he expected, without much access to heroin he could dry out here. Instead he found a sleepy place filled with upstanding bureaucrats all right, but it is also packed with users, some of whom found it absolutely hilarious that he came to the heroin capital of the country to try and dry out.

‘Canberra looks rich but it has a lot of poverty if you know where to look. It’s all hidden away. There’s a lot of crime. A lot of the problem is inside Parliament.’ Who could argue with that, I wondered, but he did not mean the obvious.

The National ArboretumHe went on to explain that a lot of the bureaucrats in and around Parliament House are users of all kinds of drugs but it is the epicentre of heroin use. Now I don’t know if that is right or not but it might help explain present policy.

It also seems pretty obvious that successive governments also like to treat Canberra as a pet environment to develop and shape. It makes political sense as much as it makes civic sense too. If you can shape Canberra in some way which increases its wealth and power while making people aware of your own political power, do.

It doesn’t make sense from the point of view of a person living on the streets in Katherine, but to a politician in Canberra, spending other people’s money to build a monument in the nation’s capital would be a long term political and an economic move. Create a monument there, build a museum here, an arboretum yonder… it means Canberra of today has more access to public science, culture and arts per capita than in any other part of the country.

Canberrians who enjoy such high cultural privileges seem largely used to the idea that this kind of access to health care, art, science and education should be available in a small town in the middle of a mountain range. The complacency for abundance in what is really just a small, political town situated in the middle of nowhere, it is a little striking after seeing the privation in the Top End. The exact same government has wide reaching power over both territorial regions of the country, after all.

Not to say there is absolutely no poverty and hardship in Canberra. It is however all but invisible to the eye. Indeed, so good is the concealment of poverty and crime that you could live your whole life here and remain unaware of the extent of the social problems. It’s a good place for creating public illusions through financial investment.

The whole place is like a traffic optical illusion. It is notoriously hard to navigate, when talking to local residents, ‘there are people who live in Fishwyck who can get lost in Fishwyck,’ I was warned. It seemed a risky place to go even just for a shopping expedition, I half expected to find dazed and confused German tourists trapped there, looking for the way to Deakin since the 1970’s.

Partly this confusion of geography is down to Canberra’s interlocking, curving, tree-lined suburban roads and the confusingly symmetric geometry of the cloud drenched landscape. The clouds sometimes appear at ground level too so there is a mist which eats the Sun and only the height of the cloud varies. This goes for whole for weeks at a time. Without a Sun in the sky and with roads starting out going one way and looping around until they point in the opposite direction, that constancy of turning in one loop after the next makes it easy to lose all sense of direction.

Moreover, so many of the roads curve in large loops that you can often find two roads will intersect at right angles more than once along their length as they loop away from and then curve back into each other. So it is possible, in Canberra, to end up going the right way by heading off in the wrong direction. So too you can head off in the right direction but end up going the wrong way. I have wondered for quite some time now if this is a metaphor for government policy made manifest in the city planning.

The tidy, old embassies all in a row on the perfectly named Mugga Way look more like mansions of the uberwealthy, the enormous cash poured into the publicly owned facilities such as ANU, CSIRO, the National Zoo offer a lot of public access to publicly well-funded institutions. But then there are the national museums and art galleries which stores some of the world’s finest arts in a place where almost nobody will ever see them. From the city centre where the Governor General’s sprawling mansion abuts Lake Burley Griffin the river of money goes all the way out to the massive commercial and residential building projects in and around Mt. Stromlo, where a veritable builder’s paradise has been made.

Outer Canberra is a part of the country where whole suburbs are erupting into life. There is nothing to compare it to which even comes close. The waterfront in Darwin was a busy place with a lot of building. Brisbane also has considerable growth. But this is on a different scale. It is development at a rate about a hundred times larger. Yes Canberra is small, it is partly for that reason that the scale of the development is so phenomenal.

So what seems obvious to the eye with development happening as far as the eye can see, is all that money, money, money. There is a lot of wealth pouring, no, make that gushing into Canberra and it manifests not as new houses popping into life, but whole new suburbs.

Red Hill

So when the present government talks about the bad economy left by the previous one, they must shiver on the inside from the blatant hypocrisy of saying that while standing in a place which still leeches more of the Federal budget for its own purposes than any other region of comparable size in the country. Canberra is so conspicuously self-interested and loaded with wealth which came from elsewhere and has so much more money pouring into it than any place of comparable size, the present Abbott claims that the country is in an economic crisis look insane when made from here. He could be anywhere else in the country and say it with a less jarring effect. He should go to the Top End and say it there because that’s where the country’s biggest economic disaster zone is. But he can’t do that. His plan isn’t to give money to the Top End, his plan is to take more money from the Top End.

Canberra could never continue to live with such modern comforts if it relied on its own sources of income – as all other medium-sized towns in the country are forced to do. Canberra is a city made rich from living off a kind of national welfare.

The PM’s claim that we are in some kind of an economic crisis is itself not actually sane.

Firstly, we are not actually in any kind of economic crisis. The Top End definitely is, but the country as a whole is not. Australia’s own protection laws prevented the bad lending and investment policy here which led to the GFC taking down other economies. If you want to see an economic crisis look at Spain, Greece, check out what happened to Iceland. That is where neoconservative economics, blind faith in market forces and deregulation really takes a country.

Australia is one of the world’s best regulated and most stable economies and not in crisis of any kind. There is a reason why the US dollar fell below parity with the Australian dollar. Our basic resources-based economy held firm and we experienced growth when even the borrowing and lending-based economy of the US went gurgling around the economic drain. The fact that other economies like the US and Britain are in partial recovery now means their relative position has improved, not that our absolute position has somehow worsened.

Secondly, the worst and most extensive conditions of poverty in Australia are all in the NT. Anyone who doubts that should go there and see for themselves. That is also where the Prime Minister intends to take money from by making that federal policy. Namely he has targeted Kakadu and Uluru as potential money-spinners to help take pressure of the federal budget.

So it is that our Northern Territorian natural wonders stand to be milked for every tourist dollar Abbott can squeeze into a funnel to make the money gush South faster than it already does. That same money which might be well useful to the NT in working on its own financial issues will instead likely end up furnishing Canberra with yet another national monument or another big tower it doesn’t really need. It will surely achieve that long before it helps bail the country out of a crisis that doesn’t even exist.

Canberra is a lovely setting for a political capital, just consider the geography of it. It is hidden in the beautiful Great Dividing Range which literally splits the country in two. Roads which start out going the right way can end up going the wrong way and vice versa. This means if there were two versions of you at an intersection both going through alternative universes, one of you could veer left, the other you goes to veer right and if universes recombined, you could even have a collision with yourself further down the road as the right-veering you found themselves looping to the left while the left-veering you came at them while heading to the right. Confused how you could hit yourself at an intersection while being sure you’re always somehow going the wrong way? Australian politicians can spend their entire careers wondering such things. Now you know why.

There is something highly appropriate about that kind of urban planning. Shows real foresight. Being located in a range which splits the country in two, having roads where it makes no difference whether you turn left or right you end up the same wrong place… it is highly recommended for any political capital.

But since the cost to the taxpayer for building a wealthy playground for the political class is actually ridiculous, since the politicians who come here are invariably so ineffective at governance and so good at redistribution of blame, since there is no justice for those who come to Australia seeking refuge no matter which political party holds power, and since the Top End could use the money, I propose we should have a national referendum to achieve the following: 1) level Parliament House and rebuild it in Darwin, 2) deport the Prime Minister to his original homeland and then 3) erect a large Abbott-proof fence around the entire Asian-Pacific region.

The cost of 3) would be considerable but it would stand to be paid for by the cost savings created by 1) and the good will in Asia created by both 1) and 2) and that really does stand to protect Australia’s national interests, I am sure you will agree.

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View from Canberra University

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