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Air of arrogance - why Canberra is so out of touch with the rest of Australia


In the rarified air of our purpose-built national capital, inhabitants can’t help but feel they are a breed apart, writes Madonna King

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You can spend entire days in Canberra and not feel the outside temperature.

From air-controlled homes, public servants jump into air-conditioned cars or cabs or Ubers to travel often just a few kilometres to work.

The home of our big institutions – from Parliament House to the National Gallery of Australia, the Royal Australian Mint to the High Court, from the National Library to the Australian Institute of Sport – Canberra work is often played out over multiple storeys, all temperature – and security – controlled.

At the end of those days, often long after the sun has set, those same workers are ferried to restaurants or back home where the grind begins less than 12 hours later.

The work ethic of many Canberrans – public servants, lobbyists, party apparatchiks, journalists and MPs – should not be questioned. There’s always dramas and crises and reports and inquiries, stories and angles and negotiations. Reports on big policy issues are generated almost daily, but rarely read.

Politics and power sometimes play out in the offices at Parliament House; sometimes it’s over dinner at one of the many establishments that make their profit on the back of those high-flying fly-in fly-out professionals, needing a feed and a drink.

Frequently, the workers are in their mid-20s, chosen by their media bosses or companies or political parties as having potential to climb that career ladder. Ambition and adrenaline become a sixth food group.

Once, as a young reporter, I worked for 19 hours before realising a new day had dawned. Hours passed under deadlines. But when we were finished, and the coup settled, none of us considered going home; we then went in search of food and drink, where the real analysis took place.

Despite how it is portrayed, an enormous sense of camaraderie exists after hours between politicians – from all sides – their advisers and staff, policy wonks and reporters. Perhaps it’s everyone just doing their job, or the even temperature, or the plates of tapas and jugs of wine going round.

Most of the talk is about work but when it’s not, it’s about families in another part of the country, missed children, and partners doing it tough. Most politicians, like everyone else, are driven by a compulsion to make things better.

The problem is often not the people; it’s the place. Canberra.

While it is our national capital, it isn’t really anything like the rest of the nation, and neither are many of its inhabitants.

Unlike those cities and towns where most voters live, Canberra is an entirely planned city. It has no local council.

Its recent unemployment has been almost half the national average. It has the highest average level of disposable income of any Australian capital city. And there’s a dozen ties to every tradie truck.

COVID has had little impact, hitting hardly any pockets.

So with that background, it there any wonder our politicians seem almost unable to grasp the lives of the constituents they represent?

Each election, the politicians leave those air-controlled offices and head out to where the rest of us live, in tight-contested seats. It’s called a ‘listening tour’; scheduled twice in any government term: in the lead up to a ballot box, and just after.

The problem is that our politicians are not listening in between elections. They are not grasping the despair of businesses strangled by COVID, the plight of young women speaking out against unspeakable evil, and the struggle of those dealing with mental health issues.

Canberra’s inability to understand the lives of voters spreads the policy gambit: how many of them know, for example, that thousands of private health members received a letter this week, signalling fees are set to skyrocket? How many MPs know of constituents who have swapped membership for prayers, knowing the latter won’t impact on the family budget?

Most issues affecting voters don’t drive headlines. They may not be the talk of Canberra – but they are driving voters to despair.

The absolute callous indifference we are seeing in response to thousands of school girls claiming sexual abuse is a case in point. When did it become okay not to act on any sexual abuse, let alone what appears to be an epidemic?

Outside Canberra, not just among women, a resolve is building. The good political advisers and journalists are seeing stirrings of it too.

That’s helped, perhaps, by the one place in Canberra where you do experience the cold rush of air: at the airport, and in my experience, during a lengthy cab wait.

Politicians don’t get that either. They have a temperature-controlled Commonwealth car, with a driver, waiting for them.


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