Canberra, Australia (photo by Prakash Khanal on Unsplash)
Everyone may be exceptionally rude about Canberra and ridicule Australia’s capital city as boring, calm and, well, ordinary. But South Africa can learn a lot about governance – and those who rule – from its ways.
First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
In mid-March, a year ago, many of us pondered our circumstances when the government announced a state of disaster and we would put in a three-week lockdown.
In retrospect, it’s hard not to make a grimace. Three weeks turned into a year and more. In Cape Town, we stood in front of our homes at 8 p.m. to applaud the healthcare workers on the front lines of the Covid-19 nightmare.
I’m not a “lockdown skeptic” – cranks, most of them – but lockdowns only work when the state actually does something in the safe space provided. We thought we’d stay home just to “flatten” the curve enough for hospitals to prepare for the flood of cases ahead. How did we know that we were just decimating our economy so that the PSA thieves could register their businesses and the health authorities saunter about hijacking private medical supplies?
How could we imagine that the newsmaker of the Financial Mail of the year, Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize (“patient”, “head”, “doctor” and “big brother”, no less!), Would roll out a globally outstanding omnishamble of a vaccine -Plan: If you weren’t used to the ANC, you’d wonder if this was an intentional atrocity.
Anyway, we had just returned from Canberra and familiarized ourselves with Australia’s weird capital city. There seems to be a geographic explanation for Australia’s success in tackling not just the Covid-19 crisis but life in general. Many South Africans react so viscerally to anything Aussie that it can only be psychological, a kind of projection brought about by something difficult in their own mind or life. I say this because Australia is objectively beautiful.
Of course, Australia is significantly richer than South Africa, with GDP roughly three times ours at 2011 prices. But neither is it exactly rolling in GDP that is less than half that of the UK, for example. I deliberately chose 2011 to precede the worst of the destruction of the Zuma / Gupta administrations as the Australians are undoubtedly drawing more than three times more value from their nation’s collective fortune than we are and with less than Britain doing better by most of the measures of success ( Health, education, safety, etc.).
So what’s the trick? I think the answer is Canberra. Canberra exists because of a battle between mercenary Sydney and cultured Melbourne, where the capital of the newly merged Australian colonies should be. They agreed, disagree, and build a whole new city in the bush. The parliament was opened there in 1927. Apart from the Australian diplomats who call it home, everyone makes fun of it. Sydneysiders are exceptionally rude about Canberra. Foreign diplomats and business people complain about how crappy it is. Even Google hates it; The top five autocomplete options I got when typing “Why is Canberra so …” were in order of appearance: cold, expensive, dull, quiet, small.
My pet theory is this. Australia has good government because you really want to be in government to live in Canberra. You must enjoy your work and be civil enough to be happy to live with the consequences. Aesthetically, Canberra’s suburbs are like a very large Blairgowrie. The houses are all very beautiful, but not architecturally interesting. There is no subway. Everyone you meet is so nice that you wonder if something is in the water. It’s about as standout and interesting as Milton Keynes, that is, planned, much ridiculed by scholars and the London elite, but actually more of a nice, functional place to live.
Canberra’s ordinariness is a great asset to Australia. The personality types attracted to government – prescriptive assholes, narcissists, psychopaths, money ideologues, and performative cosmopolitan militants who are rich enough to afford their opinions cannot hack Canberra because it’s a small bourgeois town with less than 400,000 inhabitants is about the size of Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal.
The cultural force is everything in Sydney and Melbourne. The government is not, and this is a useful separation of powers that the UK government and the BBC are desperate to implement by opening offices in cities far from the dead hand of the cultural hegemony of metropolitan London. All in an attempt to reconnect with people who increasingly do not understand them.
Canberra’s mediocrity was evident in the streets too. Developed as it was in the 20th century, it is designed around the car as the primary mode of transportation, which for me is another reason to love it. It’s next to impossible to commute more than 20 minutes in Canberra. And really, I can count the number of expensive German cars I’ve seen on one hand. A couple of Audi A3s. A couple of BMW X1s. But the vast majority of Canberra motorists were behind the wheel of what would be expected in a medium-sized suburb of a medium-sized city. Suzuki Swifts and Honda CR-Vs and Mitsubishi Outlanders as well as Ford Focuses and Volkswagen Golfs. We rented a Hyundai i30 and worked with it for a week. We felt at home.
In South Africa, one of the myriad expressions of power, violence and waste of the state is in its cavalcades and convoys. We have convoys expressing wealth and projecting the power of a global superpower, not a troubled country in decline that couldn’t project a ham sandwich over the Limpopo. From a rational point of view, they are simply inexcusable – they are not needed for safety reasons or for timekeeping purposes. The dignity of the office of Mayor of Opensewerfontein does not require a phalanx of the BMW X5. It really doesn’t.
And such a proposal: We have to move the parliament and the seat of government to Welkom. It’s also a mediocre planned city designed around the car. Luxury cars are not allowed to mimic Canberra. That should keep the hyenas in Johannesburg and mean that people interested in governance can actually work in government. It’s the Australian way and it works. DM168
Alexander Parker is a journalist, author, and consultant.
This story first appeared in our weekly newspaper Daily Maverick 168, which is available to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers for free at these Pick n Pay Shops.