This is not a post about the OECD report

9 Oct

(I promised myself I wouldn’t do this.)

It started in the early hours of Tuesday morning, when the OECD report was released. You know the one.

I woke to this, tweeted to his 70,000 followers.

I could only think, Here we go again.

Thirty-six hours later, people are still making the same unique, witty remarks.

First, let’s get a few things straight. Do the report findings feel a bit familiar? You’re right. Yup, this was actually news in late June. Tuesday’s announcement was simply the release of the expanded report, but – kind of like people posting memes or videos to Facebook today which were popular on Reddit five days ago – this time it seemed to get a lot more mainstream attention.

So this post isn’t about the report. This is about the response to the report.

Apart from my immediate eye-roll at the first tweet I saw, my reactions were mixed. There’s the timeless Canberra smugness: The OECD is confirming what we already know (just like what we said back in June). And indeed, while I think Canberra’s done a damn fine job promoting itself from within – especially over the last 18 months – I did have to admit that it was kind of nice to have someone else praise us rather than our own lips (with apologies to Proverbs 27:2). And then there was the knowledge – not a feeling, not a hunch, not a guess – that Canberra was in for at least 24 hours of wholehearted bashing. Not just a few tweets to a few hundred thousand followers. Not just another laughable article. An all-in, go-for-broke slamming from every quarter.

And yet I thought, Why give oxygen to the fire? Let them get it out of their systems, to have their fill.

Don’t bother defending. It just brings even more people out.

And so I stayed mostly, uncharacteristically, quiet – and braced myself.

Over the last 36 hours I’ve listened – remarkably calmly – as people have debated Canberra and laughed off the OECD report, as our Territory and countless federal politicians have commented on it, and I’ve read, amused and bemused, the responses, the articles, the analysis.

Even for someone who’s used to it, who’s forewarned and forearmed, the level of Canberra bashing is extreme. I couldn’t immediately understand why, especially in the face of so much community pride.

What I’ve experienced over the last 36 hours has been embarrassing. Pathetic. Many of the barbs are couched in simplistic humour, as if this somehow makes it okay. And quite a large portion of it is, disturbingly, subtle.

And I’ve had enough.

Put simply?

I hate that Canberra – everything about it – remains such an easy target to refute.

I hate it. Viscerally. And I know I’m not the only one.

But why?

Well, there are plenty of wellbeing or city/country happiness studies every year. There’ve been countless this year. Australia did well in heaps of them, with plenty of Australian cities (not Canberra) rating a mention. But when Melbourne tops the index – as it has done a few times – the only one who’s up in arms is Sydney. To everyone else, Melbourne being defined as highly liveable is well-deserved, justifiable.

But Canberra? Inconceivable.

Terrible scenery in Canberra

When our federal leaders were questioned about it this week, our Prime Minister had to mention other cities in Australia as pretty all right, too. Why? And then there was this from the Opposition Leader:

Is it really too much to ask the Prime Minister and his alternative to freely promote – or at least defend – Australia’s capital city?

The Herald Sun whipped out the boring jibe (well, that’s new), the cost of rent (newsflash: it’s falling) and – of course – the weather barb (er, you know we do Spring really bloody well, right?). Novel.

Canberra’s weather is exciting!

Analysing the report over at SMH – which actually raised some pretty important points regarding what the OECD revealed regarding Australia’s regional inequality – they couldn’t help but compare us with Scandinavian countries with reference to our little flower festival.

Floriade Nightfest

I listened to a radio interview yesterday as yet another person had to debate how Canberra still had a long way to come; some of the examples given included the need for better footpaths, that our population (where she worked) was too white.And then there’s’s article I mentioned, where our correspondent bears down on his experience in Canberra a decade ago. Behold, he says, our befuddling roundabouts, our penchant for Kathmandu sales, slow traffic lights, and a sculpture he doesn’t like of an otherwise widely celebrated phrase (illustrated with a beautiful image of it by a talented Canberra photographer, no less). Seriously.

Can you tell I’m getting exasperated? No one’s saying that Canberra is perfect. There’s a lot we can do to improve. Yes, the six roundabouts between the airport and Civic are surprising and can be annoying. But – and I get that it’s not obvious to some – a seemingly excessive amount of roundabouts over seven and a half kilometres does not a bad city make. Nor does dressing warmly when it’s freezing (hello, four seasons). Nor do slow traffic lights (who doesn’t need a moment to actually be in that moment?). And nor does a sculpture (come on).

On reflection, those ‘outsiders’ who critique Canberra are really grasping at straws in their arguments against it. Thankfully  – apart from the Herald Sun’s attempt – I saw very little explicit mention of ‘boring’ (finally).

But closer to home, Jack Waterford’s piece is confronting. He remarks that we’ve inherited greatness, but we’ve done little to contribute to it. Instead of exasperating me, this really made me pause for thought.

I disagree that we don’t have bold or new ideas – I see them in Government, business and community action every day. I think it’s absurd that Canberra has been replaced with Lilliputians, or those of lesser pride, meanness or narrow vision. We’ve got more pride than I can remember, a revival of community spirit; a connection and expansion of vision. These things can’t be quantified, and aren’t usually widely acknowledged until others see the fruits of this spirit and vision that is held. But it’s there. But look. Look. Look at Braddon. Look at Civic. Look at the Belconnen Town Centre. Look at our local centres – some of which are almost literally rising from the ashes. And even where it seems things aren’t happening, there’s a deep spirit, a deep readiness for something – the turnouts at Parties at the Shops in 2013 underlined this, and the success in 2014 emphatically underlined it.

But I do agree with him because – as I said above – we’re not perfect. There’s always more to be done.

And, to truly experience the best of Canberra, you actually need to scratch the surface. Parliament House (and its occupants) ain’t Canberra. London Circuit on Sundays isn’t Canberra. We who live here know this.

So I’m choosing to interpret Waterford’s article as a call to arms.

Love this city (even the t-shirt agrees)

The vociferous criticism – within and outside Canberra –  truly appears to be out of jealousy, or misunderstanding. We can’t just be quietly smug. And as much as I like to hear others sing our praises, we can’t rely on it. It’s incumbent on us to prove the naysayers wrong. I want to believe that a time when it’s only Queanbeyan rolling their eyes at our liveability and success is within our reach. I want to believe we’re just a couple of years away from a time when the media doesn’t pit people against each other debating Canberra’s merits or otherwise, but just going, ‘Yep, can see why. That’s pretty fair.’

We’ve done so much so far to take the air out of the arguments. But we’re not done. It’s not over yet.


Got that bold, nervous idea? Launch it.

Want to start a community group? Host a street party, drinks in a park, or a start a small mother’s group in your neighbourhood. That community is ready to embrace it – and, really, what do you lose by trying?

Got pride in your city? Live it in every action, from shouting it in every forum, to picking up that litter floating by.

(Or taking that trolley back to its bay.)

Participate. Challenge. Suggest.

(For the record: pride doesn’t mean you’re blinkered. Pride means you love both what we’ve got, and you recognise the potential we have to improve what we’ve got.)

Is your friend’s main criticism of Canberra that it has too many roundabouts? Challenge them on it. (How are roundabouts a criticism?)

(And if their main criticism is of a sculpture of a popular phrase by one of Australia’s most celebrated poets, feel free to laugh. Because that is actually ridiculous.)

Later this month, take ideas from the 101 humans as they get their family and friend knees-deep in the best Canberra has to offer.

What’s the Canberra gem you found when you scratched the surface? Share it. Show others how to experience it, and how to share it themselves.

After all, Canberra is home to so many people who were never born here – myself included. If we can grow to love it – and while I do realise for many that it’s a slow burn – it’s really not a stretch to see how we can use our vantage points to point naysayers in the right direction. Explicitly. And subtly.

This is your moment. My moment. Our moment.

Canberra’s moment.

Take advantage of it.

And hey. If all else fails? Link them to this. A man and his family are giving up their lives in the UK, and now Denmark, to make the permanent move to Canberra – and documenting it.

What better vision, pride and advertisement for Canberra could you get than someone who from 16,200 kilometres away is the embodiment of confident, bold and ready?


32 Responses to “This is not a post about the OECD report”

  1. CBR bound October 9, 2014 at 1:20 am #

    Beautifully argued, and I’m humbled that you would use my blog as example of someone who embodies the Canberra spirit. I may not yet, but I hope to. Writing this from 16,200 km away, I have to say that this Canberra-sniping does puzzle me a little as, having visited a few times before deciding to move there, I see little rationale for it.

    I can see that the ACT government and many motivated locals are doing their best to present the best of Canberra, but it is still odd that, if you search YouTube for Canberra videos (as I did, hoping to give friends and relatives a glimpse of the place), what you largely find are ‘humourous’ guides to Canberra or archive films from 40-50 years ago. That needs to be fixed.

    But what I find most puzzling is the lack of logic behind many of the putdowns. An Aussie living here in Denmark told me: “What do you want to go there for? It’s freezing” Erm, but we’re in Scandinavia. It hit minus 20 last winter. Is it that cold? “No.” So what’s your point?

    Or the quip from another Aussie friend: “Canberra’s boring.” Well, first, I currently live in a suburb of a suburb in Scandinavia — is it as quiet as that? “Well, no.” And second, when I was there, it seemed to have a lot on offer. Have you been lately? “No, I’ve never been. I’ve just heard about it.” Right. Okay.

    And therein lies the rub. The myth has become a perpatuated truth in certain circles. I’m not sure how you counteract that. But then, I’m not entirely sure you need to.

    I know expats here in Denmark who positively hate the place. They live to point out everything that is less than perfect about the Danes and Danish life. When Denmark regularly tops those polls of the happiest nation on Earth, they scoff and say it must be a mistake.

    Me, I’ve been happy here. I hope to be happy in Canberra. I think that wanting to be happy and wanting to like a place helps. If you really want to hate something, you’ll find a way. So for all those who sit in other places and scoff at Canberra, maybe it’s better that they live elsewhere? Maybe it’s better to be undiscovered and underappreciated than to be hyped and brash and bullish. I kind of like people and places like that. Which may be why I kind of like Canberra.

    • inthetaratory October 9, 2014 at 1:31 am #

      My friend, you say you may not yet embody the Canberra spirit. This comment proves otherwise. Can’t wait to welcome you here.

  2. Pete Gray October 9, 2014 at 1:51 am #

    This Canberra hatred is not based on what we do, or what Canberra is becoming – it is stoked by every MSM story that links anything political to “Canberra”, by every weather and entertainment report that forgets Canberra exists, and it is kicked along by every media presenter who mentions Canberra with a sneer.

    I heard only one defender of Canberra as I flicked through the channels over breakfast – Sam Armytage on Sunrise put up a mild defence, which was welcome after the hate filled bile spewed by the Today show, and the smug superiority from ABC News. That was just ten minutes of tv, and I’d already had enough.

    The problem is an Australian one – and it’s a lack of pride in our Capital.
    It’s not a representation of reality, but bigotry.

    I was listening to an American comedian – Doug Stanhope – he has a gig in Canberra next month (go to it people!!!). After announcing the gig he started to receive a torrent of tweets from the rest of the country (specifically Melb/Syd) asking him why the f*ck he would go to Canberra – to the point that he is seriously doubting coming.

    I read Jack’s CT article not as a call to arms, but as a bitter and unfair attack from the inside. He didn’t add to a conversation, he added wood to the fire…

    We are so bullied by the rest of the nation that we resort to stunts like Skywhale (which I loved, but which also played into the hands of every Canberra hater), and lame PR stunts like the Human Brochure and 100 Humans, which feel more like North Korean public relations exercises than tourism…

    I love Canberra, but defending it from bigots seems redundant…
    They have a problem bigger than Canberra, and paving over roundabouts isn’t going to cure them.

    • inthetaratory October 9, 2014 at 3:05 pm #

      Thanks Pete. I’ve read a lot of comments over the past few days where people are saying why do we bother responding, we should just move on, we don’t want those naysayers here anyway, they’re never going to change their mind. I think that’s a valid point, but we never know unless we try. I don’t want to roll over and take the criticism. I want my words & actions demonstrating my love of Canberra to be irrefutable. As for Waterford? I agree it’s not helpful. But like with all the critics, we get a choice in how we react, and how we choose to interpret it. Showing we have real people in Canberra outside the halls of APH will do a lot to stop the use of Canberra as a synecdoche.

  3. Elias October 9, 2014 at 5:20 am #

    Eloquent and thorough Tara. As always 🙂

    I agree with Pete, haters ( & bigoted) gonna hate and there’s not much we can do about it. It was bizarre that Jack Waterford decided to put the boot in from his ivory tower, given his defence of Canberra in the past. But I think he’s just getting older and angrier with every article he writes. Might be time to move on and enjoy some of the vast superannuation he is rumoured to be entitled to 🙂

    • inthetaratory October 9, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

      Thanks Elias! I do disagree though – there is plenty we can do about it. I truly believe in the power of Canberrans to change the skeptics’ views.

  4. cbrfoodie October 9, 2014 at 5:22 am #

    Reblogged this on CBRfoodie and commented:
    Must read bog post from Tara (@In_The_Taratory) regarding the latest Canberra-bashing from Australia’s main stream media outlets. Although I have to admit the ABC coverage has been pretty good in comparison.

  5. melbee1673 October 9, 2014 at 8:08 am #

    You know, I actually like roundabouts. I’d much rather slow down for a roundabout than stop for a traffic light…
    Great post Tara. I’m with you!

    • inthetaratory October 9, 2014 at 3:07 pm #

      Me too! Thanks very much – great to have had such an outpouring of support today.

  6. Maureen October 9, 2014 at 8:17 am #

    Excellent article, I found myself quite frustrated to read the Canberra bashing yet again recently. Am I biased? Yes, I was born here. But I have also lived around Australia and OS compliments of the ADF. Canberra has so much to offer and to improve on! The consistent ill informed references to public servants and a sense of entitlement really are offensive. The vast majority of APS are hard working, dedicated and caring professionals who are trying to improve things. Could Canberra be more vibrant? Absolutely! What we do have is a way of life that supports a great lifestyle, great education opportunities, ‘traffic’ that is manageable and way too many roundabouts. I think the common mistake here is to think of Canberra through the singular lense of Parliament. Just my humble opinion. 🙂

    • inthetaratory October 9, 2014 at 3:10 pm #

      Thanks Maureen. I agree. The best thing about Canberra is we have so many excellent structures and platforms in place – if we want to make the city even more vibrant all we have to do is get out there and do it! I agree – ‘Canberra’ is a synecdoche. We need to stop people using it in vain!

  7. Sarah Warren October 9, 2014 at 8:21 am #

    Woohoo beautifully done! Thanks!

  8. Naomi of Queanbeyan October 9, 2014 at 9:36 am #

    Loved your article – and more so, I love Canberra. It’s come a long way in the last 5 years – fast!

    But having lived in Canberra and now Queanbeyan, loving both equally, when can we stop the Queanbeyan bashing? Because it seems you’re into it too…
    “I want to believe that a time when it’s only Queanbeyan rolling their eyes at our liveability “.

    Seriously – what a silly comment to make when trying to justify why Canberra is deserved.

    Queanbeyan has come a long way too – but many Canberran’s still judge it from it’s yesteryear reputation. My friend a police officer says Tuggeranong now has a higher crime rate.

    Justice for all – Canberra and Queanbeyan!

    • inthetaratory October 9, 2014 at 9:50 am #

      It was tongue in cheek, I assure you! Queanbeyan is great, with some wonderful amenities, affordable housing, lengthy & colourful history and friendly population from everything I’ve experienced.

  9. Annnie October 9, 2014 at 11:32 am #

    Tara I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this paragraph:

    And, to truly experience the best of Canberra, you actually need to scratch the surface. Parliament House (and its occupants) ain’t Canberra. London Circuit on Sundays isn’t Canberra. We who live here know this.

    Pollies and media hacks’ main experience of Canberra is exactly that. They choose not to ‘live’ in Canberra (in the truest sense of the word) but fly-in, fly-out every chance they get. I am a relocated Qlder and, whilst I do miss the warmth in winter and the proximity to the beach (and warm water!), but the trade offs of the blooms in spring, the colours in autumn, and fireside sips in winter are wonderful compensation. In the four years I’ve been here I have seen Canberra grow and expand what’s on offer here, from events to dining to galleries, markets, etc etc etc – you just have to look!

    I think our worst mistake is that so many of the fantastic events that are on throughout the year are not promoted all that widely. Which is why blogs like yours are great! (And I’m not trying to suck up here!)

    Let the Canberra bashers stay away – it’s their loss!

    • inthetaratory October 9, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

      I agree. You don’t get a sense of Canberra from a meeting in an office building or Parliament House. Scratching the surface takes more than a trip around the Parliamentary Triangle. And thank you – that’s exactly what I’m trying to do: expose those things below the surface. I do disagree re the Canberra bashers staying away. I’d love for them to come. I’m happy to show them the Taratory – I know I’d change their view!

  10. a little bird made me October 9, 2014 at 8:43 pm #

    Reblogged this on a little bird made me and commented:
    This is a wonderful explanation of the potential of the city I live in.

    • inthetaratory October 9, 2014 at 9:37 pm #

      Thanks very much for sharing – I’m so glad to know it resonates.

  11. Kelly Brightwell October 9, 2014 at 9:36 pm #

    Tara, you knock my socks off😃
    Well said my friend.
    Canberra has all four seasons and is truly beautiful.
    There is always something to do and see in and around Canberra and in winter, unlike Melbourne, the sun is gorgeous.
    I’m so glad that you did write this article and my personal opinion is that “you are right.”
    The naysayers will poo-poo anything. Nobody can make them happy.
    Also, I agree with melbee1763; roundabouts are way better than traffic lights😊

    • inthetaratory October 9, 2014 at 9:50 pm #

      I’m just so glad to hear it’s resonating! I reckon we’re doing such a great job already in terms of the call to arms, but I hope this encourages even more people to get out there – and those who are already doing it to do even more. We have so much to appreciate, and so much we can take advantage of, and help us improve even more. I agree with you re roundabouts!

  12. Jason October 9, 2014 at 11:52 pm #

    My wife and I are also in the “packing up and moving” phase, to hit Canberra in Jan 2015 – much like CBR Bound – the only difference being that we’re coming from South Africa. Other than that our experiences have been much the same. The slight difference from our perspective, I surmise is exactly that – perspective. In our case, it’s stunning and almost laughable that so much vitriol can develop over a surmised lack of nightlife – when, in our case, we’re coming from a 3rd world country that barely scrapes out of the “Most dangerous places in the world” lists.

    We actually enjoy that there is so little to complain about, that there are complaints as simple as roundabouts. People always, ALWAYS, find something to hate about something. Our newspapers are generally filled with headlines (and even smaller stories of ‘lesser importance’) surrounding violent, aggressive, deplorable crimes, corruption and economic failure. Yours are whether or not politicians can agree on which of their cities are the best in the world.


    • inthetaratory October 9, 2014 at 11:59 pm #

      Oh Jason. Thank you so much for sharing this! We can’t wait to welcome you and your family here, too.

      I think that’s what struck me most about the comment regarding our disconnected or cracked footpaths. We actually feel safe enough to step out on them, alone or with young children, and/or as a female so that we notice and care about cracked/disconnected footpaths! So many people don’t – and won’t ever – have that luxury.

      Yours is a brilliant comment to cap off a remarkable 24 hours for me and this post – thank you so much for sharing.

      • Jason October 10, 2014 at 12:24 am #

        It’s my pleasure 🙂 And thank YOU for the honest, straight forward and “right-atcha” blog post. It’s awesome.

        Funny you mention the crakced / disconnected footpaths – you should see some of ours! That is, when there are any to begin with… and we’re in the good parts!

        Looking forward to buying my first Canberra Braves shirt!

  13. whisperinggums October 10, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

    Great post Tara … can’t add anything to that. I read Waterford’s article too and was a little taken aback, but I am inclined to read it as a call to arms. I was intrigued by his point that there’s been no exciting new idea in education since 1975. I’m not sure whether that’s completely right but it could be in terms of big systemic things. We do fear BIG changes now and that may be a function of our size. I hated, for example, that people complained about Stanhope’s public art plan. Even if you don’t like it all, I think it’s exciting and adds immeasurably to our city. And the pieces get people talking and thinking. I hate the complaints about the Kingston Foreshore. We don’t want the whole lake to be built up like that, but a couple of little pockets add so much to our city’s life.

    My sense is that we are now reaching a critical mass where more young people are happy to stay here. (I came here when I was young back in the mid 1970s – 22 – and I chose to come here because I liked it, but that was fairly rare. Rare I mean to actively choose and want to come.) Now, though, the city is getting a new life, one encompassing activities for a wide age group and yet it’s small enough that we mix with each other.

    Love it … and physically, what a landscape to be surrounded by. Almost everywhere you drive you can see some hills, or gorgeous sky unspoilt by pollution, or gorgeous stands of trees (or, do I mean stands of gorgeous trees?) I’ve always loved Canberra, but I knew it was “home” when I returned after we’d had a two year posting overseas. This return was 10 years after my first arrival. We drove in from Sydney in our hire car and as we hit the hills around Lake George on our way in, my spirit lifted. Ah, home.

    Haha … did I start by saying I can’t add anything to that? (BTW Loved cbrbound’s blog)

  14. lizzygoodthings October 12, 2014 at 8:58 am #

    A beautifully written piece, Tara… and well done you! Your question: ‘Is it really too much to ask the Prime Minister and his alternative to freely promote – or at least defend – Australia’s capital city?’ is spot on… I, too, am fed up with the Canberra bashers. As you say, they really do need to scratch below the surface. Our city, my home, your home, is a great place to live. My last comment…. ‘What she said!’.

  15. Adi Smith October 19, 2014 at 7:18 pm #

    As you know I was away at the time, and while eating breakfast in a hostel in Korea I was forced to defend Canberra from the scoffs of the group of well travelled people sitting around me. I don’t think that anyone is better at scoffing at the living conditions and wellbeing of other nations than the Scandinavians, they have been told for so long that they are the best that it is hard for them to believe that anyone else might be catching up (or even passing them).

    What made this all the more galling was the fact that I have been working on a project for the last couple of months that actually compares the ‘regions of Australia’ in meaningful way. The OECD does not. The OECD compares the States and Territories, and because Canberra is a essentially the ACT, it comes out looking pretty good.

    I actually think that if a proper methodology and geography was used to compare the regions of Australia Canberra would still score pretty damn high. Maybe I can wrangle a trip to Paris to tell the OECD how it is done 😉

  16. Reid June 10, 2015 at 3:23 pm #

    As someone who does nominally performance things around Canberra, it is a hard town to get people to come to the ‘small’ things. Like it or not Canberra is a very ‘cliquey’ town and it’s people very territorial. North vs South, Belconnen vs Tuggernarong, Everywhere v Civic, the entirety of Canberra v Queanbeyan. And that is a problem we can be fiercly loyal when an outsider ‘bashes’ Canberra but fight and argue amongst ourselves over the regions within the region. We are so lucky that we can promote and touch all parts of our territory, nowhere else can claim that.

    There are a few key players in each scene (music is a prime example) and if you are not one of the favored few or seen to have ‘paid your dues’ the rest of the scene either a. does not hear about it or b. actively ignores you. I know this is not a purely Canberran issue but because we are still a relitively small community there is not enough support and promotion of each other.

    I love Canberra, it can put on amazing events small and large, but it can be a very frustrating town to live in sometimes.


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