The World Around Us

Canberra: Boring, Commemorating, and Protesting

Country: Australia by Lisette


Australia’s capital is situated beautifully in nature, obviously well thought about in the last century (before World War I) by its architects and legislature. Also carefully negotiated is the exact position of the city in the country. You see, Melbourne and Sydney were – and still are – in competition. And so another city was chosen as Down Under’s capital, a city that is almost exactly in the middle of both competitors. But Canberra itself is not very interesting.

Canberra isn’t big but it’s sprawled out like Toronto, so you need to take a bus or a car to get around. The YHA hostel I stayed at was at a gorgeous setting, a trail started nearby into one of the parks. And so upon arrival you learn not wear your flip-flops around the place as snakes are abound and other animals that’ll be happy to steal your foodies. Checking the YHA site I realized they must have changed location because the present-day hostel is in the heart of the city. Or maybe I am just reading the map wrong… that has happened in the past!

What I did like, because you know I always find something to like, even when I’m in washed-away Mission Beach!, are the typical capital sites, such as the parliament and the war monuments. They both left a long-lasting impression on me, especially the avenue leading up to the monument.

The parliament building has an interesting contrast with a modern outer side (built in 1987) and an impressive interior. What really got my attention and what continues to linger in my brain is the exquisite interior of the Old Parliament House. The building is sprawled out, like the rest of the city and functioned as a city in itself. That however did not mean the building was large enough to house the ever-growing staff of the Australian government, hence the new building. What I loved so much was the grandeur of the interior in combination with a lot of natural light.

Next to the architecture and interior, a temporary, dramatic, exposition took me by surprise about a Russian spy-slash-diplomatic couple that defected in the 1950s. As a child born in the seventies and turning into a teenager at the same time the Cold War was crumbling down, I never truly understood the effect of the arms race between capitalism (read: USA) and communism (read: USSR). Well, I am not stating here I now truly understand, but I think I was granted an eye-opener. What struck me most was the response to the defect, the sincere worry that the USSR was going to take over Australia while the USA was battling in Korea.

Outside the Old Parliament House is a semi-permanent Aboriginal Tent Embassy that started 40 years ago to support claims for land rights. The embassy, never recognized by the Australian government has a controversial history with heated conflicts as recent as in January 2012. It is astonishing to learn that Australia was considered ‘terra nullius’, which basically meant no mans land in the 19th century (hence the English thought they could start settlements).

Even more astonishing is that the law with this wording and understanding was only modified in the 1990s. The Native Title Act was passed in December 1993, which provided opportunity to Aboriginal people to claim land if they proved a ‘traditional connection’ with the land. If the land is in use by farmers, compensations could be granted.

At the time I was struck with the similarity of the issues indigenous people face in Canada. Now, as I am editing this blog at the face of the arrival of 2013, I am even more shocked as I have learned more about the Stolen Generation in Australia and the Residential Schools in Canada. For an interesting introduction about the latter, click here. I sincerely hope reconciliation efforts continue to take place. As much as I appreciate the apology from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008, it is not enough.

How different is the public feeling about war and peacekeeping when the nation is not threatened from within, but from the outside. The Australian War Memorial is impressive; in size, in excellence and in the amalgamation of shrine, museum and archive. Perhaps just as impressive is the avenue (Anzac Parade) that is lined with more monuments. Some commemorate World War I or II, or the Korea War. Others pay homage to soldiers holding a specific frontline or the nurses. Few monuments were impressive, quite a number had emotional inscriptions, and there’s even one that I found un-inspiring. It’s a lot to take in, and if you have time and the interest, I suggest breaking up the visit to the memorial in two days.

 (All pictures are taken from