Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Belshaw's World - witnessing the nation’s capital grow and evolve

Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 25 May 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.

At the weekend, Dee and I went down to Canberra for a friend’s 50th birthday party.

The party was held at a restaurant at Emubank in Belconnen. Now I had never been to Emubank before, and this got me thinking.

I was sixteen when I first visited Canberra. It was January, and I was on my way to hitchhike in Tasmania having just completed the Leaving Certificate for the first time.

My father had arranged for me to stay with the Hohnens. Ross, later to be known as Mr ANU, had become registrar at the New England University College in 1946 and then assistant registrar at the ANU in 1948, registrar in 1949.

I had just obtained my driver’s license, and the Hohnens lent me their second car, a big old yank tank. It was an absolute cow to drive for an inexperienced driver, low to the ground and very heavy.

Still, the population of Canberra at the time was a only a bit over 50,000 (Armidale’s population then was 12,500) and very spread out with almost no traffic. So accompanied by one of the Hohnen boys, I weaved my way all over the ACT.

I was nineteen when I next visited Canberra, this time with my parents. Again, we took advantage of Armidale connections.

Alf Maiden had been in the 1939 student intake at the New England University College and was now secretary of the Department of Primary Industry. The Maidens lent us their house while they were away on holidays, so we were there for several weeks.

ANZAAS (Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science) was on, so I was able to go to the Australian prehistory sessions. This was fun.

Canberra’s population was now over 90,000, Lake Burley Griffin had been created, and the city was starting to take its modern form.

Two years later I came to Canberra again, this time to work in the Public Service. Now, with some breaks, I was to work there for the next twenty years.

At the time I started work in Canberra, the city’s population had reached 100,000, although it still had fewer pubs and not all that many more licensed restaurants than Armidale!

By the time I left to come back to Armidale in the middle of 1987, Canberra’s population had grown to 270,000. Today, it is over 345,000, with fast growing populations as well in the adjoining parts of New South Wales.

Given my long connections with the city, I knew it very well as did my wife.

As we drove round Canberra this time, I thought how much it had changed. It is those changes that I want to talk about in the last part of this column.

One change is simply increased size.

If you look at various maps of NSW including those used for the planning purposes, the ACT often appears as a blank. Yet the reality is that that blank spot conceals Australia’s eight largest city.

If you add in the immediately surrounding areas, around six per cent of the combined NSW/ACT population lives within an hour’s drive of the centre of Canberra, with Canberra’s economic city reach extending all the time.

This has all sorts of effects. One is the growth of the Canberra-Sydney economic corridor, a second the progressive ripple effects spreading out to places like Wagga Wagga. The economic locus of NSW has been shifted south.

You can get a feel for the scale of the effects quite easily by assuming that Armidale had been selected as national capital and that we now had a population of 345,000.

This would have transformed the entire demography of Northern NSW at the expense of the south. Something similar would have happened if we had got state hood, if on a much smaller scale.

This one can be measured, if roughly. A far more complicated effect lies in the changing composition of the Canberra population.

When I arrived in Canberra, everyone came from elsewhere in Australia, and especially from centres outside Melbourne and Sydney. This meant that the Commonwealth Public Service was broadly representative of the nation.

Today things are very different. I don’t have the numbers, but I do have the strong impression that the Commonwealth Public Service draws quite heavily from Canberra, with second and third generation public service families not uncommon.

If I’m right, it may explain why Canberra official advice so often seems insensitive or at least out of touch. They just don’t have the broader experience.


Greg said...

Hi Jim,

Sorry, I'm a bit late with this comment.

Canberra has gone from a standing start to a population of 350,000 and Australia's eighth largest city in under a century basically on the back of one main industry - government. Had Melbourne remained the capital it is highly probable that it would have outstripped Sydney as Australia's biggest city today.

It is clear that growth in Australia tends to cluster around the seats of government. This is evidenced by the fact that the five largest cities are the five state capitals. Of the largest 9 cities only two are not capitals. It is reasonable to assume that more growth centres could be created around the nation with more centres of government. More growth centres is something that Australia has been desperately trying to come to terms with.

If we truly want decentralisation to set Australia up for the 21st Century, then it seems to me that devolution of government and new states is an absolute must.

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree, Greg

Rod said...

Bit of a late comment from me too - The US might be an interesting comparison. Usually the state capital is the biggest city in the state even if it wasn't the biggest when it became a state.

Jim Belshaw said...

Not always, Rod. Quite often the state seat is a much smaller city.

Rod said...

Quite right, California jumps out firstly. But I think 'usually' it is still the case... I'll have to do some tabulating and post another comment how well or badly my memory serves a bit later...
PS thanks for the blog, it is an excellent way to remind us (amongst other things) that there is a New England identity.

Rod said...

never mind... only 17 states have the largest city as the capital. So my assertion is a little shaky.

Jim Belshaw said...

Glad you like the blog, Rod! There is quite a variation between the US states. This was importartant in a New England context for people were concerned that we might simply end by replicating the US experience.

The official new state movement position was simply that the capital should be inland, although Armidale was seen as logical. Central to thinking was the idea, too, that New England should operate a decentralised system. Newcastle, for example, would have gained from its role as the main commercial centre.