Canberra is the purpose built administrative capital of Australia; established in 1913 to combat the fierce rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne to become the new nation’s capital. The city is situated inland, half way between the two cultural powerhouses and struggles to find much to pull tourists away from the coast. Canberra is a place where politicians, military chiefs and top civil servants enjoy their affluence in a purpose built utopia for the ruling classes.
At the centre of Canberra is Capital Hill, the home of the Australian government. Branching out from the hill are wide leafy boulevards, which continue as far as the eye can see. Walking around this central area is not easy, it is very spread out and the whole area is devoid of shops and water fountains. However parking in the city is very costly, so with no other choice we hit the pavement to explore. Despite a lot of green spaces and a huge lake, the city seems to be cast largely in concrete. Walking the deserted streets we felt we were visiting a communist state or dystopian capital of the future; with the grey buildings and grey streets all pointing towards the central seat of power, overlooking the proletariat below. One exception to this is the beautifully arranged Australian War Memorial. The last post ceremony is performed daily in honour of the fallen. Outside the tomb of the unknown soldier, the service begins with the singing of the national anthem, followed by an evocative pipers lament. The story of the life, service and death of an individual soldier is shared and wreaths are laid at the pool of reflection. The Ode is recited and the last post is sounded. It is a hugely moving ceremony, attended by hundreds each day.
Canberra has some excellent museums and galleries, offering a great culture fix. The National Gallery houses exciting and innovative work including the James Turrell Sky Space and a sculpture garden. The quirky National Portrait Gallery shows the faces and stories of prominent Australians, from colonial founders to present day athletes and everyone in between.
We particularly enjoyed our visit to the National Museum of Australia, which houses a modern collection of exhibits documenting social history. Importantly it gives a more honest account of Indigenous Australians alongside European settlers, which we have found to be lacking in most museums. The museum brings to life the stories of the Stolen Generations, aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their parents as part of the government’s white assimilation policy. They were placed with white foster carers or in group homes and often abused and mistreated. They lost all links to their families, culture and the indigenous way of life. The abhorrent eugenics inspired government policy planned to breed the black out of future generations. This continued until as recently as the 1970’s and it took until 2008 for the Australian government to apologise to the Stolen Generations.
The struggle for equality experienced by those identified as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islanders is still fiercely prevalent today. Aboriginal families are more likely to live in areas effected with socio-economic problems. They are still stigmatised in Australian society and racist language is used freely. Aboriginals are grossly over represented in prisons, mental health services, and drug and alcohol dependency units. Children are still being taken by the state, although less than 5% of the total child population is aboriginal, 35% of all children in care are Aboriginal.
The struggle for Aboriginal rights was pushed to the forefront of white Australian politics in 1972. The Aboriginal Tent Embassy was established on the lawn of parliament house in Canberra, in response to the governments refusal to recognise Aboriginal land rights. This mobilised Aboriginal and non-indigenous Australians to put pressure on the government which eventually led to the Aboriginal Land Rights Act 1976. Despite various removals, clean ups and police persecution, the present incarnation of the Tent Embassy remains on the lawn of Old Parliament House. The small collection of dishevelled tents are ominously dwarfed by the mighty white building which overshadows their existence. It is the perfect juxtaposition of metaphors. Of course, parliament now resides in a newer, less white building, further away from the display of poverty and solidarity. But the Aboriginals and the Tent Embassy are still there, overshadowed by the old white government.