‘Situated an exactly equal distance between Sydney and Melbourne, which is to say much closer to Sydney, it’s located in the Australian Capital Territory, so called because of the popular belief that being sent there is the equivalent to a death sentence.’ – Dominic Knight, Strayapedia (2017)
Cold, boring and full of bureaucrats: the ‘Canberra’ section of Dom Knight’s latest book, Strayapedia, hits the mark early and often. Yet as somebody who has recently moved to this much-maligned city, this kind of description is out of date with both its self-perception and marketing trends. No longer stuffy, boring and full of families, today’s Canberra portrays itself as fun, exciting, and even cool. How did this happen?
The once-obscure bush capital, and its number plates, have been keen to adopt new hipster clothing; to present as something like that ‘cool inland city that your best mate lives in’. Yet like every trend that drapes itself in ironic sentiment, there’s more than a kernel of serious intent here, as there is to the apparently outlandish claim that Canberra – yes, Canberra – is now the cultural capital of Australia.
In an entirely typical, yet still eminently-mockable, Domain article listing the ‘eight reasons why you should move to Canberra’, writer Stephen Lacey does his best to breathlessly admire the new, gentrified Canberra of 2018. Crashing through one stereotype after another – there’s a university, so people are smart; there are public buildings, so the architecture is good; there are vineyards, so the wine is always good – Lacey eventually stumbles into some of the actual good parts of Canberra – like the fact that there are good bike paths and that it’s close to the mountains – but not before making some wild generalisations about how rich, sexy and well-dined you’ll be if you too move to Canberra.
The most obscure claim is to the apparently rampant intelligence of Canberra’s population, who are so highly educated that Civic Pub is just full of book-bound literary buffs crashing into each other. As any graduate could attest to, far from ‘your average Canberra dinner party conversation [being] peppered with references to Kafka and Kierkegaard,’ you are far more likely to find yourself discussing your home town, gossip from the office and which music festival you just went to. After all, new friendships are at stake, and nobody wants to be cut by the clippers of Australia’s delightful tall-poppy syndrome.
What’s particularly hilarious about the new trend of Cool Canberra is its claim to the territory as utterly upper-middle class and pretentious, something that most areas try to play down if they can. Not only that, but the territory is in many ways so bland, that it ends up just listing things available in any moderately sized regional town, let alone a major city. It’s also the kind of stuff that anyone who is actually snobby (this writer included) can call bullshit on: good sourdough is actually difficult to find in Canberra; the wine district, while still emerging, is hardly one of Australia’s best (pro-trip: Canberra sangiovese is way better than its ‘acclaimed’ shiraz); good restaurants remain prohibitively expensive and Lonsdale Street is a pale, soulless imitation of the Sydney and Melbourne districts it mimics. It’s a shame, because most writers don’t even mention Canberra’s genuine positives, such as the local farmers’ markets, the inclusive music scene, the relatively quick commutes and the genuinely outstanding coffee. There are good reasons to move to Canberra, so why the need to make such boastful claims, when The Phoenix, Bentspoke Brewery and Smith’s Alternative are already there?
By making these outlandish claims so boldly, instead of commanding a certain respect – after all, it’s fair for someone to claim they’re the best if they’re actually the best – it prompts ridicule, a kind of Scrappy-Do argument that a smaller city picks with its bigger rivals. Not that Domain is alone in publishing this hype. One can find very similar appeals to a gentrified Canberra on Canberra’s official website and on Junkee, the home of all youth-oriented native advertising (i.e. advertising misleadingly presented as article). While many of these pitches to move to Canberra are expressed in a tongue-in-cheek manner, the irony they employ is merely part of the sales pitch. It’s important to note that these articles, and others like them in TimeOut, Good Food and other entertainment and property magazines, use comedy and irony to sell their products. As generally uncritical mouthpieces for their industry, their motivation is to produce positive associations between their industry and you, the reader. For these media outlets, you’re not the consumer, you’re the product.
So why is an apparently nice place to live so defensive about its own identity? Unlike Sydney, which very much has a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude, Canberra for most people is a voluntary place to live – somewhere they move to, not the chance of birth, so it’s natural that this makes people defensive about their new home. Being the butt of the national joke will also help, but Canberrans can’t really complain of being hard done by compared to Tasmanians, Northern Territorians, Far North Queenslanders or really-rural Australians as a whole, all of whom cop a fairly hard whack of the stereotypical shtick from the coastal capitals. Even the ‘inner city hipsters’ from Sydney and Melbourne are subject to apparently acceptable queer-bashing in national media and advertising. Yet anyone new to the city could attest to the surprising prickliness of the local population when it comes to how great Canberra is – ‘do you know we have Gelato Messina now? Do they even have trees where you come from?’ It’s not like Canberra’s ‘niceness’ is particularly questionable either – it’s certainly a pleasant place to be – but its absurd claims to being suddenly cool do merit rebuttal.
A genuinely nice place like Canberra should be trading on its strengths, not on its self-pleasing vanity projects, and writers trying to promote their city in the entertainment press should know a lot better. This reductive ‘cooler than thou’ shtick comes off as naïve at best and utterly elitist at worst, the exact kind of nouveau-riche braggadocious claims that serve as a giant ‘keep out’ sign to anyone who isn’t a tertiary-educated, white, middle-class office worker. Whether marketing its ‘liveability’ or hip new bar, Cool Canberrans might remember that the point of being cool is that you don’t have to tell anyone about it – they should already know.
I can only surmise the idea of Cool Canberra began with the 2012 rebranding of Canberra as ‘CBR’, and as part of its self-congratulatory impulse to think that one’s own city is necessarily interesting to people not from the city, for having the same things that those other cities have, like bars, restaurants and festivals. This kind of ‘wow Canberra has this now’ marketing strategy is the equivalent of trying to appear cool to your friends by inviting them over to show off your brand new dishwasher. I mean sure, it’s pretty neat, but it’s only a big deal if you’ve never had one before.
These naïve ideas are drawn from the wellspring of other vague assertions that are used to judge cities, like the concept of ‘liveability’, a word thrown around so much about Canberra that it makes me want to run down traffic-jammed apartment-crammed Northbourne Avenue screaming about how gosh-damn-pleasant this oversized country town is. The problem with a vague idea like ‘liveability’ isn’t in the data it uses – after all, house prices, commute times and average incomes are important pieces of information about a city – but in the attempt to try to render the abstract idea of a city’s ‘liveability’ into numeral form, which is a flawed way to understand what it’s like to actually live in a place. This myopic view becomes more understandable when considering that the Worldwide Quality of Living survey, in which Canberra ranks at #28, is formulated on the basis to ‘help calculate remuneration packages for expatriate workers.’ So hardly aimed for the 99 per cent of people who actually live in a city, just for the 1 per cent for whom visas, money and family roots aren’t really an issue in determining where they want to live.
There are other metrics too: Numbeo rates Canberra amazingly at #1, though a quick look at the other top contenders – Raleigh, Eindhoven, Wellington, Zurich, Ottawa and Luxembourg – reveals the fact that most of these ‘liveable cities’ are other university towns, with only Brisbane, Adelaide and Quebec City – themselves among their nations’ smaller capitals – ranking within the top ten. So perhaps for a new number plate slogan the city could go for, ‘Canberra: as far as cold university towns go, it’s the best!’ It might not have the greatest public appeal, but hey, at least it would be honest.
Image: Canberra at night – TC Photography / flickr