Earlier this week maverick Federal politician Bob Katter gave Canberra a serve, describing it as “unfriendly” and “soulless”, just as a couple of dozen brand new MPs were about to arrive for the first time in the city they’ll now call home for a third of the year.
Mr Katter told a Fairfax journalist that he finds the city “unfriendly, [people] don’t smile and laugh at each other and if you crack a joke people look at you like you’re a Martian”, adding that it seems to him “a very soulless place, everything is franchised and corporatised”.
Well, that will be encouraging for the new kids at Parliament.
My first instinct was to feel sad for Mr Katter. He has been coming here for much of the year for a quarter of a century, and has yet to discover the reasons so many of us choose to live here when we could take take our pick of the world’s cities.
Then I read on and became, I confess, a little bit annoyed. You see, Mr Katter doesn’t even stay in Canberra when he’s here in Parliamentary sitting weeks. He gets in his Commonwealth car and heads out to the Comfort Inn International Airport hotel in Queanbeyan every night. No wonder he’s getting a “franchised and corporatised” vibe about the place!
There is a serious disconnect between everyone who is based in the Parliament House bubble and the rest of Canberra, in part because of the long hours they work alongside each other (I can think of a few other reasons, but that’s another story).
The fly-in, fly-out politicians, staffers and journalists are the least connected of all, given they rarely spend daylight hours here outside Parliament, and almost never stay for a weekend.
But at least some of them try to make connections with the rest of Canberra, to “live” here, by choosing to rent a room in a residential home in the capital itself rather than booking a hotel room.
Mr Katter’s former National Party colleague Barnaby Joyce is an example. He recently told another Fairfax journalist that he lodges with a former Latin teacher in a leafy Canberra suburb and has done for years. Mrs Primrose leaves a light on for him when he’s going to be arriving home late, which, let’s face it, in a sitting week is probably most nights. Unfriendly and soulless? Hardly. Kind and caring, and so very Canberra? You bet.
All of this got me thinking that we should provide Mr Katter and anyone else who is yet to be convinced that our city has a heart with a list of suggestions for ways they can better engage with the rest of us. So, I’m calling for suggestions. What is it about Canberra that makes you love living here? What gives it heart and soul? If we could talk Mr Katter and the new MPs into staying here for a weekend after Parliament resumes, what should they see and do?
Here are my suggestions for starters:
1. Stay for a weekend, at least a few times a year. Make sure one of the weekends coincides with Enlighten, and another with Floriade (not for the flower display itself so much as the blossoms on show all over the inner suburbs).
2. Forget hotels, motels and serviced apartments. Rent a room in a real house with a real garden with real Canberrans.
3. Take in a cricket match or and AFL game at Manuka Oval, or join the crowds for a Brumbies or Raiders game at Canberra Stadium.
4. Cycle around Lake Burley Griffin on a Sunday morning.
5. Join Parkrun at Weston Park on a Saturday morning.
6. Have brunch at a suburban shopping centre (A bite to eat in Chifley, Stand by me at Lyons, Cafe Breizh at Ainslie)
7. Have a drink at a bar in a suburban shopping centre (Tilley’s at Lyneham, Little Oink at Cook, other suggestions?)
8. Head to Snapper on the Lake for a fish and chips picnic dinner.
9. Go for a picnic lunch at one of Canberra’s riverside picnic spots (Pine Island, Casuarina Sands, Uriarra Crossing)
10. Pretend you’re a tourist and spend two whole days exploring our stunning cultural institutions: the Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery, the National Library, the National Museum, the Museum of Australian Democracy and the Australian War Memorial.
11. Pop into the Hamlet on Lonsdale Street for some cheesy chips from the BrodDogs van and a beer or vino from The Hutch.
12. Book tickets for a show at the Canberra Theatre or the Street Theatre, or to see the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.
13. Catch a movie at Palace Electric after dining at Monster or A Baker in New Acton. Order a cocktail at Black Market afterwards.
14. Go for a swim at historic Manuka Pool.
15. Take in the view from the top of Mt Ainslie or Red Hill, preferably both.
16. Take some children you care about to Boundless, the pod playground at the Arboretum or Questacon.
What have I missed, Canberra? Please add your ideas in the comments below, and I will forward them all on to Mr Katter’s office (and publish his reply if we receive one!).