My Speech from “Canberra 2014: The Great Comedown” ::

[Last year, on Tuesday March 19, during You Are Here 2013 and thanks to Scissors Paper Pen, two teams of three were dubbed “for” and “against” and given the following prompt:

The Canberra Centenary: a year of festivities dedicated to celebrating symmetry. But how balanced are the pros and cons associated with the Centenary’s effect on a small arts community? Should we reject it, or welcome a year of proverbial fireworks with open arms?

I was placed on team negative, along with Adam Thomas and David Caffery, and though we played with kids gloves, it is curious to look back at the points made, not least for the fact that neither team called the truth of it. This year, You Are Here has just closed out a remarkably successful season, and with not a dollar of Centenary funding to their name. 

Here’s my speech. I was Editor of BMA Magazine at the time, and therefore targeted the Centenary’s media campaign and tactics:]

I came to Canberra when I was less than a year old. I give myself agency there as I like to picture it somewhat like the scenes in Terminator when machines are sent back in time – but the truth is my parents came here because they heard it was nice. They bought a house in MacArthur. Then they quite promptly sold a house in MacArthur and moved to Giralang, but we’ve been in Belconnen ever since.

The reason I’ve introduced this fact first is to humanize me. If I learned anything from James Cameron, it’s that before everything gets blown up and bodies are chopped into pieces with lasers, you need to build character. If it helps, I also am poor, and have recently lost a loved one, and I do not like my stepfather, who though he features little seems an unsavoury character.

Now. As first speaker of team negative, it is my job to convince you that Canberra will be no better off after its Centenary year, and I intend to fulfil that responsibility not only with facts but with my own, honest opinion. To quote Malcolm X, who though he never acknowledged it relied on my opinion as one of his most fundamental means of instruction, people in power have misused it, and now there has to be a change and a better world has to be built and the only way it’s going to be built is with extreme methods. And I for one will join in with anyone, I don’t care what team you’re on, as long as you want to prevent the miserable condition that will exist as a result of this Centenary.

We, the negative, are going to attempt to convince you of the following: That through mismanagement of opportunities afforded by the Centenary to highlight our arts community’s many successes, and by its failure to invest in much-needed infrastructure, the Centenary has dressed its failure to fundamentally expand and improve Canberra’s arts scene in transitory successes. Basically we’re talking about Tootsie or Mrs Doubtfire, but rather than the external appearance being lovable, it’s Robyn Archer. And rather than the internal reality being Robin Williams or Dustin Hoffmann, it’s Robyn Archer.

In summation, in 2014 Canberra will be no better off.

But first, the details. Scissors Paper Pen invited us here to dissect this question: How balanced are the pros and cons associated with the Centenary? Should we reject it, or welcome a year of proverbial fireworks with open arms?

There are many judgments in the question and it would ill serve us to neglect them. First, “how balanced are the pros and cons”. Basically, they’re not. If Gina Rinehart and Bob Brown settled their ideological differences by trying to launch each other off a seesaw, that’s how imbalanced they would be. We recognise that. Too much money, organisation, publicity, thought, time, energy and inspired care for Canberra has gone into the Centenary to make anything but acknowledgment of this fact unhelpful. But that is this year. In 2014 it’s going to be more like that scene in Hotel Rwanda where the mist clears and there are bodies everywhere.

Second, “a small arts community”. Taking into account our city’s population, population density, breadth of existence and interconnectedness with other major cities, saying we have a definitively “small” arts community is unfair and untrue. What we have is a unique arts community – it’s not fragile or feeble, it’s stringy and entrenched. The judgment implicit in the idea of a small arts community – namely that it needs suckling and coddling – is false. What it needs is heavy weaponry.

Third, “Should we reject it”. That, again, we cannot argue. You cannot reject the Centenary and you certainly and more relevantly cannot reject $30 million of funding intended specifically for the betterment and promotion of Canberra. What you can reject is the way in which it’s been spent – instead of bubbly bars, fireworks and pretending that you invented everything that already existed in Canberra, we want a full-on montage-worthy transformation and never-ending sequels.

And finally, “a year of proverbial fireworks”. This, in many ways, we endorse. I love fireworks – they’re loud, expensive, bright; they draw crowds; they reach a thundering crescendo. And then they end. They end, and nothing comes next. All that’s left is smoke, litter and drunk people. Basically, it’s about as close to an ideal metaphor as a person on team negative in this debate could ask for.

Put plainly, because that’s what we asked our scientists and statisticians to make it, this is how the Centenary will leave Canberra. [Graph 1: fireworks > smoke/litter/hangover/disillusionment > gradual recovery as we normalize back to ordinary resources.] Were the changes we are about to recommend implemented, this is how things could have been. [Graph 2: fireworks > inevitable but minor slump > gradual improvement from an improved standing.]

Now, with all of you already convinced, the reason I was asked to participate in this debate is that I’m Editor of BMA Magazine. I’ve been that for almost a year now. The longer you work in a job like mine, the more you hear and the more you know – the same goes for Adam and Dave. Consequently, I’m going to hoe into the Centenary’s media image, as it’s become my opinion that the Centenary, through mismanagement, has drawn criticism on Canberra without coming to its defense, and has failed to impart this city’s unique merits to our national and international audience.

The first issue is this: “Like Canberra.” If this were from I Am Sam, it would be heartwarming. But it’s not from I Am Sam and Dakota Fanning’s all grown up now.

Last year I was invited to a confidential pre-launch of the Centenary program. In a room with the Canberra Times, Channel Ten, City News and others, the floor was given to the team tasked with coming up with the Centenary’s key campaign. Here’s the pitch they gave before the grand reveal: “We figured, since people have trouble ‘loving’ Canberra, maybe they would find it easier—to ‘like’.” I don’t remember much after that because we all started furiously jerking each other off over how good it was.

These ass-hats set their sights so low that they rinsed their idea from Facebook. The reason this really pisses me off – which is not because they stole an idea that a teenager came up with ten years ago – the reason is that in the one year we’re supposed to be winning the world’s respect as a city, we’re sobbing, “Why does nobody like me?” Canberra artist Kate Ward came up with this in 2011 and it’s infinitely preferable:

Now obviously this in itself doesn’t bring Canberra in 2014 to its knees, but it is indicative of a mindset that should never have been allowed into the Centenary – one that bleeds into the consciousness of everyone who does not already harbour a fierce love for our city.

Basically, if you did a Rorschach test of the Centenary’s media people, instead of a ferocious, single-minded badass who refuses to let the world be ruled by lies, you would get a series of answers like “Sydney, underachievement, safety”.

But whether the Centenary’s media were insipid douchebags or not, attention was always going to be heaped on our city. Every person who’s written a critical thinkpiece on Canberra this year has enjoyed the ensuing attention: This by the BBC: “Canberra is still struggling to convince outsiders that it has more to offer than political hot air.” In The Age: “Parakeets and mountains do not make a city.” Thanks to the Centenary, the Australian National Dictionary Centre added “Canberra bashing” to Oxford’s Australian National Dictionary in late February this year. And of course, Annabel Crabb wrote something biting too.

The challenge to the Centenary’s media was to talk to the world, to respond to (or better, to pre-empt) these critiques. Every time they’re written, all people see is a vocal minority who scrawl “Canberra’”on their genitals and wave them from hilltops, flagpoles and the centre of our roundabouts. The Centenary’s media had the opportunity to dictate how this story was told, to wag the dog in such a way that the cavernous gap between the vocal minority and the Canberrans who bear their love of this city in silence – the parents and public servants and families who don’t go out of their way to shout this city’s praise but would never dream of leaving – that that gap was filled.

At the moment, Australia and the world see that chasm as filled with people with no reason to stay but without the temerity to leave – people in grey. To the world at large, we are a city characterized by “the nothing”. (Those are two Michael Ende references in quick succession, for those of you listening at home.) Did the Centenary try to dispel that myth? Did they balls. They stepped up and said, “Like Canberra, it’s easier,” and let Canberrans pick up the hailstorm of critiques on Twitter and Facebook.

The most potent fallout of this will be that no media – national or international – or even in the Territory itself, as Adam will mention – no media is painting a different picture of Canberra, and in the one year we could have wagged the dog, we have not. The Centenary has not.

In 2014, we will still be – to the best of everyone else’s knowledge – the same dull, awkward city. The bildungsroman minus the bildung. Except we’ll also be minus the money, the personnel, and the attention. But most importantly the bildung. Thank you.

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