Tag Archives: Parliament


Andrew McGahan. Underground. Allen & Unwin, 2007. ISBN: 9781741753301

You might think that this book doesn’t belong on a list of fiction set in Canberra when you learn that its premise is that Canberra has been nuked off the face of the earth. Still, as our narrator Leo James records his memoirs, addressing himself to his “dear interrogators”, he reflects at times on Canberra, and remembers it as it was before the whole city was evacuated in the face of the nuclear threat from the Great Southern Jihad.

Following the destruction of Canberra, Prime Minister Bernard James, Leo’s twin brother, declared a state of emergency. Years later, it’s still in place. The emergency powers have been used to put in place a range of harsh measures. All Muslims have been corralled into ghettos. South Africa has boycotted us in the cricket because of our inhumane treatment of refugees. A number of joint Australian-US bases help to enforce what is essentially martial law. Some kind of spy communications facility has been built on top of Uluru. Individuals must carry their citizenship papers with them, which must be updated regularly. If, at any of the Citizen Verification Stations – checkpoints – around the country, a person’s citizenship is in doubt, they may be asked to take the citizenship test and recite the oath to prove their loyalty. Anzac Day is now Anzac Week.

This would be a ludicrous story if it wasn’t so close to what we have, or very nearly had back in 2006, when Underground was first published. Remember the citizenship test introduced by John Howard? Pondered lately our escalating war on boat people? Had a moment’s pause at the number of American troops being posted to Darwin? Felt in any way uncomfortable about flag-draped thugs claiming that they determine what is Australian or un-Australian? The genius and terror of Andrew McGahan’s story is that, outlandish conspiracy theory though it is, many of its individual elements aren’t very far removed from where we’ve already been. Apparently Andrew Bolt called McGahan an “unhinged propagandist”, which is to me pretty good evidence that it struck a nerve.

For obvious reasons the Canberra references in the book are limited. Leo is a Queensland property developer, so he has no real love of Canberra:

It was such an inconvenient place. Off in the middle of nowhere. Stinking hot in summer. Freezing in winter. And totally soulless, all year round. Still there were one or two decent restaurants I would miss, and what would happen to the nation’s sex industry, once the mail order warehouses and porn studios of Fyshwick had been vaporised?

The usual ciphers of Canberra as a place are there: parliament house times two, LBG, the Captain Cook Fountain, Mount Ainslie, the Lodge, Anzac Parade and the War Memorial. It is what Canberra symbolises as the seat of government and the physical representation of our democracy that is more important here. The terrorists who planted the bomb in Canberra gave three days’ warning, enough time to get everyone safely out. And, as Leo’s car crawled up the Federal Highway to Sydney with the other evacuees, he watched

an unbroken stream of commandeered trucks passing by in the opposite lanes. They were heading into Canberra, destined for the National Gallery, or for the National Museum, or for various government archives, or for any other such place where the national treasures and records might be in need of rescuing.

…[A]fter forty-eight hours of the most frenzied activity imaginable, Canberra was stripped of virtually everything that mattered.

And that’s it really, isn’t it? The value you place on Canberra depends on the value you place on the things that it contains. Communities, our own personal histories and connections with a place and the people in it. National symbols, a place of debate and democracy, of tolerance and inclusion. Coincidentally, I finished reading Underground on the morning of the federal election. And I worry about how some value the things that Canberra contains.



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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense, Speculative Fiction

The House at Number 10

Dorothy Johnston. The House at Number 10. Wakefield Press, 2005. ISBN 1862546835.

Sophie’s husband has left her, not for another woman—she could become reconciled to a single woman—but for the freedom to pursue many women. Having left the public service to raise her daughter Tamsin, Sophie now finds herself needing to find work to pay the rent on the flat in quiet, unquestioning Mrs B’s garden.

It is the early 1990s. The newly autonomous Legislative Assembly is contemplating legalising prostitution in the ACT, “the little [government] carving out its own agenda”. Some entrepreneurs are gambling on the outcome, setting up quiet brothels in anonymous suburban houses, taking advantage of the interregnum in the law which the police seem to be observing. Holding their breath and waiting.

I had been under the impression that Canberra was a leader in this area, perhaps pioneering this route to legalisation and control “and… what was ‘pioneer’ if not an old word, an ancient, if not honourable one?”, observes Sophie’s colleague. A little googling tells me that this wasn’t the case, that the prostitution debate was happening around this time in many of the Australian states and territories, some heading towards similar outcomes. Still, Canberra has a history of sensible, liberal approaches to these thorny issues. Treating its citizens like grown-ups in relation to things like drugs, fireworks, gay marriage, euthanasia. Not all of these decisions have stuck.

So, Sophie finds herself working as a prostitute in the weather-beaten house at Number 10 Andover Street. Each working day, she crosses the lake from her life in O’Connor as suburban mother, to the one she has chosen in Kingston. On the north side she can walk her daughter to pre-school and meet friends for drinks at Tilley’s. On the south side she buys lingerie and contemplates her relationship with John the Cyclist, and Jack with the fish tattoo. Sophie is determined to keep her two lives separate, the lake in between. Of course, they run in parallel, as she seeks the same thing in both: confidence, autonomy, self-sufficiency, perhaps also revenge. Sometimes they intersect.

The cover blurb for the edition I read talks about “the complex relationships people develop with the buildings they live and work in”. The side room, where Sophie works, both in its current state and in the one imagined by her architect friend Ann, is Sophie’s “silent ally” as she learns her trade. In the arm chair in the kitchen at Number 10 Sophie recuperates between customers, wanting “only space and quiet, the unremarkable continuance of days”. These spaces, her garden flat, Mrs B’s garden and, later, the one at Number 10, are places of autonomy and self-discovery.

Sophie is, of course, discovered, and with a nightmare scenario before her, familiar places seem suddenly no longer safe:

The question Sophie kept coming back to was, Where will I go from here? The whole of Canberra seemed dangerous – not just Kingston, with its apartments round the shopping centre, couples young and rising in the world, Andover Street with its abandoned house, its backyard ready to be planted out for spring. Fyshwick and Mitchell, where the business future lay, seemed just as treacherous, as did the central triangle of parliament, family court and government offices, so clean and straight they might have passed from a design board to the air between kept trees – might have done this, been erected, without human intervention.

But places can be transformed, and they are often transformed through human intervention. The Griffins’ vision, not wholly realised, nevertheless leaves its mark on Canberra: “Ideals and visions remained, though turned into a dog’s leg broken in three places”. Mrs B remembers the transformation brought to Canberra by the flooding of the lake, and the transformation that had been made in her own life at that time. She, in turn, transforms the landscape in her garden from the “baked, unyielding Canberra suburban dirt”.

Looking at Number 10 from our vantage point of today, we know that it is a transformation that won’t stick. Brothels won’t be allowed in residential areas. Just as Sophie and her fellow workers, and Mrs B in the garden, have altered the place from what it was, so new changes will follow, both in the house at Number 10 and in those who pass through its rooms.



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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

Turtle Beach

Blanche D’Alpuget. Turtle Beach. Allen & Unwin House of Books, 2012. ISBN 9781742699189. First published 1981.

I have found so far in this project that by the time I’m half-way through a book I’ve identified a theme that I want to follow through to the end, work with and write about. Of course, the refugee ‘problem’ (whatever you think that might mean) in Turtle Beach is the ‘unignorable’ theme that resonates for me. How is it that we are having exactly the same conversations all these years later?

I’ve resisted following this line, feeling ill-equipped to compare and contrast the post-Vietnam war Malaysia of the 1970s and the post-Iraq/Afghanistan/Sri Lankan wars Malaysia of the 2010s. It is though, as I say, unignorable. What occurred to me, almost at the very end of D’Alpuget’s novel, is that Turtle Beach is about deciding what we are prepared to fight for, and what we are prepared to lose. What power do we have, and what will we choose to use if for?

Canberra is the jumping-off point, the familiar anchor before we head to the unfamiliar world of Malaysia and its refugee camps. It is the logical place to begin the story, where we can expect political journalists, aspiring politicians, diplomats and other public servants to intersect.

All of Turtle Beach’s characters have battles to face. Not all of them are equal to the fight, and each must choose their own weapons. The first Lady Hobday concedes the field and retreats to her Red Hill home, but the second will use every tool within reach to fight for her family. Poor, sick Ralph the immigration official chooses to fight without really meaning to pay the consequences that result. Kanaan avoids conflict by invoking a fatalistic Hindu philosophy, believing that what will be will be. In the background, the refugees take any avenue they can to overcome their collective and individual struggles.

Judith Wilkes, Canberra political journalist, is in Malaysia to pursue the refugee ‘problem’ back to its source, or close enough. She, like her hostess, the second Lady Hobday, Minou, will make use of any lead and any contact to pursue what she is after. Whether she is chasing the story for its own sake, for her career, or for that of her about-to-be preselected husband isn’t always clear. It seems at moments that she will put more into this than into her unravelling marriage.

Canberra is a place to get things done, to make a difference, where you can access the tools that win wars. Politics is about power, and the power to pursue the things we believe are right. When Judith learns that her husband is on his way into the federal parliament, she has a moment of excitement about the possibilities:

He laughed modestly. ‘Come 1983 I’ll be Minister for … oh, I could take Immigration…’

‘No!’ Suddenly she was not in an Asian hotel room with an arrow on its ceiling pointing to Mecca, but back there in the thick of it. Jesus! She could write the policy herself. ‘No! Take Women’s Affairs! And Aborigines! Think how much good you could do for…’

In Turtle Beach D’Alpuget frequently returns to a theme of describing the colours and qualities of light —the soft greenish light of a garden, “grey refracted light” of dawn in Minou’s childhood Vietnam, the “tinselly light” of a drunken night on the town. In Canberra, that theme plays into the colours of the encircling mountains as the light changes:

The summer grasses had been bleached to straw, the purple mountains that ring the city had seemed to move closer in the harsh light

Sometimes the Brindabellas are “detached, spiky and black”, sometimes a soft lilac. I want to venture into a metaphor of the mountains around Canberra as a barrier—Judith thinks of them as a barricade—to seeing, or wanting to see, the plight of the refugees. Arriving in Malaysia, drowning off its beaches, being driven back from its shoreline by its frightened, angry villagers, living in its stinking, squalid island camps that are meant to represent refuge. I can’t help wondering how many of D’Alpuget’s largely faceless refugee families could still be waiting today in that so-called queue we keep hearing about. The one that people who arrive here by boat were supposed to be sent to the back of.

While musing on the metaphor of mountains, I came across TheBlackTwig, who introduces an account of climbing Mount Ainslie with these words:

I live in a city where the sunset bleeds deep red and yet it is beautiful…

I live in Canberra where mountains block us from the rest of the country and yet it is enlightening.

That’s it. Canberra is enlightening. Enlightened. Relatively speaking. And yet we are in many senses still cut off from the rest of the country. As I said in my review of The Tazyrik Year, to understand Canberra is not necessarily to understand the rest of Australia. We do, though, participate with much of the rest of this country in perpetuating myths and stereotypes about ‘boat people’. As Judith’s husband observes “We’re living in mean-spirited times”.


Winner, Fiction Category, 1981: Age Book of the Year

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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Women Writers

The Marmalade Files

Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann. The Marmalade Files. Fourth Estate 2012. ISBN 9780732294748.

Compare and contrast.

Canberra is freezing cold. It’s architecture is uniform and awful but is nevertheless snapped up by tasteless investors. No doubt these are the bureaucrats who were “paid to suck the marrow from the city’s soul”. It is “a city dedicated to the transient relationship”. This is what you see when you see Canberra only as a site for political warfare.

Caphs is “downbeat”, and “notorious cyclists” are hell-bent on “getting right up the noses of motorists”. These things are, sadly, true. Also true is the statement, regarding Woden, that “Most Federal MPs wouldn’t even know it’s a Canberra suburb”. Apparently most of the press gallery doesn’t know that it’s not a suburb but a district. A bit like calling the Hills or Hunter districts around Sydney suburbs. But now I’m nitpicking.

A politician in The Marmalade Files recalls Dame Pattie Menzies’ story about how she demanded of her husband better facilities for Canberra after struggling with a pram over non-existent footpaths to the Lodge. I’ve heard the story in other places, so it has the cache of either truth or legend. Our politician says that Dame Pattie lobbied Bob to give the capital “the attention it deserved.” One wonders exactly what that might mean.

Even unremitting Canberra haters like press gallery journalists can’t maintain such a level of negativity forever. Apparently Beess & Co does a latte and a Spanish omelette “decent” enough to warrant the nine minute drive from the House. Chairman and Yip is “excellent” and “discreet” if “a little pricey”. There is another “decent” offering of a blues band residency at the Press Club, and an annual film festival, on which judgement isn’t passed, but can’t be all bad since the wonderful Kimberley attends. Despite the earlier “harsh winter embrace”, we later have “one of Canberra’s finest days, the crystal-cut clarity of the sky guaranteed to lift your spirits from the depths of winter.” There are days of “uncommon beauty… that explained the allure of the bush capital.”

But there doesn’t seem to any allure here, although there is the odd grudging nod of acceptance. If the closing lines of the book can be read as a summing up, Canberra still exists merely to service the machinery of government, although that of itself isn’t a cause without nobility:

Outside, the orderly nature of the Canberra evening continued, a steady procession of public servants returning to their neat homes after another day of performing the tasks necessary to keep the Commonwealth of Australia ticking over. No more, no less.



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Filed under Contemporary Fiction, Crime & Suspense