In the final days before the federal election was called, the new South Australian Premier Peter Malinauskas came to Canberra to deliver a blistering National Press Club address. One seasoned journalist described the speech as Obama-esque.
While Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese criss-crossed the country visiting the states to make local announcements in the then faux-election campaign, a state premier came to Canberra to deliver national big picture vision.
Malinauskas spoke of the future. He detailed the hard economic challenges facing Australia and how we can set about solving them. He discussed the need to think about how better investment in preschool now will deliver in 2040. To top it off he provided an inspirational view of how Australia could and should be much more generous in its approach to refugee resettlement.
It was the type of speech to make you believe in politics again. And it was delivered in Canberra where such speeches should be made.
But increasingly that is not happening. Canberra is outsourcing itself.
The South Australian Premier got a great laugh during his speech when he had a dig at the National Press Club itself for allowing NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet to address the press club not in Canberra, but from Sydney.
In contrast, Malinauskas was seemingly pleased to come to Canberra. He proudly posted himself on social media during his morning run in between the old and new parliament houses. He came to the country’s capital to speak on the national stage. Meanwhile, the National Press Club has had to relocate its whole operation to Sydney from time-to-time so as to secure high-profile Sydney identities like the NSW Premier. And you can understand why – the press club presumably wants the best national figures on its platform and too often Sydneysiders think they run the show.
Canberra – our institutions and we who reside here – need to stand up for ourselves. This goes for the media too. None of the ABC’s or SBS’s national current affairs programs have traditionally been broadcast out of Canberra, notwithstanding the cut-through insights of broadcasters like Laura Tingle, Andrew Probyn and Anna Henderson, direct from Parliament House.
Even the Insiders program – a show specifically and exclusively about national politics – is not broadcast from Canberra. We have had the situation where the show’s new host actually moved from Canberra to take up his role. Of course, there are individual circumstances to take into account from time-to-time and some current affairs news presenters being based further afield, for example in Tasmania, is indeed a good thing. But Canberra should not suffer at the expense of the Melbourne/Sydney power axis.
There are great reporters based in the Parliament House Press Gallery, but the national broadcaster could do more to cement Canberra as the home of national current affairs.
Canberra, as the capital and home of the federal parliament, is the glue that binds our democracy together. However, that requires more than just fly-in-fly-out parliamentary sittings. The collection of public servants, journalists, diplomats, researchers and indeed think-tank specialists based in the capital, builds a robust ecosystem that is the ballast in our federated democracy.
One of the pandemic induced transformations of Australian politics over the last two years has been the renewed role and authority of state premiers. Once largely unknown outside their own states, they have become national players through the pandemic. It was the premiers’ press conferences that the public tuned into each day during the height of the crisis and their status was elevated through the National Cabinet.
Whether such a dynamic will last is not clear, but what is clear is that if it helps elevates leaders like Malinauskas that will be a good thing.
Canberra, the physical embodiment of the federation, is the one place where the states are all equal. It can and should serve as the place that state leaders can make positive national constructive interventions. Indeed, that was one of the most refreshing parts of the Malinauskas speech – he specifically left his parochial claims and concerns at the door. Coming to Canberra better allowed him to do this.
Australia’s democratic institutions need to stand up for Canberra too. Not just for the sake of this city, but for the good of the country. The Australian Electoral Commission should not have so easily abandoned the ritual of the national election night tally room. As a country and a city we should have resisted the commercial TV pressures to close it down.
The organisation I work for, the Australia Institute, is one of the few think-tanks based in Canberra. In other countries it would be shocking if a think-tank was not based in the capital, but here it is rare.
Even the Prime Minister does not live here. Scott Morrison had to fly to Canberra to call the election with the trip down Dunrossil Drive to see the Governor-General at Yarralumla. It is an important Australian democratic spectacle – but how much better it would have been if the Prime Minister had come from the Lodge, rather than Sydney? It is time the Prime Minister lived in Canberra full-time in the residence that was designed just for that.
Canberra could also do better in promoting and honouring our special guests. More could be made of visiting state dignitaries, for example. It was illuminating to have a bit of South Australia in Canberra for the day when Mr Malinauskas was in the territory, but seemingly no effort was made from the host city or Canberra’s local media to showcase the South Australian state. The Premier honoured Canberra but we did not honour his state as well as we could have.
Our democracy is fragile. Trust in politics has been on the slide. Australia is not immune from global forces that are seeing a decline in democratic norms and a loss of belief in democracy itself. Canberra is the democratic heart of Australia. Let’s keep it healthy and beating strongly in all its manifestations.