“I cannot honestly say that I liked Canberra very much; it was to me a place of exile; but I soon began to realize that the decision had been taken, that Canberra was and would continue to be the capital of the nation, and that it was therefore imperative to make it a worthy capital; something that the Australian people would come to admire and respect; something that would be a focal point for national pride and sentiment. Once I had converted myself to this faith, I became an apostle …”
Thus reported the clearly underwhelmed but ultimately committed Sir Robert Menzies in the Senate Select Committee Report, ‘Development of Canberra’ (September 1955), in unenthusiastic contemplation of the task of turning Canberra from a city of little more than a bunch of grim administrative buildings, whose development had shuddered to a halt during the Second World War, into a great vibrant capital, somewhere where people would actually want to voluntarily reside, as opposed to under a kind of inconsiderate administrative duress.
Many Australians still share Menzies lukewarm and dismissive view of the capital and see the word “Canberra’ as being synonymous with ‘politics’ or ‘public servant boffins’. Perhaps, at a stretch, they may link the name of the place to the great national institutions such as Old and New Parliament Houses, the National Library and the High Court – but with little more, and rarely, to be brutally honest, with anything renowned for resonating with soul or character.
But to me, resident of this city since 1998, it IS synonymous with something else. I glimpsed it briefly in early 2001 when 10,000 Canberrans rallied in no uncertain fashion for Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC. It showed its face again in 2003 when people here pulled together in the face massive fires which caused loss of life and destruction of property. More recently, I’ve listened to the views of my fellow Canberrans on what they consider to be the great issues of our time, the environment, economics, the challenges of transitioning to sustainable living. I’m calling this elusive thing ‘Community’ and I have faith that it is still here in these tumultuous times, lurking in the background.
So I was very interested to read a story in the Canberra Times last year about kitchen table conversations initiated by the Belconnen branch of the See-Change organisation. SEE-Change is a community not-for-profit group focused on local grass roots action in Canberra, responding to concerns about the strains we place on the planet, with an emphasis on a safer, social and environmental path through practical community action.
I was sure, given my experience of Canberra and its people, that something positive would come out of this. Based on the model provided by the Victorian Womens’ Trust and utilised by the ‘Voice for Indi’ campaign which resulted in the election of independent candidate Cathy McGowan to Parliament, the conversations took place in late 2014 in the Belconnen (North Canberra) area and the results were released as a report on 24 February 2015.
But reports all too frequently just stop at being reports, so meetings were held on March 23 and 30, 2015, to workshop ways of taking the results of the conversations forward. During the second meeting, to facilitate a non-hierarchical engagement, participants were seated so that we were all facing each other, and Mark Spain, SEE-Change chair, placed a stone in the centre of the circle. Participants were invited to take the stone, introduce themselves, say what they had taken away from the previous meeting and what they were hoping to get from this one, and place the stone back in the centre of the circle when finished.
Backwards and forwards went the stone, the introductions, the reasons why people were there, and what they saw as the issues relating to genuine civic engagement.
How can we hold a space in this city for citizens to talk about things that matter?
Did you know that it is an established fact that true democracy is actually good for your health?
People are interested in the democratic process, but feel disempowered.
But citizen engagement has to start somewhere.
Last year’s Kitchen Table Conversations only scratched the surface. I feel that there are a lot more conversations to be had and a lot more to say.
How do we continue conversations and create structures that are engaging for people not currently engaged in the conversation?
What is Community?
We need to reinvent Community.
Canberra is a unique Community in lots of ways. We’re not the same as Sydney, or a place like Indi in Victoria either. Let’s explore this.
We might be able to do something that engages not just 180 people but 200,000.
How DO we get these conversations to the 200,000?
How do we empower our leaders?
How do we empower ourselves?
We want a better world for our grandkids.
Where to next?
There are a few things to look forward to, which will hopefully ensure that these comments, questions and concerns don’t just linger in the air and ultimately waft away in the breeze. SEE-Change intends to hold three public meetings across Canberra in the next twelve months on how Kitchen Table Conversations work, how to get involved, and how to be a host. Meeting outcomes and notes will then be available on the SEE-Change website, with possibly a public meeting to follow. If any group wants to conduct its own Kitchen Table Conversation process, SEE-Change will help. In the meantime, the discussions on civic engagement will continue.
There’s something else planned in the near future, which intrigues me given my interest in sustainable urban living. SEE-Change will also launch Canberra Transition on May 5, 2015 and host two large participative engagement workshops per year for any and all groups and individuals interested in learning and innovating collaboratively together for large system transformation.
Here’s to the future of the Canberra community Mr Menzies would never have envisaged in 1955 when he contemplated our evolution as a city.