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For over 20,000 years the Ngunnawal Aboriginal people made this country their home. Nomadic by necessity, the seasonal abundance of foods, such as the yam daisies of the plains and the Bogong moths of the high country, precipitated occasional large gatherings of people, and ‘Canberra’ or ‘Kanberra’ is believed to be an Aboriginal term for ‘meeting place’.

European settlement began in the 1820s and many Ngunnawal people ended up working on expansive sheep stations. Despite years of persecution, introduced diseases, official disregard and massive environmental change, the Ngunnawal have endured and have increased their profile in recent years.

When Australia’s separate colonies were federated in 1901 and became states, the decision to build a national capital was written into the constitution. In 1908 the site was selected, and in 1911 the Commonwealth government created the Federal Capital Territory (changed to the Australian Capital Territory in 1938).

Canberra took over from Melbourne as the seat of national government in 1927, but the city’s expansion really got under way after WWII – in the next decade the population trebled to 39,000.

The western and southern outskirts of the city were struck by devastating bushfires in January 2003. The fires claimed four lives, 530 homes, 30 farms and the historic Mt Stromlo Observatory, and decimated large swaths of Namadgi National Park. Almost all of the 5500 hectares of Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, including most wildlife, were destroyed. The regeneration of the fire-scorched landscape, however, began quickly and the area is well worth exploring.

Humorists of the House

To look at them, Australia’s politicians seem a respectable enough bunch, but a close examination of the parliamentary debating record tells a different tale. There it says the senate is made up of ‘unrepresentative swine’, the opposition are a pack of ‘dullards, mugs and scumbags’, while the government is a ‘conga line of suck-holes’.

Debate in Canberra’s parliament can be heated indeed. Australia inherited its system of government from England, and along with it the daily spectacle known as Question Time. The idea is that the members ask questions of one another, illuminating for both the press gallery and the public the policies of the day. But a good day is when the political jousting switches to vaudeville and insults fly, roars of indignation rise up from the opposite benches, and the house – often known as the ‘bear pit’ – is on fire.

When William McMahon (prime minister 1971–72) bemoaned, ‘Sometimes I am my own worst enemy’, his opposite number, conservative James Killen, shot back, ‘Not while I’m here you’re not’.

Conservative Peter Costello (treasurer 1996–2007) addressed his colleagues thus: ‘Let me remind the very voluble Leader of the Opposition, “The Skipper”, and his crew on Gilligan’s Island over there…’

Not even the press gallery is immune from attack. ‘In my experience,’ declared James Killen of one hack, ‘that journalist could not be relied upon to report accurately a minute’s silence.’

The Labor Party’s Paul Keating (prime minister 1991–96) was perhaps the undisputed master of the one-liner. ‘Howard will wear his leadership like a crown of thorns, and in the parliament I’ll do everything to crucify him’, he warned the then-member of the Opposition, John Howard (prime minister 1996–2007). Keating meant what he said, greeting Howard with ‘Come in, sucker’, and accusing him of ‘slithering out of the Cabinet room like a mangy maggot’.

Howard’s predecessors did even worse, with Keating calling one ‘a gutless spiv’, while declaring that debating another was ‘like being flogged with a warm lettuce’.

While those on the other side of politics may prefer to find him entirely unfunny, Keating’s lines were so legendary that they became the basis for a successful stage show, Keating! The Musical.

These days, things are a little less colourful. His colleagues have labelled the current PM, Kevin Rudd, a ‘toxic bore in the parliament’, but his deputy, Julia Gillard, is quite spicy, referring to the Opposition as ‘a hopeless rabble and a joke’ and describing one member as a ‘mincing poodle’.