Australian Diary: March, 2017

WEEK ONE – 13 March, 2017.

In total the trip from Montreal took more than 30 hours. It was supposed to take 24, or thereabouts. The last leg of our flight was delayed, the shortest part, from Brisbane to Canberra. But we were fine in the end, wiping away the sleepiness with unencumbered expectancy. Our gracious host, a co-worker of Candace’s, picked us up from the airport and settled us in her home quickly and quietly. There we assumed a place among the many others staying with her – her twin adult daughters and their partners, as well as her brother, there to help her settle her deceased mother’s estate and fix up the family home to sell.

We lost a day in flight, but we also left behind the Canadian cold: from -25 to +25 degrees Celsius. With that change came much sunnier days, even though it’s Autumn here. Out came the t-shirts, shorts, and skirts, discarded were the coats, sweaters, and scarfs. Canberra, by comparison with Montreal, is a dry-as-dust. Mercifully, at night the temperature cools off. A 30-degree day imperceptibly becomes as 15-degree night. Even the shade presents a welcome break from the direct sun and its sharp rays. And this isn’t even tropical Australia. As Canadians fleeing winter, we’ll take it.

At the moment it appears there is a shortage of property available to buy or rent in Canberra. It seems, from a quick glance at the news, that housing affordability is a local, state, and national issue of first political importance. Rapid population growth in recent years, due in the main to immigration, and directed primarily towards urban centres such as Brisbane and Sydney, has put great pressure on the housing market. Combined with a changing economic strategy on the part of the government with respect to encouraging property ownership over the past 20 to 30 years (or so an article from The Monthly informs me), this has led to skyrocketing prices in urban centres. When Candace and I went to our second apartment viewing here in Canberra, there were more than 20 people in the space at the same time as us, with over 30 more waiting their turn to examine the property afterwards. This is a government town of about 400,000 people, home to several universities. Even so, housing prices can be shockingly high, the demand exceedingly great.

Sitting on the dock in central Canberra with our feet dangling close to the water, facing Lake Burley Griffin, we saw our first black swan. It coasted slowly in the bright moonlight, appropriate enough since the city’s Enlighten festival was in full swing. But the swan was a little too far off to see clearly. Still, it was fantastic even in outline, a shadowy silhouette floating gently on silvery black water. Other animal sightings have included late-night kangaroo crossings, as well as countless encounters with common birds: parrots, cockatoos (which frequently make a very loud, grating screech), Australian Ravens, Australian Magpies, and Galahs. So far no dreaded hunstman spiders or brown snakes.

Politics here sounds some lamentably familiar themes. Two days ago there was an election in the state of Western Australia. As elsewhere in the world, Australia has a seen renewed expression of far-right politics. Here it’s called the One Nation Party. The name, quite obviously, says a lot. Given the above-mentioned levels of immigration from non-Anglo societies, it’s not hard to imagine why settler nationalism has reared its ugly head. Though it appears One Nation has made a series of tactical blunders in the case of the Western Australia elections, while the federal party leader and founder, Pauline Hanson, hurt her party’s cause with a series of internal party scandals and a week of terrible interviews. In one she seemed to countenance the concerns of anti-vaccinators, quickly back-peddling in the days that followed. Clearly Australia is not alone in witnessing such phenomenon. In recent weeks Canada has seen settler values – Kellie Leitch and co. – vaunted in the leadership race for the Conservative Party, not to mention a Conservative Senator who spoke in misguided defense of the residential school programme.

Today is Canberra Day, a holiday in the capital city. On Tuesday apartment-hunting continues.

WEEK TWO – 20 March, 2017.

Our bus commutes in Canberra are regularly one hour long, each way. Walking for kilometers, standing next to dozens of others, trying to find a bit of shade: such has been our fate as we’ve tried to get an apartment. We have a spreadsheet with something close to 30 possibilities. Thankfully, as of today (March 16), that appears to be over and done with. It still seems incredible how great the demand for living space is here in Canberra. While there was occasionally an older, mature couple at the apartment viewings I attended, the majority were either young professionals in their 20s, or students around the same age. I’ve attended several apartment inspections, as they’re called, with the same sets of people, frequently striking up conversations. Most, like me, are a little confused by the intensity of the market. But then again many of those looking at apartments aren’t from Canberra either – they’re from India, China, or elsewhere in Australia.

The bookstores I’ve managed to visit here have been a little disappointing. I would have thought it would be easier to find a copy of Patrick White’s The Vivisector or Voss, for instance. I asked at three separate places, including a bargain bin and a carefully curated bookstore. Of course they were willing to order it for me. The threat of Amazon looms in Australia, with Jeff Bezos’ headshot frequently appearing on news websites. Also noticeably absent from many bookstores are any literary, cultural, or political magazines. I’ve also checked the newspaper and convenience stores, while filling up my bus pass, but to no avail. Many have a robust range of daily newspapers, domestic and foreign. But The Monthly or Meanjin? Nope. A magazine dedicated to tattooed motorcyclists? Sure. I was hoping to buy a copy of something like The Monthly to see if it might make sense to subscribe for the year we’re here. (Update: I went with The Saturday Paper instead.) I don’t really want to purchase too many books while I’m here in Australia, for the obvious reason that I won’t be able to bring too many of them back. So with reading it’s a bit of a waiting game. In order to get a membership at the city library I need to have some mail, showing my permanent address. For now I’ve started the long, slow, and frequently-delayed process of reading Jean Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion in its entirety.

WEEK THREE – 27 March, 2017.

While Montreal gets the occasional thunderstorm, Canberra reminds me much more of living on the Canadian prairies. Warm air meets cold, and the result is often breathtaking. And again, unlike Montreal, the rain brings relief from sweltering heat. Over the course of two days this week we witnessed two intense storms, lightning cracking open the night sky, thunder rolling like a bowling ball through the surrounding valleys. The Canberra Times even ran a story warning of potential flash floods. Sydney saw so much rain that snakes were being found in unusual places – indoors, in homes and office buildings.

Settling in to our new apartment has meant spending far too much time in the local shopping mall. But the mall is the nearest place to get groceries and some of the things we needed to make our apartment liveable, such as garbage cans and new linens. Canberra is a planned city, designed by an American architect called Walter Burley Griffin, with no single downtown to speak of. There is a commercial and business district, the “CBD” as Australians say, but it is relatively small. Instead the city is organized into a series of districts, each with several suburbs. Canberra is a complex set of hubs and spokes, with few straight roads to speak of. We now live in the Belconnen district, within which is Bruce, our suburb. Each district has a similar range of amenities, including small shops, a commercial area, and a shopping area. We have to do our shopping in our district’s main shopping mall, where most districts have their supermarkets. Thankfully, a bus comes along our street, which takes us right to the shopping area, and the bike ride is about 20 minutes.

If I can hazard an over-generalization, I would say that the pace of life in Canberra, as in Australia generally, seems a bit slower, more relaxed than in Canada. Though perhaps that’s just my experience of the difference between a big city like Montreal, and a smaller, suburban city like Canberra. As I’ve said to Candace repeatedly, Canberra feels a lot like where I grew up: Red Deer, Alberta. The slower pace of life, if that’s what it is, has obvious upsides and downsides. One upside, to me at least, would be that those who work on weekends get paid more. Such is the case still in Australia. I have vague memories of the first time the mall was open on Sundays in Red Deer (the early 90s?) and my parents’ disapproval. At the moment the policy of paying weekend-workers more, called “penalty rates”, is being hotly debated in Australia. Is it a good policy? Well, good for whom, exactly? Is it good for the workers, the owners, or the consumers? In our attempt to settle in our new apartment as quickly as possible, the shorter workday hours (most stores close around 5pm), including weekends (many places are closed on Sunday, or are open for shorter hours), caused Candace and I some minor inconveniences. But I’m willing to live with that, given that workers in our neoliberal age get the short end of the stick more often than not. And anyways the priorities of consumers is not a useful standalone metric, however much it might serve the slick speeches of politicians and plutocrats.

Since 1999, March 21st has been Harmony Day in Australia. As the name suggests, it’s a day dedicated to promoting cultural diversity and tolerance. And yet this week saw attempts by the current Liberal* government of Malcolm Turnbull to alter the language of a section of the Racial Discrimination Act. Turnbull, who has faced resistance over this attempted change within his own party, and after repeated statements that he intended no such changes in recent weeks, wants to “clarify” the Act’s language. To do so he wants to replace the words “insult”, “offend”, and “humiliate” in section 18C of the Act with the word “harass”. Allegedly this will make legal proceedings more timely and just. To judge by the tv and newspaper coverage, however, most leaders for minority groups in Australia have deplored the changes. No one can be too surprised that Rupert Murdoch’s papers (such as The Australian) have championed the move as strengthening “free speech”.

*Liberals in Australia would be Conservatives in Canada.

Sign up to my occasional newsletter. Quality writing and photography that won't flood your inbox.


Sign up to my occasional newsletter. Quality writing and photography that won't flood your inbox.