Sunday, March 11, 2012

Thirty hours in Canberra

I had reason to travel to Canberra on Friday and Saturday, a fleeting visit, but necessary. Reactions from near and far really didn't vary. It was the usual derisory stuff--why would you go there? And while Canberra doesn't need me to stick up for it, Canberra is actually one of my favourite places to be. My other favourite cities are Tokyo and Washington DC--seems like policy wonk heaven, but it probably has to do with being a political scientist and observing what makes the decision-makers tick. 

I've been to-ing and fro-ing to Canberra since my exploratory postgraduate fieldwork days in the late 1980s. I've lived there (1990-91), FIFO'd there for two and half years as a staffer and my most recent extended sojourn was three months in 2010 as a Harold White Fellow at the National Library. I've otherwise travelled there two or three times a year for conferences, research, meetings with colleagues and other matters. This visit fortunately coincided with a couple of great exhibitions and 'Enlighten Canberra', a display of fantastic lighting with selected buildings as canvas. Clever, creative, thought-provoking. Some reflections: 

Reflection in the water feature in front of the National Library

When I have the time, I like to wander through Old Parliament House. As one who spent time in the newer one further up the hill, OPH never ceases to amaze me that so much went on there, in spaces so comparatively small. The in-situ displays there are worth seeing, for anyone who cares about our democracy and our politics. (See, there is more than mere travelogue about this post.) I was actually living overseas by the time the OPH closed and everyone moved up the hill, but some of the rooms, left just as they were on the last day, give you a sense of how things must have been. 
OPH as canvas: Enlighten Canberra 9 March 2012

I was also there in time to see the National Library's 'Handwritten' exhibition, with several examples of original handwritten manuscripts of scientists, philosophers, musicians and others. The pieces were on loan from Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin. To teach the work of Machiavelli, Kant and Marx is one thing; to see something they wrote, in their time, is quite another. Kant's handwriting, for example, is so small and neat... There was a subtle and understated elegance and depth of scholarship about the NLA exhibition that I think we have lost in the era of the 'look-at-me, look-at-me' blockbusters held at art galleries. I also wondered what a manuscript collection of the future might look like. Almost all of us work in digital or electronic forms now. A change of mind on a manuscript is now taken care of courtesy of the 'delete' key, the first thought lost in cyberspace. A draft manuscript covered in red and blue pencil is a thing to behold; the pencil marks of the author on a typed page invite the observer to step into their thoughts, reflect on the development of their thinking. It adds an understanding to our thinking, I think. 

The primary purpose of my visit was to take time out to re-engineer the final draft of a manuscript of my own. It is my contribution to understanding ways in which the Asia-Pacific might work together in the future. In the book, I propose an East Asia security community, and in its earliest iteration the proposal centred on the strengths of the Japan-Australia relationship and how that might extend beyond the merely bilateral. The key players are in Tokyo, Washington, Beijing and Canberra. The editor (of an international publishing house) was somewhat reluctant that Australia and Japan should provide the foundation. Could I perhaps make the idea work with a little less Australia and a bit more of what is marketable in the international relations field, he suggested. So, I've been working on that, as a nervous first-time author and not yet in a position to write the books I think should be written. 

But, thirty hours in Canberra has changed that. I'm going back to my first principles as it were. In my proposal, the Australia-Japan relationship is quite critical to the foundation and development of a security community in the Asia-Pacific. The proposal is built on trust and confidence; how could I really write a book that wasn't based on an honest appraisal of what might be possible, rather than what might be marketable. 

Yes, Canberra has that effect on me. It is where I came to understand what people will do for 'whatever it takes'. I came away from that time saying we can do it better. In Canberra, in Tokyo, in Washington DC, places where these decisions are made, we can do it better, we must do it better. We are the polity and the polity must work from first principles of trust and confidence. Sometimes, it takes the red and the blue pencils, and a handwritten note from Kant, to remind us of the things that matter.

A couple of gents on an evening stroll.
Thanks Canberra. I'll be back soon.                                       

Just spectacular. Questacon, a gift from the Japanese
government to Australia for 1988. 

All photos taken by Donna Weeks, 9 March 2012