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Canberra's Border Wars

Nichole Overall is a Queanbeyan-based journalist, author and social historian.

“So long as the federal capital was in NSW ... I will give the Federal Parliament the whole range of NSW to choose the best bit of it.”

So promised NSW Premier George Reid (1894 to 1899) in order to secure the glittering prize of the new national capital for his state.

As it turned out, that “best bit” of 910 square miles was, along with the traditional heartland of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, from 1838, the Land District of Queanbeyan (yep, not kidding). In 1909 it was kindly handed over so that the Federal Territory might be established.

Those borders though, were being eyed off from the outset.

Nothing gets a Queanbeyanite's goat quite like having their hometown referred to as a “dormitory suburb” (aka “bedroom community”) of Canberra – a place where they simply come to sleep after a hard day's work/shopping/socialising in the “big city”. Similarly, when they find their addresses stamped “Queanbeyan, ACT”. 

Prominent citizens of the matriarch NSW town were responsible for seeing the capital located in the backyard of their borough. Displaying the foresight of Nostradamus when it came to future opportunity were such clever chaps as “wheat wizard” William Farrer, who saved the crops and hence the country, and a press man partial to purple prose, John Gale. But the township itself was never part of the deal.

Nonetheless, it found itself on the wrong side of the fence. Quicker than a reversed political decision after a Newspoll, a 1911 referendum put paid to the unthinkable notion, thoroughly backed by the NSW government of the day (although, Oaks Estate was generously sacrificed). It may come as a surprise that Queanbeyan was exceptionally valuable to those state coffers, having been “one of the wealthiest districts in the colony” (yep, not kidding).

Truth is, for almost its first 50 years, Canberra was virtually the western suburbs of Queanbeyan. Work and sleep in the Territory they did, but for everything else, it was off down the road to Qtown. 

Shops that stayed open on Saturdays, a choice of cinemas to watch Humphrey send Ingrid on her way (once there were two), sporting masterclasses, and of course, pubs.  On this count, no less than five at any given time (with a nod to that bloke King O'Malley who as Home Affairs Minister didn't win a whole lot of Canberra friends by ensuring they were without a drink there for 17 years).

The politicians were awake to the attraction of life over the border from the earliest days - they drank there too (except O'Malley, obviously). Long before Jerrabomberra and Googong with their lower rates and more affordable housing would entice ACT residents eastward (overlooking that some in those areas apparently enjoy seeing them as “pseudo-suburbs” of Canberra), there were moves to dissuade border-crossings. Workmen who stayed put were given job preference and the Commonwealth considerately gave houses to the married ones.

While much fuss was made of Canberra turning 100 back in 2013, effectively the city is 61 years old, because it was only from 1958 that it finally began to resemble more than “a couple of suburbs in search of a city”. 

Under the guidance of the inaugural chief of the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC), the first generation of Overall in these parts, Sir John, Canberra suddenly had roads and schools and housing and sewerage (seriously) – and much cause for optimism: in just eight years there were finally more residents than sheep (an almost threefold increase).

As the capital in the bush burgeoned, the Commission reached a cross-roads: intensify densities or “extend the fringes of Canberra … to preserve the open character of the city”? It was the latter, and “fringes” would eventually be seen as interchangeable with “borders”.

Come 1973, with projections population would hit 400,000 in just over a decade (it wouldn't), the NCDC began to wonder if they could be pushed back just that little further. Only 1500 square miles or so mind you – or almost double the original allotment.

On that occasion, the scheme focused northwards – not a direct salvo Queanbeyan-side. People though were jittery again, concerned it'd be seen as a natural progression. Having already lost a bit of its own character in attempting to emulate Canberra's hipness, it slowly dawned on the smaller, now city (1972), that it needed to better embrace its individuality, or die trying. Literally.

In doing so, it would have to deal with physical short-comings too (it was one of the smallest Local Government Areas in the state in this respect) and there would be later cross-border argy-bargy when plans for the ACT as a full-scale aviation destination came into play.

Now its Yass suffering a “border personality crisis” as proposed Territory developments march ever closer to its northern flank. In response, its Council has drawn the battlelines – a proposed 20-year no-development, five kilometre buffer between the two. At this point supported by the ACT, but not all local landowners or the NSW Government (seemingly a little less “protectionist” than a century-odd ago).

Among Council's concerns, preserving “the separate identities of Yass and Canberra.” 

For some it seems there's that niggly idea the ACT will eventually opt for a “bit of a boundary adjustment” and resume the land anyway. Others are apparently of the view it's a logical step for further expansion in that direction.

As Canberra moves towards its aspiration of a magic million, its landmass is not miraculously going to double in size.

So then, where do we go from here? An escalation in border wars; perhaps talk of a hard border? Or a Vader-like Canberra Empire?

In some ways, in the past and now, the advantages of a singular entity might outweigh the calls to independence. For example, at least one public transport option that allows for direct travel from the far north of the region to the far east (that idea of Walter B. Griffin's for just such a train line got short shrift early).

From an historic perspective though, more likely palatable will be the continued cultivation of an even more symbiotic relationship (not the parasitic kind) between all the nearest and dearest.

One of the reasons this area is the “best bit” of a once whole state is thanks to its diversity, where you can party like its 1899 in Braidwood, experience Queanbeyan as multicultural mecca, check out Yass or Michelago to see how that sheep's back shaped us. All literally within an afternoon's drive.

At the heart of it is our still fresh-faced capital, with its monuments and institutions of national significance, its artfully cultivated public spaces and its stunning setting.

Author: Nichole Overall

Image credit; ABC

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