Like most major national capital precincts around the world, Canberra, too, has that geometrically clinical, imperiously distant quality about it. The straight and wide avenues that connect the centres and symbols of power, the manicured gardens and artificial water bodies that structure the agoras seem carefully designed to overawe, employing the scale, immensity and grandeur to convey in no uncertain terms the collective greatness of the people of the country and its place in the scheme of things in the modern world. Australia’s capital turns 100 next year.
Australia’s billion dollar parliamentary complex in the capital’s heart is undoubtedly one of the finest modern buildings anywhere. It is a fitting symbol of the country’s enviable successes in so many diverse fields. But unlike such building complexes around the world, Australia’s seems strangely welcoming and accessible. The security is minimal and unobtrusive – the corridors of power are not guarded by gun toting soldiers or slick, prying plainclothes security personnel – admittedly though, the houses aren’t in session during my visit. There don’t seem to be any no go areas and the guided tour is excellent.
Among details of the workings of Australia’s bicameral parliamentary systems, the articulate guide lets us in on many interesting tidbits about the building and the precinct. One of these creates little eddies of excitement in the group: There’s free wifi in the building. People reach out for their smartphones and are clicking away.
Kilroy was here
It’s too hard to resist the mobile, digital version of ‘Kilroy was here’ – especially when you don’t have to pay eye-watering data roaming charges. How very easy it has become to let the whole world know of what you’re up to – even if you are at one of the most politically sensitive places in a country. All you need is a little device. And, of course, a network to transmit.
Which, on an entirely different level, worries countries like America and Australia. Both are extremely wary of doing business with Chinese networking giant Huawei. Both want to block its multi billion dollar plans to join local partners to build broadband networks in their countries. Their fears seem to border on paranoia. But on the other hand, those fears might be justified. We don’t know yet. It’s as though both Australia and America want to build the Great Wall of China in their own countries to keep Huawei out. Huawei, in this modern version of trade warfare, has employed some very high profile people to fly its flag. For instance, former Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer is a director in its Australian arm and champions its cause in the country.
But none of those fears come in the way of my posting a couple of pictures instantaneously on my Facebook page. Within minutes, friends from halfway across the globe are laughingly joining the dots between my visit to the Australian parliament and Julia Gillard’s now famous ‘trip’ in New Delhi just the previous day.
The Australian Prime Minister’s accidental stumble and fall on her way to an official engagement in the Indian capital is somewhat symbolic of the stumble in the relationship between the two countries after the spate of bashings that left several Indian students in Australia injured and even a couple of them dead last year. The incidents have apparently seen a big drop in the number of students from India coming into Australia for tertiary studies and technical qualifications, causing a dent in that significant revenue stream. Then there has been the uncertainty around the supply of uranium ore for India’s huge nuclear power generation programme.
But Gillard has played her cards well. She has aimed well to find India’s soft spot and announced during last month’s trip that Indian cricketing legend Sachin Tendulkar will be presented with the Order of Australia. While this has sent positive vibes throughout Tendulkar’s considerable fan world, not all Australians have been impressed. And in all probability that’s not because Tendulkar is not Australian. It is because it is hard not to dub the move a political stunt to mollify the 400 million strong Indian middle class and its huge buying power. There is little doubt that the gesture will go some way in mending perceptions in India. Whether that translates to runs on the board as regards fresh waves of students coming in remains to be seen. Time will tell if Gillard hit a six or just played the ball for no run.
Scribes no more
We catch up with Ed, one of my former students at the University of the South Pacific’s Journalism Programme. Ed lives with his wife in Canberra. As it happens, like many of my former journalism students, Ed isn’t a journalist anymore. We discuss the old times over some delectable Thai food. Thanks to social networking most of Ed’s class is in touch with one another despite a decade that separates them. And within seconds, thanks to it again, they know we’re having dinner in Canberra. Almost none of that batch is in journalistic jobs, Ed tells me.
Being a scribe doesn’t pay anymore. It’s a great stepping stone to other far better paying communication jobs, though – especially in the government and development sectors. So a great number of my former students are spinning tales for their employers for our consumption through the media and getting paid much more than they would have had they stuck to reporting on stuff like what goes on in places like the splendid building I visited that morning.
We discuss how the big Australian media houses have been culling journalists for a while now and how newsgathering and reporting are changing because of social media propelled so-called citizen journalism. Coincidentally, one of the big headlines of that day is that one of the world’s high profile newsweeklies, Newsweek, is to cease production of its print edition and will be available purely in the digital format. How exactly the Fourth Estate will eke out a survival from an increasingly digital world is pretty much up in the air right now but there is no doubt that some sort of revenue model will emerge at some stage.
Ed and his wife are just back from a month in Burma, which is where he comes from. Burma has opened up in the past couple of years and its most visible face, Aung San Suu Kyi, has begun travelling the world and is being feted by hordes of admirers and world leaders alike everywhere she goes. She’s a great symbol for the sea change that promises to sweep the country, despite the ongoing ethnic clashes that are being reported over the past several months. Ed strongly reckons adding Burma or Myanmar to my bucket list is a great idea. It’s absolutely fascinating he and his wife say proudly.
I hope to visit sometime soon and look forward to writing a Yangon Diary sooner rather than later.
First appeared in Islands Business, November 2012