Australian politics

Aug 4, 2011

Canberra: where coffee and politics go to die

Throughout history, cafés and coffeehouses have been instrumental in political and commercial activity. So what does it mean when you can't find good coffee in Canberra?

Crikey Intern

The next generation of Crikey journalists.

Madison Tonkes, a year 12 student in Melbourne, writes: Throughout history, cafés and coffeehouses have been instrumental in political and commercial activity. They have long been synonymous with great thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Isaac Newton and have been the hub of social and political movements.

Today’s cafés have their origins in these earlier coffeehouses, and this cosmopolitan coffee culture is something the major cities of Melbourne and Sydney have embraced.

Drinking a coffee; be it a latte, short black, a flat white or a Grande Cafe Mocha, no sugar, no whipped cream with half skim/half full milk; the whole routine is symbolic of culture and urbanity — of sophistication, and civility.

Upon a recent visit to Canberra, I was disturbed to learn that good coffee is incredibly hard to come by in our nation’s capital. And let me tell you, there’s nowhere one requires a coffee more than when one is in Canberra.

While being hauled along the various attractions that this town offers, the call of a coffee became irrepressible. It’s the only thing that could keep my eyes open during the drives around bizarrely placed ring roads, roundabouts and official state buildings.

Parliament House awaited me. The building itself is impressive, but what this magnificent building contains is anything but.

It was dispiriting to learn that such an important place — the heart of the nation if you will, where the decisions that shape Australia are made — was so lacking in spirit and enthusiasm. The hallowed halls through which we walked were hollow. Seemingly worn down by the monotony of their existence, the passion sucked out of them; and the people who filled them, the same.

After various security checks, I found myself witnessing the hilarity that is Question Time. As my peers and I sat in the public gallery, we couldn’t help but feel saddened at what unfolded before our eyes.

It’s clear parliamentarians feel the need to take action on the big issues; climate change being one of them. In doing so, they retort to repetitive queries on the taxation of petrol in lorry deliveries of fruit in a town of 220 people in regional Queensland. In fact, the debate resembled the sensation of driving through the constant barrage of roundabouts, which are peppered throughout the city.

It was comforting to know, we’re certainly in safe hands here.

After an hour or so, we decided we couldn’t take anymore of this dizzying assault on our intelligence, and went in search of a coffee within Parliament House. It turned out to be much like the political debate, weak and insipid.

Onwards to the National Portrait Gallery, where the café menu promised a macchiato. At last, a vague indication of culture and taste!

I placed my order and the waitress looked at me, bemused by the request. You’d think that to work at a café, knowledge of coffee would be a pre-requisite.

As I sat in the gallery café, with my demitasse and saucer, I couldn’t help but notice the others around me, sniggering at my order. I had to wonder if this was the only time this cup was ever used. Given the waitress’ surprised reaction to my request, I decided it was highly likely.

While the gallery staff might not have had much experience making a macchiato, the result was rather pleasing; but the price, not so much.

At almost five dollars for a relatively small coffee; culture doesn’t come cheap in Canberra and nor is it readily available.

It is a place that opts for vast, open areas of ornamental gravel and cold, unwelcoming state buildings, rather than the vivacity and soul so apparent with other Australian cities. That sense of urbanity and civility, the sophistication and intelligence that should be so prominent, was absent in the streets and institutions. Instead an IGA and various charcoal chicken outlets were all that Canberra’s central shopping district could offer.

Maybe, if the manifestation of coffee culture were to be embraced within Australia’s capital; just maybe, if we were to corral Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott into a café where the barrista knows how to prepare that highly sought after macchiato, they might leave the hubris behind and work for the good of the nation.

Maybe then, we’ll finally exit that dizzying roundabout and actually get somewhere.


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36 thoughts on “Canberra: where coffee and politics go to die

  1. Bexytea

    Madison, you’re twelve. Why do your parents let you drink espresso coffee? It’s a stimulant, and might interfere with your cognitive development and cause mental health problems. Best to wait until you’re 16 or so to start sucking those back unless you want to end up with ADHD or generalised anxiety disorder.

    I also concur with jaybean. Canberra, whilst being a fairly “boring” city for those who are not history nerds or into politics, is the hub of our National cultural institutions. There is the National Gallery, which contains some incredible pieces from other cultures and an enormous collection associated with Australia’s history, indigenous and European; the National Library of Australia contains documentation on everything you could ever think of associated with this wonderful country of ours…. I daresay there are more but I have only been there once, to visit the Gallery. My knowlege of Canberra is limited so I cannot comment on anything other than what I base on the opinions of my friends who have left there and now live in Melbourne. I also do know, however, that sometimes you have to live somewhere for a while to discover the stuff under the surface.

  2. jaybean

    BTW just out of interest Crikey, did Madison Tonker oh sorry Tonkes fail this essay project by any chance?? Just wondering….

  3. jaybean

    Oh dear Madison, perhaps they were giggling at your airheaded-ness or an unfortunate hairstyle choice for that day? Or perhaps it was the way you were dressed – first impressions are crucial, you know. Don’t worry, those sort of days happen to all of us at some stage – best just to try to learn from them.

    Anyhoo, plenty of good coffee in Canberra actually, not to mention plenty of lovely (dare I say urbane) outdoor cafes where civility and debate (political, philosophical, and social) abounds. You just have to be smart enough to be able to find them, and I fear this problem may lie at the foundation of your disppointments. Add in the sophisticated restaurants; a lively music arts scene fed by the Schools of Music and Art; an intelligent theatre scene both mainstream and fringe; and the soulful settings of the many lakes and surrounding mountain ranges; and you’ve got a city that I can’t help feeling that you, dear Madison, seem to have travelled through with your face in your phone and your ipod blocking your ears.

    Or perhaps you had your head stuck so far up your own tunnel vision that you couldn’t see past your Gucci knock-off sunglasses? Otherwise I can’t help feeling that you would have seen/heard a tad more more than you did and as a consequence have something just a tad more interesting to say.

    Top Tip for would-be observational writers dear Madison: do a bit of research on your topic, keep your eyes and ears open, and understand how your own deficiencies may be colouring your understanding of your subject. Wake up and smell the big wide world dear Madison… you’ll probably find it is much more subtle, complex and intriguing than even the many thousands of steps along the path towards producing a good cup of coffee…. and much more valuable.

  4. Wright

    I think I’m going to have to write a follow-up article to this one:

    “Crikey Website Comment Section: Where the Witty Dissection of the Quality of Political Discussion in Canberra Goes to Die”

    What I presume this article is aiming to adduce, is there is an palatable lack of vision for the political future of Australia. A lack of passion and flavour which seeps into all aspects of Canberra, including their coffee.

    While certain States in Australia such as Melbourne or Sydney, regardless of whether they are left-wing or conservativley inclined, still have a sense of political idealism about them, the very place that should be richest in motivation, the very center of political discussion, is sadly letting us down. In their attempts to say nothing too controversial, they say nothing really at all.

    As Madison says, when one politician puts forth a peice of legislation that could genuinely lead to Australia changing itself for the better, the response from a fellow politican is often some menial drivel that trivialises the entire argument and sucks the life from the discussion before it has even begun.

    There is a deeper reasoning behind politicans current lackluster conduct, but all this article seeks to do is point out to a young person, a person who perhaps is looking to better Australia’s future themselves somehow, this is hardly the awe-inspiring performance they will model their leadership techniques from.

  5. SharkTrager

    The National Library is a celebration of all great Australian and world literature, the High Court is a stately and sublime reflection of the solid and stable judicial system we enjoy, and the NGA is just magnificent – and they’re all in one street.

    If coffee’s more important, good luck in the HSC.

  6. sirjulio

    Wow, my eyes have been opened.
    Forget the countless who have been collatoral damage of the “War on terror”, the 42 million odd displaced or famine stricken citizens of dictator led ignored oil-less regimes.
    The true down-trodden of this world are the espresso-less denizens of Canberra, Australia who have never ordered a machiato with Nothingness.

  7. Jeepers

    This is, truly, one of the most vacuous articles I have ever read. Publishing this attempt at an article is akin to running an editorial whinging about a bad hair day or an inconveniently chipped nail.

    Rather than demonstrating the robust intellectualism the author expects from parliamentarians, or the cultural brilliance demanded of their waitresses, this author has dedicated a whole page to whining about their personal petty grievances. Someone truly intellectual might have taken this opportunity to engage with the political issues being broached in the nation’s parliament. Someone truly cultural might have reflected on the opportunity to visit some of Australia’s finest art and historical collections.

    But this article attempts neither. Instead, the author of this article apparently went to Canberra to try to find the culture of Melbourne. Their attitude reminds me of overseas tourists swilling beer (or coffee) in cloistered resorts, and never attempting to engage with locals or explore new cultures in the countries they visit.

  8. Andrew L

    I remember my visit to Canberra. All I could think of was the quote: “I see dead people. Walking around like regular people. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.”

  9. Dan Cass

    Good article. Is this what Ross Garnaut was referring to when he said he rejects the ‘pissant’ vision of Australia?

    Your argument is spot on; there is a cultural politics at work in our Capital, dominated as it is by coal mining philistines and a fact-free, uncivil Opposition. The roots of Aussie cringe run deep and make us weak.

    PS Ignore the Trolls hiding behind anonymity. For a 17 year old, this is excellent writing.

    PPS Check out La Cantina at Vic market: strong south American coffee, home made
    burrito, tequila…

  10. PaoloConte

    Yes, I am a bona fide addict but I find it difficult to get excited about an article which so pretentiously reflects the excitement of being 17 and having discovered “culture”.

    Also, if you’re going to make classy intellectual references to show off your book-learnin’, it pays to get them right:

    Jean-Paul Sartre

    Come on, Crikey, where’s your interpretive proofreading sea-mollusk got to?

  11. donica

    Madison will most likely be offered a regular column in The Age.

  12. takeiteasy

    Here’s another shout out to Judy @ Gods @ ANU for the best coffee this side of the black stump! More importantly, and apologies for the repetition: Girls and boys in uniform from Melbourne should not drink macchiato in public, let alone write about the experience. Shame on their teachers and editors for allowing this to happen. Coffee is generally better in Melbourne than New York, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep up the cultural cringe.

  13. B M

    I had the same experience at the Portrait Gallery. I ordered a long macchiato, and they just blanked me. I tried saying it 3 different ways, gave up and ordered a latte.

    I don’t understand it. Nearly everyone in Canberra that I met was from interstate – why hasn’t the coffee culture been transferred there?

  14. Thomas

    No good coffee at parliament house, portrait gallery or the mall? Unforgivable!
    You’re right though, the real value of our government institutions, public arts centres and market places is their provision of world class coffee for visitors.
    Next time step outside the ‘halls’ of the tourist buildings and onto Canberra’s ‘streets’. You won’t have to search so hard. Velo Republic in Kingston will change your perspective, or try the Universities, Braddon or Manuka.

  15. Blair Martin

    For bronno: Voltaire said, “I’ve been told coffee is a slow poison. Indeed this must be so. I’ve been drinking it since I was 18, I’m 65 now and I’m not dead yet.”

  16. kevrenor

    I’m with you on the hubris, but if you need to convince me that Satre and Newton drank macchiato before I’ll bite on the rest.

    And ‘lorries’?

    That peak of Australian cultural invention, McCafe. on the way home dear?

  17. Melbourne Reader

    satire |ˈsaˌtīr|
    the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

    I think most people are missing the point. I don’t think it’s about coffee

  18. lw0329

    Come on, a kid in a school uniform ordering a macchiato? It’s bound to draw a few sniggers. This whole article is one long stereotype of all that’s wrong with Melbournites and just made me cringe.

  19. Marty

    Coffee houses didn’t foment revolutionary thought because of the skill of the barista (God, I hate the deification of people who make coffee for a living), it was because in 18th and 19th century Europe, the combination of caffeine and sugar offered stimulatory properties beyond the drugs (esp. alcohol) the people were used to. There’s no longer any need to congregate in coffee shops – people do it online and (possibly sadly) seal themselves off in a cocoon of confirmatory websites.

    Crikey, I’m sure your intern is a perfectly nice and intelligent young person, but this was really not worthy of publishing on your site.

  20. JamesK

    Not only do I like a the idea of a good coffee I actually enjoy a good coffee.

    I don’t think a strawman is “so committed to his character that he hates the idea of good coffee” either but a strawman probably couldn’t enjoy a coffee, good, bad or indifferent either.

    And is michael l’s usual a half double decaffeinated half-caf soy cap, with a twist of lemon?

  21. J-D

    I used to live in Canberra and drank quite a lot of good coffee then. Most of it we made at home, though.

    Now I’ve given up coffee. And it’s quite true what Madison Tonkes says: with coffee, I have given up cosmopolitanism, culture, urbanity, sophistication, and civility. I can offer no apology. I can only hope that with the cosmopolitanism, culture, urbanity, sophistication, and civility of the true coffee-drinker, Madison Tonkes can somehow forgive me for my fall.

  22. elbaroni

    Ugh. I’m sorry, but this really annoys me. I know Canberra isn’t the most lively city in the world, but do we really need the opinion of a 17-year-old to tell us this? I live in Ainslie, within walk of at least six good cups of coffee in Dickson and at the Ainslie shops. I work in Belconnen, where there’s good coffee in my building as well as outside it.

    I’ve also paid for shitty coffee in Melbourne, served by a wanker with a crooked haircut and skinny jeans who’d rather be riding his fixie than working, but I don’t feel the need to write a screed about it.

    Guess what, Madison? Melbourne feels really small and provincial compared to London, New York, Tokyo and Beijing. I’m glad your school trip exposed you to a bit of the world beyond Brunswick St, but don’t assume you know it all.

    I’m glad your idea of culture is a cheap coffee, but once you’re allowed out without your teachers’ supervision maybe you’ll be able to find something you enjoy.

  23. Just Me

    “Coffee is a beverage. A drink. Not vital to sustenance.”

    It isn’t? You sure about that?

  24. calyptorhynchus

    I live in Canberra and I don’t drink coffee…

  25. Pedro of Canberra

    I feel for you, young Crikey Intern. I recently spent many wasted hours (and dollars) searching for a decent coffee in the fabled Silver City, and had to settle for the McCafe at Centro. Quite a contrast to Melbourne, where I once advised a prospective visitor that it didn’t matter where you were, there would be good coffee within 50 meters. Bur our nation’s capital is not a remote mining town. Surely we can do better?

    And of course, we can. And so, rather than take unnecessary umbrage at yet another whack directed at the perceived inadequacies of our nation’s capital by timid and poorly informed outsiders, I instead emphasise that, consistent with the culture that is characteristic of the existential purpose of our city, one needs to at pretend to be an insider to find good coffee in Canberra. A casual visitor to the Parliamentary Triangle and the nearest reaches of Northbourne Avenue will find it not.

    I note the couple of fine suggestions recorded by previous commenters. For my money, Group 7 in the wind-tunnelled badlands of the New Acton office precinct offers the best coffee in town. I could list 20 fine establishments within 1 km of the Post Office, and go on to list another 5 in each of Kingston/Manuka, the Inner North and Woden/Weston Creek. Not sure about Belco or Gunghalin. For a town of 300,000 souls, we don’t do too badly at all.

    So next time you are in town, take a walk around Civic or get down to Manuka. You will find what you seek.

    And while you’re at in, get down to the lake in Kingston and have yourself a Brodburger from the boys in the van. Truly world class. Mmm.

  26. michael l

    I like how JamesK is so committed to his character that he hates the idea of good coffee.

    But yeah, the city and its coffee is on the other side of the lake.

  27. JamesK

    The vile ‘hyerbowl’ doesn’t come in discrete amounts tho’…….

  28. kent Witney

    I understand your dissapointment upon viewing question time. I believe that we get the politicians we deserve.
    So to help the situation improve you need to remain engaged and engage as many others as you can.

  29. Somaya Langley

    try Lonsdale Roastery (in Braddon) or the cafe at the National Library

  30. rubiginosa

    It was three years ago, but:
    The Gods @ ANU (thanks Judy!)

  31. JamesK

    There’s a great coffee shop in the Tuggeranong Hyperdrome but, I suspect, there are too many of the little people – hot pink or orange framed muffin topped ladies and ute-driving young blokes smiling at aforesaid muffins – that even if, however unlikely it may seem, the pretentious class were actually capable of engaging in useful discussion on existential angst or Principa, they simply could not allow themselves to enjoy aforesaid coffee in such an environment, crooked little finger or not.

    Thank God it is still, however imperfectly, a government of the people and the further away it is housed from the latte sipping classes of snobbery-ridden Melbourne and shyster-filled Sydney the better for the rest of the population of both those cities and beyond.

  32. Matthew

    You know, I rather hope that the halls in parliament house, hallowed or otherwise, are hollow. It would prove extremely difficult to walk through them otherwise.

  33. bronno

    Oh Lord. Of all the things wrong with Canberra, you pick on coffee? Coffee is a beverage. A drink. Not vital to sustenance. If it is, get more sleep. I seriously do not understand this obsession people have. And yes, I have had wonderful coffee and do drink it occasionally. Do I get upset if I can’t get a cup? No. That is bordering on addiction.

  34. Wrigbe

    I have been debating whether it is unkind to point out that the poor girl never left the tourist spots and the mall (the ‘IGA and various charcoal chicken outlets’ are in the Civic Centre which is the main mall in town) . Of course she is not going to find good coffee in those places. You have to go onto the streets of the city- just like any city – to find the good cafes.
    So many people are turned off Canberra by the pollies which is amusing since they are the ones sent to Canberra by everyone else in Australia.

  35. shepherdmarilyn

    Spot on. I worked in the hell hole when it was first opened. Massive corridors, nowhere to get decent food, nowhere to get decent coffee and cold, sterile surroundings and people.

    That was back in the days of Janine Haines and the ladies shocked by wearing hot pink and orange so they could be seen on the endless white corridors.

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