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Who first coined the term 'The Bush Capital'?

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One look at Canberra's nature reserves and surrounding mountain ranges shows why "The Bush Capital" is a fitting description.

Canberrans even voted for it to be the territory's new numberplate slogan.

But Curious Canberran David Osborn wonders whether the phrase was originally meant as a backhanded compliment.

"As if 'the bush capital' was akin to the term of a bush lawyer — the capital you have when it's not really a capital."

He's always wondered about its origins, especially after he pursued a career in environmental science.

To find an answer, we went back to the city's roots and met a new Canberran who's reclaiming the term.

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Popping up in the papers

'The Bush Capital' published in the Age on August 24, 1903
'The Bush Capital' published in the Age on August 24, 1903

National Library of Australia

In the early 1900s, an "anti-bush-capital movement" was born.

It grew out of a section in the Constitution that required the national capital to be established in New South Wales, and at least 100 miles from Sydney.

The 100-mile radius covered not much more than paddocks and scrubland. That's something landscape architect Dianne Firth says didn't exactly please the politicians of the day, who were sitting temporarily in Melbourne.

Article titled 'anti-bush capital movement', dated August 18, 1903, published in North Western Advocate and Emu Bay Times
An article, dated August 18, 1903, appeared in the North Western Advocate and Emu Bay Times.

Supplied: National Library of Australia

"In 1903, the Government got together a commission to find the best place for what would be the 'bush capital', and that's when the pooh-poohing of the idea started entering the media," she said.

But it's not clear whether they or journalists coined the specific term.

Ms Firth said negative media coverage continued even after Canberra was legislated as the nation's capital in 1911.

"There is this joke about all these fancy people meeting on this dry, grassy, blowfly-ridden, windy site for our new Parliament House," she said.

Pride is born

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By the time Walter Burley Griffin revealed his prize-winning plan for Canberra in 1912, political bitterness was beginning to wane.

"Senator's Pride in the 'Bush Capital'" headlined an article in The Age, dated November 4 of the same year.

It went on to quote a NSW senator:

"Canberra has been derided as the bush capital."

"I do not regard it as a name of reproach."

"Anyone who does not love the bush is not a true Australian."

"If it means a place of gum trees, then let us have the bush."

The Territory Plan later embraced this message — preserving all the native trees and open grasslands in and around Canberra.

Jessica Friedmann with her husband and child on a coastal holiday.
Jessica Friedmann with her husband and child on a coastal holiday.

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Ms Firth said that by the mid-1950s, politicians and residents were largely committed to this plan.

"You start to see at this time a change, a pride developing," she said.

Despite this change of heart, Ms Firth admits that Canberra will always be "knocked" by bigger cities like Sydney and Melbourne, for being a big suburb surrounded by bush.

Jess has heard a lot of Canberra bashing, but none relating to its "bush capital" status.
Jess has heard a lot of Canberra bashing, but none relating to its "bush capital" status.

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Reclaiming the phrase

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But not all Melbournians feel this way.

Writer Jessica Friedmann started an Instagram account called "bush_capital" after moving from Melbourne to Canberra in December.

The name wasn't tongue-in-cheek.

"I really wanted to get out and get to know the city ... and most of what was around me to photograph is scrub and bush," she said.

"I think it is a sweet name ... also, it was available."

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She'd never heard the term "bush capital" used disparagingly, even from those who'd made slurs about the city when she revealed her plans to move.

"There's a lot of talk about how it's getting a bit more hip — there's great coffee shops, great galleries, it has changed its image — but what's really nice is that it is still quite daggy and that's very appealing.

"There's a sense of not wanting things to be different and enduring the insults in good humour because there's so much to like about living in Canberra."

Our questioner, David, wasn't surprised to learn the original intent of the "bush capital" phrase. But he was happy about one thing.

"It's meant to be a criticism, but Canberrans have said 'we are going to embrace this and turn it around and celebrate the fact that we are the bush capital'."

Who asked the question?

Curious Canberran David Osborn
Curious Canberran David Osborn.

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David Osborn, a born and bred Canberran, has long been interested and appreciative of nature.

He gained an environmental science and environmental law degree in Canberra, which kickstarted a career that has taken him to Monaco, where he works for the International Atomic Energy Agency.

"I probably will return [to Canberra]," he said.

"I refer to it as my boomerang town — I've gone away and come back many times."