It had been almost a year since I last visited Canberra.
With state and territory borders finally open and the last two weeks of federal parliamentary sittings for 2020 underway, it seemed time to poke my head back into what some like to call the “centre of power”.
It was, at least for a few hours, as if the year in isolation had fitted me with new eyes.
Despite having lived in Canberra previously for more than 20 years, I had become a stranger, and the national capital revealed itself now as newly beautiful.
The hills around, the millions of trees filling the valley, the parks and the banks of Lake Burley Griffin were startlingly green after fine spring rains. The air, which last summer was choked with smoke from calamitous bushfires, was clean.
Right away, maskless in the back of an Uber, I was aware the place had changed in other ways.
Along streets everywhere were abandoned electric scooters, each with a helmet clamped to it.
There were clumps of the things littering the entrances to public service buildings and dumped at crossroads, as if they were art installations dreamed up by a city department without enough to do.
You need only grab one of these machines from wherever the last user dumped it, scan a code from the app on your phone, jam on the helmet and whizz off to your chosen destination, abandoning the scooter when you get there.
Turns out the locals – unlike the dour public servants of popular fancy – are enthusiastic risk-takers, which is probably necessary if you are to blithely plonk a helmet on your head that has been used by God knows how many riders before you.
Canberra’s hospital emergency departments have treated about 60 people for injuries from e-scooter crashes in the three months since the machines got the nod.
Up the hill even the conveyances of federal politicians had transformed.
The last time I was here, big white Holden Calais limousines burbled in long chauffeured lines outside the Senate and the House of Representatives, awaiting the posteriors of legislators wishing to be borne to restaurants, bars, the airport or apartments funded by travel entitlements.
But Holden – or any other car company – no longer builds cars in Australia, thanks to decisions made some years ago within the big house on the hill.
Since my last visit, the chauffeured fleet had changed colour from white to black (make of that what you will) and downsized from Calais limos to mid-sized, imported Toyota Camrys.
Hybrids, of course: a tip to the climate-aware political class.
Why, even Prime Minister Scott Morrison only a few days ago announced his government would no longer need to rely for its targeted reductions in carbon pollution upon so-called “Kyoto carryover credits” – emissions from years ago we could have belched but fell short of doing.
And the reason for the end of this accounting trick, which the unimpressed had called cheating?
Why, COVID-19 this year caused so many people to stop travelling, and so many industries to shut down, that carbon emissions fell beyond expectations.
Very satisfactory, if you put aside for the moment that it also represents economic collapse and lines of unemployed who, once the special pandemic supplements to welfare payments run out, won’t be able to afford even a ride on an e-scooter (about 40 cents a minute).
Even the climate change-denying dinosaurs who still inhabit the government benches, skilled in getting rid of leaders suspected of greenish tendencies – Malcolm Turnbull, you might recall – could be comfortable with Morrison’s lurch. Plenty of them understand creative accounting.
If things outside Parliament House had changed a bit, not much seemed different within the great building.
While a great hesitancy reigned back home in Victoria, with few employees drifting back to their offices and bosses debating how things might return to some pale facsimile of normal, Parliament House was all business.
The press gallery offices were full, staffers flitted about the kilometres of corridors and socially-distanced lines formed at the staff cafeteria, renovated and rebuilt during the year at – naturally – massive cost.
If you were to venture to the House of Representatives, you could witness that things were so unchanged that even Stuart Robert still had his old job.
He’s the minister who most recently oversaw the scandal that was Robodebt, arguing there was nothing wrong with it even as reports of suicides mounted and courts declared it unlawful, and almost to the moment the Commonwealth agreed to pay $1.2 billion to make the disgrace of it go away before anyone in charge had to give court evidence.
Robert’s contribution to parliamentary performance is the act of taking off his spectacles and putting them back on while reciting, in deathly monotone, prepared notes that are as confounding to reason as the algorithms that so tortured welfare recipients.
Listening to him argue that black was white, it was tempting to think about those World War II Enigma code machines, one of which was found on the floor of the Baltic Sea a few days ago. It is as if Robert and many of his fellow politicians have fed their remarks through the thing, leaving the rest of us to decode what they are actually saying as best we can to save our lives.
Across the chamber, Anthony Albanese still had his job too.
You would be forgiven for not knowing it, for COVID – which has given wonderful cover to scandals this year – has made him and most of his Labor colleagues all but invisible.
You’d imagine that at some point the ALP will have to get over the sulk of losing the last election – it was, after all, a year-and-a-half ago. But searching for signs of life on the Opposition side of parliament looked, during these last days of the parliamentary year, about as promising as finding another Enigma machine on the ocean floor.
Meanwhile, the government continued the well-worn chant that the ABC must be pulled into line. Has there ever been a government that hasn’t?
The only distinguishing feature of the current assault is that it reminds anyone who doesn’t know what the fuss is about to watch the Four Corners show concerning government ministers alleged to have been overly enthusiastic about what the late Mungo MacCallum tended to call “horizontal folk dancing”.
Barroom and bedroom adventures, admittedly, are something of a step up from years ago when Bob Hawke wanted ABC heads to roll. He was merely incensed that the national broadcaster was unpatriotic because its reporters insisted on referring to the military he had sent to the first Gulf War as “Australian troops” rather than “our troops”.
Meanwhile, an MP from another age decided this week he’d had enouigh. The Northern Territory’s Warren Snowdon is the only remaining MP to have sat in the old Parliament House down the hill.
He arrived in 1987, when Hawke ruled the roost and Mungo ruled the non-members’ bar.
“Time to roll up the swag,” Snowdon said on Thursday, and who could fault him?
Mungo – the most marvellously irreverent journalist to have occupied the Canberra press gallery – had already rolled his swag. Forever.
There is, scandalously, not even a non-members’ bar in the vast spaces of the current parliament in which to raise a jar and mourn Mungo’s passing. It was closed years ago, converted to an aerobics centre (true story) before becoming the parliament’s child-care centre.
It seemed, at the end of this strange and awful year, time to don a facemask and fly away. There’s only so much change a fellow can withstand.
Tony Wright is the associate editor and special writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.