ABSTRACT: Best regarded as an essentially contested concept, ‘sustainability’ — beyond the highest level of generalisation — gives rise to numerous, sometimes mutually exclusive, interpretations and applications. As exemplified by the Canberra Plan, this leads governments into the ad hoc politics of gesture, underlining the relatively limited role they can play in a liberal democratic system. Recognition of their limitations can, however, make governments more effective.
Options for a ‘sustainable Canberra’ provide a useful case study. Though in some respects inimitable, the national capital exemplifies certain characteristics and dilemmas of all Australian urban life in particular, the cognitive dissonance about sustainability found among the educated classes (green sensitivity married to wasteful consumption) and the need to confront the implications of an end to the era of cheap energy. The latter will force adaptation to a ‘post-materialist’ society, in which reduced growth coexists with a competitive market economy. Government can lead by example and act as a catalyst for broader collaboration with the private sector. The main area in which it can do the latter is public transport. Despite its car-centred infrastructure, Canberra could shift commuting patterns through a light rail system linking its constituent nodes. The principal political issue would be the means of financing and operating such a system. From this we may draw several lessons. Not the least of these is that governments’ relative impotence in stimulating sustainability in general should yield not the politics of gesture but greater attention to what they can do in particular.