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The complete guide for graduates moving to Canberra

Jaymes Carr

Canberra is a leader in graduate recruitment – if you've applied for a government grad program, check out our detailed guide for a smooth transition.

A capital decision

Of all the capital cities in Australia, perhaps none is as divisive as Canberra—and this may come as no surprise given that Canberra owes its very existence to divisiveness. Following Australia’s Federation in 1901, delegates from the rival cities of Melbourne and Sydney were drawn into a bitter quarrel concerning which of the two-state capitals should become the seat of Australia’s new federal government.

The disagreement proved to be irreconcilable, so a compromise was made: Melbourne would function as the temporary home of the federal parliament, while, in New South Wales, construction would begin on a permanent capital city just as soon as government surveyors agreed upon an appropriate location halfway between Sydney and Melbourne. This didn’t take very long, but Canberra was not the first choice.

Instead, in 1903, a Federal Royal Commission named the town of Dalgety as the capital and even formalised their decision with an Act of Parliament. Thus, it’s easy to imagine an alternative timeline in which Dalgety is the most politically influential place in Australia. In this timeline, however, delegates from NSW immediately protested that Dalgety was too far from Sydney, and far too close to Melbourne, an unforgivable affront. A new Act was passed, Canberra was promoted from the second choice to first, and poor Dalgety, which was officially the nation’s capital-to-be for just four years, resumed its former obscurity, entering the 21st century with a population of 205.

So much for Canberra’s contentious beginnings: since the first peg was hammered into the ground in 1913, it’s grown by leaps and bounds. Today, Canberra is recognised as a culturally significant Australian city that’s home to Australia’s most important public institutions, from the Parliament itself to the High Court of Australia, the Royal Australian Mint, and more. According to the OECD, Canberra is also the best city in the world to live. In this guide, we’ll cover everything you should know before moving to Canberra to start your graduate career.

Pros and cons

Pros

Canberra is easy to get around

If you graduated from an Australian high school, then the chances are that you’ve already heard, a million times or more, the story of how Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, two American architects, won the ‘Federal Capital Design Competition’ with a plan for Canberra that emphasised concentric circles and other geometric patterns.

As a result, if you view a map of Canberra today, you’ll see a network of streets reminiscent of a lace doily, or an elaborate crop circle formation. It can look intimidating, but the good news is that, once you get the hang of Canberra’s layout, travelling around the city is a cinch. In fact, the biggest obstacle isn’t the streets that Walter Burley Griffin designed: it’s the artificial lake named after him.

You’ll have easy access to some of Australia’s most important cultural institutions

It’s no surprise to learn that Australia’s capital city is home to the ‘national’ version of almost every cultural institution: there’s the National Gallery of Australia, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Library of Australia, the National Film and Sound Archive, the National Museum of Australia, the National Zoo and Aquarium, the National Dinosaur Museum and much more.

It’s the place to be if you’re planning a career in the public service

Of all the public service employees in Australia, some 38 per cent live and work in Canberra: a much higher proportion than any other capital city (NSW comes in second with 19 per cent). In fact, the public service accounts for 42 per cent of the ACT’s total workforce (including people employed in ACT government positions). The simple (and obvious) reason for this is that Canberra is home to the headquarters of most of the federal government departments. This makes Canberra a great place to be if you’re hoping to launch your own career in the public service.

Sydney and Melbourne aren’t too far away

That Australia’s new capital should be equidistant from both Sydney and Melbourne was a chief concern of the Royal Commission that eventually selected Canberra. In doing so, they gave Sydney a distinct advantage, for the capital of NSW, is only 280 kilometres from Canberra, which is 660 kilometres from Melbourne. Fortunately, Canberra is connected to its neighbouring capitals by inter-city highways. So, if you need a break from life in Canberra, it’ll take about three and a half hours to drive to Sydney, and eight hours to drive to Melbourne. Alternatively, you can fly to either city in just over an hour.

Cons

Winters are very cold

Canberra has an oceanic climate, with warm, dry summers that peak in January, which has a pleasant average high temperature of 28°C. By contrast, Canberra’s winters can be bitterly cold, with frequent frosts and an average high temperature of 12°C (this often drops below zero during the night). For newcomers to Canberra—especially those accustomed to the balmier winters of Australia’s other capitals—the cold weather can come as a shock. So, thank goodness there’s already a guide on how to cope…

Canberra is an expensive place to rent

In early 2018, Canberra was ranked as the third-most-expensive place in Australia to rent accommodation. While rental prices have fluctuated slightly since then, housing affordability remains a major issue in Canberra, especially for individuals with below-average incomes.

The beach is more than two hours away

If you’re a beach fanatic, then Canberra might be a frustrating place to be during summer. It’ll take you about two and a half hours to drive from Canberra to the beaches of Shoalhaven, Eurobodalla, and other parts of the NSW South Coast. It’s worth the journey: you’ll be rewarded with some of the most beautiful beaches in Australia. But a five-hour round trip to see the ocean is still quite a trek. And while you can swim in Lake Burley Griffin, you should definitely check the water quality first.

Upon learning that you’re from Canberra, most people from other Australian capital cities will offer you their condolences

Jokes about Canberra are about as old as Canberra itself. In fact, Canberra bashing is something of national past time. If you’ve somehow so far avoided jokes about Canberra, then brace yourself because, once you start living there, the jokes will be unavoidable. That is, at least, until Australians from other capital cities abandon their guiding principle: if you’ve got nothing good to say, then you should definitely say it about Canberra.  

Rent and cost of living

How much is rent in Canberra?

As of June 2018, Canberra is equal first (with Sydney) for having the most expensive rent in Australia, with the average median rent for a house at $550 and the average median rent for a unit at $450. The long-term decline of housing affordability has become a major concern for advocacy groups and the ACT government.

However, it’s worth noting that, according to the 2016 census, Canberra has the second-highest (after Darwin) median weekly household income ($2,087), resulting in a manageable rental price to income ratio for many Canberra residents. As a result, while rental prices have grown consistently in Canberra over the past five years, housing unaffordability has disproportionately affected tenants in lower-income brackets, with rent remaining ‘acceptable’ (i.e. below 33% of weekly income) for most individuals earning more than $65,000 per year.

Key resources

How much will I spend on everyday purchases in Canberra?

According to the price aggregation website Numbeo, a meal at an inexpensive restaurant in Adelaide costs $20; one litre of milk is $1.37; a loaf of bread is $2.59; an adult movie ticket is $15; a month of basic utilities is $157; a monthly gym membership is $56; and one kilogram of apples is $4.14.’ You can also use the Cost of Living Calculator to get a better sense of how much it will cost to have the type of lifestyle you want in Canberra.

Where in Canberra should I live?

The ACT Government’s ‘Canberra Your Future’ website has an indispensable guide to the different areas of Canberra, including information on the demographics, dwelling types, median age, and major facilities of each suburb. You can also explore Canberra using a helpful interactive map, which makes it easier to get your bearings while learning more about the differences between, say, Acton and Melba.

Tips for choosing a place to live

Research has shown that where you live can have a marked impact on measures of satisfaction, well-being, and mental health. The effects are seen when one switches cities or suburbs, and can even reflect how close one lives to the main road or busy intersection.

As a result, experts advise people to consider their options carefully before relocating. To give yourself the best chance of being satisfied with your address, you should choose a suburb where your income is at least as high as the median income; minimise the length of your commute; aim, if appropriate, to put off moving again for as long as possible; consider how a new address will impact the accessibility of parks, gardens and other restorative natural environments; and, whenever possible, choose locations where you will be able to embed yourself more easily in a social network (for example, by living close to other young professionals), supportive communities, and people with similar interests or cultural concerns.

Of course, moving house brings with it a large number of practical considerations, many of which will be unique to you and your interests. The following questions are intended to provide some clarity as you research your options and navigate the inevitable compromises of rental life:

  1. Where is the suburb?
  2. How valuable to you are space and privacy?
  3. Do you prefer the city, suburban, or rural environments?
  4. Do you own a car? If not, is there reliable public transport (or safe cycleways)?
  5. How will your choice of suburb affect commuting times?
  6. Is it important for you to live near good restaurants? Fresh food markets? Beaches?
  7. What’s your budget?
  8. Where do you work?
  9. How long do you plan to live in your next house?
  10. Do you need access to a big outdoor area (or a yard)?
  11. Do you enjoy solitude or would you prefer to be nearer to the nightlife?
  12. Is it important for you to live somewhere with a strong sense of local community?
  13. Would you like to live close to a shopping centre? A local library? A swimming pool? A train station?
  14. Have you considered how you might build (or maintain) social connections when you move? Will the suburb you choose to affect this?
  15. Can you learn more about the suburb to determine whether or not you’d be a good cultural fit for the area?
  16. What’s the local arts and culture scene like? Is this very important to you?
  17. Are there any local parks, reserves, or other open spaces?
  18. What’s the local crime rate like?
  19. Will you have adequate broadband and mobile coverage?
  20. How does your suburb compa