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Monday, 13 October 2008
Page: 5849


Senator LUNDY (10:10 PM) —Today I had the honour of launching a new exhibition called ‘A Capital Choice’. This display at the National Capital Exhibition Centre at Regatta Point tells the story of the ‘battle of the sites’. This dramatic engagement involved many successive federal and state governments and stretched across nearly two decades. The battle saw towns and cities vying to become the site for Australia’s national capital city.

It is 100 years ago this month that the Yass-Canberra area was chosen by the votes of the respective houses in the federal parliament. A few years later, in 1913, at the Foundation Stones ceremony on Capital Hill, Australia’s second Labor Prime Minister, Andrew Fisher, outlined a lofty vision for his adopted country’s future national capital:

Here—

he intoned—

on this spot, in the near future … the best thoughts of Australia will be given expression to … I hope this city will be the seat of learning as well as of politics, and it will also be the home of art.

On the same podium, the Governor-General, Lord Denman, went a step further, challenging the big crowd present to imagine, as he so eloquently put it, ‘a city bearing some resemblance to the city beautiful of our dreams’.

The comments of these two people, from very different backgrounds, set an exemplary tone for Canberra and its development that refused to be diminished in the difficult decades of war and depression that followed. Indeed, throughout the 20th century, there was always someone in the right place and at the right time prepared to shoulder responsibility and keep the vision for Canberra clear and strong.

Sir Robert Menzies, by his own admission, hated leaving Melbourne for the national capital. But during the 1950s even Menzies, as he would later write, somehow converted into an ‘apostle’ for Canberra. With the famed encouragement of his wife, Dame Pattie, he became one of its most steadfast advocates. In doing so, he was following the example of two men for whom he had the utmost respect—his illustrious predecessors, two of federal Labor’s finest, John Curtin and Ben Chifley. For both Curtin and Chifley, Canberra’s seminal position as the nation’s capital became an article of faith.

Why did some of our most prominent public figures and community shapers, throughout the last century, no matter their background, politics, education or personality, feel compelled to see Canberra through to its next formative stage? In 1912, Walter Burley Griffin famously said that he had built an ‘ideal city of the future for the fledging Australian nation’, yet one that, candidly, he did not think any government authorities would accept. Fortunately, he was proved wrong. While not everyone identified with the emergent ‘city in the landscape’, the so-called Bush Capital, something about the award-winning original design coaxed out the nurturing instinct and won the allegiance of many.

The answer to this question, I suspect, started with people liking the fact that the Griffin plan was no ‘big bang’ European, aristocratic, supersized plan full of big matching marble buildings. Instead, Australia was gifted with an enlightened, organic plan that needed to be sensitively approached and understood and, above all, refreshed and renewed by each succeeding generation. It is a city dreamt up by Griffin for what he would memorably label ‘a nation of bold democrats’—a stunning one-off city project, designed to encourage a public spirit and community ethos commensurate with the personality and prospects of the nation it represented.

When Senator John McCallum’s Senate select committee inquired into the national capital in September 1955, the group, perhaps a little out of character, wore their hearts on their sleeves in stating unequivocally:

… the more one studies Griffin’s plans and his explanatory statements, the more obvious it is that departures from his main principles should not be lightly countenanced … It is a grand plan and something we should hold on to.

It was with this conscious sense of imposing history, past courage, past insight and responsibility that the Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories met in the first half of this year to inquire into the role of the Commonwealth’s custodian body for Canberra—the National Capital Authority—and outline the prospective direction ahead. As chair of this inquiry, I have to admit to being at first a little daunted by the dimensions of this responsibility.

The Canberra story is a hundred years old. But as the home of our cultural institutions, the national capital is host to the treasured memories of our Indigenous people going back thousands upon thousands of years. These histories belong to all of us. Caring for them is a project we share with our forebears and our contemporaries.

That is why the recent joint standing committee report, entitled The way forward, stated its first objective was:

… to ensure that the Commonwealth protect and promote the unique design of Canberra because it represents the intrinsic character of the National Capital …

The committee was determined to respect the work and conclusions of its enlightened predecessors, for a century of Federation has taught us a number of things that are articles of faith. First, we know that we now have a capital of true national significance. The city offers a particular kind of cultural, historical and political experience unable to be matched anywhere in the country. It is the heart of our democracy and it tells the stories of Australia’s past, present and future dreams with substance and feeling through our national institutions.

Secondly, the time has well and truly arrived for Australia and its elected political representatives to properly recognise and understand the city’s palpable international significance. A number of the world’s most accomplished architectural historians and town planners have, in recent decades, praised the city’s most compelling qualities. Ten years ago renowned American town-planning scholar Professor John Reps put it quite simply when he stated that Canberra deserves recognition and protection as ‘one of the treasures not only of Australia but of the entire urban world’.

Thirdly, it has only been in the past few decades that a deep appreciation of Canberra has grown beyond the committed resident population and the passionate few advocates elsewhere in Australia and abroad. Australians discovering their nation’s capital for the first time often do it through personal experience, be it the parliament during their sixth grade visit, or searching for family in the National Archives or remembering a loved one with a poppy in the wall at the War Memorial. Through all these moments Australians make this city their own and wonder why it took so long to discover it.

Unlikely evidence that we are heading in the right direction was provided only a few weeks ago when the satirical talents of the highly creative Working Dog team were applied to Canberra in an ABC TV episode of Hollowmen entitled Edifice complex. Walter Burley Griffin got several mentions, along with talk of prime ministers’ needs for ‘legacy projects’, the importance of the visual shadow of buildings, the Bauhaus effect and even a line referring to Canberra as ‘an unfinished masterpiece’. In the coming years, our generation of custodians have a unique opportunity in the spirit of Edifice complex to add some real splashes of paint to the canvas of this unfinished masterpiece.

Seriously, though, as we work our way towards the centenary year of 2013 the series of centenary birthdays should be embraced as both a cultural stimulus and an opportunity for national celebration. It might well prove to be the case that the most significant role for capital cities in the 21st century is their symbolic role—the highly rewarding role whereby the city strives to meaningfully represent the public life, its evolving values, its aspirations and the achievements of the nation, as well as confronting the serious challenges of the future, including lightening our carbon footprint and taking on the challenge of climate change.

The joint standing committee report titled The way forward contains 22 recommendations. There is much to consider and much to act on. The federal government is quite rightly taking the necessary time to confirm its course of action in response. That response must be thoughtful and visionary—a fitting tribute to the trail-blazing pioneers of the past. It is my hope that it is also a response that sets an exciting and expansive agenda for the city into the 21st future. Our great nation deserves a capital of which we can all be proud.