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Tuesday, 24 November 2009
Page: 8766

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Senator LUNDY (7:47 PM) —Just down the hill from the parliament, not more than a 10 minute walk from here, the maps section of the National Library of Australia is currently host to a superb exhibition on the role that maps played in the compelling story of Canberra» , and I recommend it to all my colleagues. I want to note that it is curated by a former Australian High Commissioner to Canada turned passionate cartographer, Mr Greg Wood. The exhibition is titled ‘Far-Sited: the Maps that Made «Canberra» ’.

If you take a further stroll across Commonwealth Bridge and along the RG Menzies Walk to the National Capital Exhibition, where a fine and complementary display is hosted by the National Capital Authority, you will find that it traces the key role played by the surveyor in this story of «Canberra» ’s beginnings. I am sure my colleagues are aware that one of Scrivener’s original huts can be seen and enjoyed any lunchtime not far from here, only a few hundred metres away to the west of the Senate entrance in the aptly named Scrivener Park.

The fact is that we are surrounded by history in this city, and whilst it is not as old a history as that of some other cities it is a very important history. The weight and significance of the «centenary» birthday years from 2008 to the ultimate climax in March 2013 have a lot of Canberrans excited and many already actively involved in the build-up to the commemoration. To date, activity has largely been generated by the Chief Minister of the ACT government, Mr Jon Stanhope, and his team through an emerging program that started back in 2006 with the welcome announcement that Sir William Deane would be patron of the «centenary» . This prompted an ongoing set of thoughtful community events which has created, I think, growing momentum.

In December last year the Commonwealth and ACT governments signed an agreement to collaborate on the exact date that 100 years earlier, on 14 December 1908, the Seat of Government Act 1908—theYass- «Canberra» act—received royal assent. This act, as I discussed in some detail in a speech in this place late last year, brought to an end the so-called ‘battle of the sites’ in which between 1902 and 1908 numerous aspiring New South Wales towns vied to be what one well-known writer of the period, Mr William Astley, termed the ‘Treasure House of the Nation’s Heart’.

But the «Canberra» story did not go into hiatus until 1913—far from it. In many ways the story of the years from 1909 to 1912 got more and more interesting and in many ways more and more complex. 1909 was a fascinating year and it, too, had a lot of interesting things happen late in the year—a bit like this year. Charles Scrivener, who was always a favourite with both Labor and conservative Commonwealth politicians of the time, had early in the year embarked on a preliminary survey of the main Yass- «Canberra» site options, examining Mahkoolma, Yass, Gundaroo, Hall, Lake George and the option called «Canberra» . It is worth noting that Scrivener always favoured distant Dalgety as his capital but, given the job of canvassing the «Canberra» valley, with typical professionalism went about his business and eventually—and quite correctly—chose the city precinct we know today.

This area was the one that Scrivener felt went closest to fulfilling the instructions that he had been given by the Labor government Minister for Home Affairs of the day, Hugh Mahon. Mahon’s brief is a memorable one and, like so much of the thinking of a cluster of high-minded Federation fathers a century ago, is worth putting into the Hansard in 2009. He tasked Scrivener with giving the new Commonwealth of Australia:

… a beautiful city, occupying a commanding position, with extensive views, and embracing distinctive features which will lend themselves to the evolution of a design worthy of the object, not only for the present but for all time …

It was a noble and visionary brief and Scrivener, helped greatly by the earlier work of a number of NSW government surveyors including Arthur Lloyd and Leslie Wade and the architect Walter Liberty Vernon, got it just right. He wrote in his report:

«Canberra» … would be visible on approach for many miles … The capital would …lie in an amphitheatre of hills …

Those senators familiar with the extraordinary plan of Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin, which was to come in 1911-12, might well recognise the continuity of language and intent of those Australians who had national capital roles of significance before the Griffins came into the picture and who in subtle ways influenced the Griffins as they produced their design of «Canberra» in the last months of 1911 in distant Chicago without ever having set foot in Australia.

Indeed, at the conclusion of the many months in 1909 of Scrivener’s survey and its acceptance by government, the Sydney Morning Herald reporter on 27 November 1909, 100 years ago almost to the day, caught the lofty mood of the moment in these words:

… when we begin to build, even though unpretentiously, we should build to a plan nobly conceived and worthy of the setting provided by nature. Even though our capital be small, a unique opportunity offers for making it one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Considering that some of the most internationally distinguished architectural and planning scholars have in the last couple of decades acknowledged «Canberra» as the world’s most elegant ‘capital city in the landscape’, the Herald reporter’s words back then have genuine prescience.

Yet 1909 was not just the Scrivener chapter of the larger «Canberra» story. It had its moments of real political controversy too, not least when Queensland Senator Thomas Givens, another who favoured Dalgety, in October moved a motion in the Senate to re-examine the site issue. The motion was defeated, but only just, and the controversy highlighted yet another period of vigorous and intensely contested national capital debate, almost a year after the Seat of Government Act seemed to have settled the issue. Biases, tirades, statistics and sheer exasperation continued to flood across the floors of the two federal chambers, and the site debate did not subside.

Labor politicians of the period, both in government and in opposition, played crucial and catalytic roles in the pursuit of a capital site at this time. Chris Watson, for example, the leader of the world’s first national labour government, was conspicuous throughout these years. He was arguably a key person in the parliament for «Canberra» getting the nod. It was Watson who in April 1908, less than 12 months before Scrivener produced his survey, stated the «Canberra» case unequivocally and probably decisively when he said:

… I was certainly impressed at «Canberra» by the picturesque appearance, which ought to commend the site to all who desire the beautiful. In the vicinity there are mountain gorges, which afford every diversity of scenery, and I have been informed by trout fishers that there are most interesting places in the heart of the Murrumbidgee Mountains, full of beauty … I do not say that picturesqueness alone should decide the question; but, other things being equal, I think the beautiful ought to turn the scale …

Scrivener’s second report in May 1909 was a beauty and, despite Queenslander Givens’s pot-stirring a few months later, the process moved inexorably on to the Seat of Government Surrender Bill going through both houses of the NSW parliament on 7 December 1909. Six days later, the Governor-General, Lord Dudley, put his signature to the Seat of Government Acceptance Act 1909 on 13 December—again, almost exactly 100 years ago. Thus an ‘area of about 900 square miles’ was finally given to the Commonwealth. The precise borders of these 900 square miles were still not certain, but that is a story for the «centenary» in 2010.

In the coming weeks the ACT government will launch a series of five booklets that fill the main scholarly gaps in the «Canberra» story. This is great news for the rapidly expanding group of students of the national capital’s rich and engaging history. On top of that, we now know that the «centenary» will have Robyn Archer as its creative director all the way through to the climactic year of 2013. The appointment of one of this country’s most eminent artists is a wonderful coup for the ACT government and indeed for «Canberra , the national capital. As a singer, writer, artistic director and irrepressible arts advocate, Robyn Archer has carved out a national and international reputation, and already she has put her unique stamp on the program. It can only be hoped that her energy and commitment will result in a dramatic increase in the number of collaborative activities between the ACT and Australian governments in 2010 and beyond. (Time expired)