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Tuesday, 15 June 2010
Page: 3340

Senator LUNDY (7:11 PM) —When the members of the first national parliament met in the elegantly refurbished Victorian parliament building over a century ago, in May 1901, they had the building of a new nation firmly in mind. The substance of that group of first speeches has, over the years, received diligent attention from historians. Much less well known, however, is that just down the road from the parliament, in Collins Street, the country’s design professionals were also meeting—over a two-week period, at precisely the same time—to discuss the new nation’s capital city. The design professionals were determined to see the politicians both well briefed and well educated about the future capital, in order to get the best possible result. The second resolution carried by the ‘Congress of Engineers, Architects and Surveyors’, 109 years ago almost to the day, was to see the ‘federal capital laid out in the most perfect manner possible and the adoption of the most perfect design’.

Speakers at the congress proposed a vast array of measures to realise that ‘perfect design’, but I would like to single out one man in particular: Charles Bogue Luffman, the then Director of the Royal Horticultural Gardens in Burnley, Melbourne. Luffman made a number of visionary recommendations, but one was central to his culturally liberated thinking: what he called ‘a true botanic garden, representing Australian flora’. With some validity, we might consider this the spiritual germination of an idea that would take another seven decades to be realised. A true national capital, for Luffman, simply had to have, as he put it a ‘true botanic garden’.

I provide this slice of heritage history tonight, in the build-up to Canberra’s centenary, because our Australian National Botanic Gardens—perhaps one of the less publicised jewels in the city’s ornate crown—has done it pretty tough in recent years, so much so that, this time last year, our local paper, the Canberra Times, carried stories about the decline that had occurred over the previous decade, with visitor numbers, low staff morale and the physical fabric in the gardens visibly affected by the drought in the south-eastern region of Australia. Something had to be done and, I am delighted to report, has been done since that time, on several fronts to address the situation.

I was privileged to be able to chair a public meeting conducted at the ANU in December last year that sparked some community consciousness-raising. Speakers were invited to consider the future direction of the gardens. Under the auspices of the wonderful Friends of the Australian National Botanic Gardens, the new executive director, Judy West, was particularly upbeat about her plans as she spoke of reinvigorating public programs and investing in the web presence in order to attract new audiences, new age groups and a new enthusiasm for fresh and innovative sources of support for the gardens.

Already in 2010 we have seen the beginnings of a turnaround in fortunes with a succession of splendid public programs at the gardens including Snakes Alive!—if you have not been there, you should try it; it is amazing—which was in January; Nature’s Canvas, an exhibition by Yvonna de Jong in February; and the superb exhibition of some 80 botanical paintings that were hung and put up for sale to raise funds in March. I again had the privilege of opening the Art in the Gardens with Friends exhibition, and you can take my word about the quality of the art presented. I found it truly inspiring that members of the local community found their passion and inspiration in the unique flora that grows in the Australian National Botanic Gardens.

The Rudd Labor government has played its part in this resurgence at the gardens. Six or seven weeks ago now, the Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts, Mr Peter Garrett, and I teamed up with the ACT Chief Minister, Jon Stanhope, to plant Canberra’s prized centenary flower, specially developed, called the correa Canberra Bells, at the gardens, with a view to having the beautiful soft reddish blooms out in their full splendour come centenary day on 12 March 2013. Appropriately, the gardens are the first public place to permanently display the centenary correa, and the project was the result of a close collaboration between the gardens, the federal government, the ACT government, the ACT branch of the Australian Native Plants Society and, of course, some of the most astute members of our local plant industry.

But perhaps the most important initiative at the National Botanic Gardens—an initiative with genuine long-term significance—that has occurred in recent months concerns that most crucial of all resources: water. It was particularly appropriate that World Environment Day was celebrated at the gardens last Saturday because, two days before, I was honoured to be invited by the gardens general manager, Mr Peter Byron, to turn the first sod of a $2.9 million water project that will see some 170 million litres of non-potable water being piped from Lake Burley Griffin to the gardens by next summer. The installation of the internal reticulation system by October this year will, staff assure me, enable them to initiate an array of key horticultural projects that have been on the backburner for far too long. The entire gardens will receive a long-overdue boost from this project, which has been two years in its meticulous planning and which involves a complex filtration system to ensure top quality water. The federal government is proud to be a co-funder of this initiative under its water security plan, along with an investment by Parks Australia.

As a footnote to this story, I note with satisfaction that the Australian Botanic Gardens, in the three months to May this year, obtained record visitor numbers. The conscientious and hardworking staff thoroughly deserve congratulations for this excellent result because the passion and spirit with which they approach their job are truly inspiring. As a re-emerging giant in the Canberra cultural landscape, the Australian National Botanic Gardens are certain to play a complementary and vital role in the future in highlighting environmental and climate issues for all Australians. With the number of non-ACT schools—that is, schools from the rest of the country—visiting the gardens increasing, the range of educational units provided by gardens staff is expanding, and we can expect that families coming to the capital from now on, certainly right through to the centenary year and beyond, will take in the cultural feasts on offer. That will include, as we know, visiting the Australian War Memorial, the National Library, the National Museum and the National Gallery, of course, which is still celebrating its success with the Masterpieces from Paris exhibition, and just being able to enjoy the wonderful environment and vistas through our beautifully designed national capital. Seeing the Australian National Botanic Gardens as part of those visits will add another dimension, a truly beautiful and important dimension, to the experience of visiting the national capital. I think the momentum for change and renewal at the National Botanic Gardens will have a beneficial impact on both the Lindsay Pryor Arboretum and the wonderful National Arboretum, invested in so well and so heavily by the ACT government.

At the end of last month the federal Minister for Tourism, Mr Martin Ferguson, welcomed the launch of the next phase of Tourism Australia’s ‘There’s nothing like Australia’ campaign. In doing so, he drew attention to the 12 destinations chosen to feature in a series of print advertisements for global publication in our country’s major international markets, among them the USA, Japan and the United Kingdom. I was thrilled to note that there, in amongst destinations such as Uluru, Kakadu, Ningaloo Reef, Sydney and Melbourne, was the nation’s capital, Canberra. It has been a while coming, but it is there—the recognition from our tourism authorities that Canberra is much, much more than just the place where we, as national politicians, come to work. Yes, that is true too, but, when you visit the nation’s capital and understand the depth of history contained within this beautifully designed capital city and understand how precious the responsibility is that we as Canberrans take as custodians for this nation’s cultural history, it adds a depth of experience to the visit that cannot be replicated in any other city.

In closing, I would like to pay my respects to Charles Bogue Luffman, who, all those years ago, recognised the role that Australia’s capital city of the future might play for the nation when he implored his fellow professionals to produce a new city within a landscape that would be, as he put it, ‘conducive to thought that will animate and inform’. He imagined a compelling, provocative place with a ‘setting’ that would reveal—and again I use his words—’what we are or whence we came’ and ‘the significance of our everyday lives’. It was a bold and inclusive vision and one that is reflected in the nation’s capital, Canberra, in the 21st century.