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Tuesday, 2 December 2008
Page: 89

Senator LUNDY (10:58 PM) —Over the last few months the Chief Minister of the ACT, Mr Jon Stanhope, has been keeping all of us in the Canberra community well-informed about the centenary significance of the spring of 2008. Such careful attention to the historic record is what we have come to expect of him. As the longest-serving current Premier or Chief Minister in Australia, Mr Stanhope has always managed to find the time, amongst a busy set of portfolios in the ACT government, to give appropriate priority to matters transcending the day-to-day issues of contemporary politics. He has made a point of addressing some of the big picture matters in public policy—for example, important moral issues such as human rights. Mr Stanhope has been no less passionate in promoting the importance of public art for the well-being of a community as well as the need for a community to acknowledge and understand its roots: where it came from, and why.

As my Senate colleagues would be aware, ACT Labor was recently re-elected, yet again, this time to form a minority government—this success nonetheless a vindication of the leadership and vision our Chief Minister has for the Australian Capital Territory. I wholeheartedly congratulate Mr Stanhope and all his hardworking colleagues who have provided the Australian Capital Territory with quality stable government for many years now. They have been entrusted by the ACT electorate with continuing that work for another four years. They have made some tough decisions, but I hope it is a particular source of satisfaction for Mr Stanhope that he can go on navigating the course of Canberra’s challenging centenary years at the local level between now and at least 2012. This, too, is his due as his government took the creative initiative as early as 2005 in forming a bipartisan task force committee made up of all past chief ministers of the ACT drawn obviously from both of the major parties to drive the plans for commemoration of the centenary. In the following year, Mr Stanhope announced Sir William Deane as the patron of the centenary. What a coup. He could hardly have found a more committed, more respected citizen of this country than Sir William Deane, whose memories of and deep affection for Canberra I believe go back to his childhood, just down the hill from this House, in Manuka in the 1930s and 1940s.

I cannot help but reflect on the curious reluctance of our former Prime Minister, Mr Howard, to engage with the coming centenary birthday for the national capital despite his self-professed commitment to Australian history. Fortunately, this neglect was offset by the enthusiasm of the Stanhope government, which initiated a process of Australian community-wide consultation. This approach reaped rich rewards and established a sound foundation for the draft program for the centenary to be officially launched during 2009. The Centenary of Canberra unit, based in the Chief Minister’s department, has been enthusiastically going about its business for well over a year now, and it is confidently anticipated that the federal Rudd Labor government and the ACT Stanhope Labor government will announce a memorandum of understanding for the centenary on or around 14 December, just a few weeks away. We will finally have the mechanism for a productive and creative local national partnership. It is wonderful to have two spheres of government equally committed to a collaborative commemoration of our national capital’s significant past.

It is also worth noting the myriad opportunities that such commemoration can provide in the present for the future. Such legacy projects that have an ongoing positive effect will have a high priority. The chosen announcement date, as students of capital history will recognise, is one loaded with symbolic significance, for it was on 14 December 1908 that Australia’s Governor-General, Lord Dudley, put his signature to the Seat of Government Act 1908, formally ratifying the Commonwealth legislation but also concluding a fascinating chapter in Canberra’s history. Almost exactly 100 years ago the ‘battle of the sites’, the extraordinary process to select the site of the nation’s capital, came to a close. It was a process which lasted for the best part of two decades and it was exhausting for all concerned. While some found it stressful and occasionally debilitating, for others it was quite a liberating experience. Many of our predecessors in the federal parliament recognised that they got to know their country and their constituents, their fellow citizens, much better as a result of the process.

Most members of the Australian parliament in the years between 1902 and 1908 got to walk a number of the potential capital sites, the majority in southern New South Wales. They undertook this welcome outdoors work with relish. Yet, if some of the MPs and senators in the early years of the ‘battle of the sites’ approached this task with a degree of jocularity, by late 1908 it was utterly serious business. All were aware that the epic quest had gone on far too long and a decision had to be made. The respective final votes in the two houses of parliament were tightly contested. On 8 October 1908 the House of Representatives selected the option known as Yass-Canberra over Dalgety by a margin of 39 votes to 33. The later debate on the issue in this chamber—in the old House, of course—which extended for a week from late October to early November, was even closer. It produced a deadlock—18 votes a piece for Yass-Canberra tied with Tumut. Eventually, a Victorian senator, James Hiers McColl, broke away from the solidarity vote of his state for Tumut and switched to the Monaro Plains option of Yass-Canberra. It was a courageous decision—with all of the value laden word that that has come to be associated with in modern politics—unpopular with his state colleagues and an outrage to Victoria’s newspaper, the Age, which declared that Senator McColl had ratted on his state. In his defence, Senator McColl simply stated that, when Commonwealth parliamentarians come to consider big issues, they should recognise that national considerations must take precedence over parochial loyalties.

Two further points ought to be made about this absorbing chapter in Canberra’s story. Firstly, I note that while we do have a McColl Street in Canberra, in the suburb of Ainslie, the ACT Place Names Committee reliably informs me that it recognises James McColl’s father. In the centenary years to come, hopefully we can find an appropriate way to commemorate the son, James Hiers. Without his politically brave and independent decision, which came at personal cost, the capital might well be somewhere else. Secondly, it is impossible, as a Labor Party senator today, to read the history of the ‘battle of the sites’ and its aftermath without a profound sense of pride. In 1908, the party was a bare 17 years old, yet it would be the Labor members of the federal parliament who would play the main roles in the drama.

Labor’s first Prime Minister, Chris Watson, despite his brief 4½ months in office in 1904, passed an act to site the capital at Dalgety. I note that Watson would in time become the principal advocate for Canberra in the federal parliament. Once he saw the Canberra region with his own eyes and took in, as he said, ‘the Murrumbidgee mountains, towering as background’, and ‘every diversity of scenery’, he was a complete convert. In one speech in the House promoting Canberra, he produced a memorable summary of his position, which said:

I do not say that picturesqueness alone should decide the question; but other things being equal, I think that the beautiful ought to turn the scale.

Watson was widely respected in the parliament and his influence, particularly in the key years of 1907-08 would prove decisive.

It was the good fortune of Australia’s fifth Prime Minister, and the Labor Party’s second, Andrew Fisher, to have been in office for only a matter of weeks when royal assent was given to the Seat of Government Act. His first Minister for Home Affairs, the Irish-born Hugh Mahon, wasted no time in issuing his renowned ‘instructions’ for the district surveyor, Charles Scrivener. I quote:

The surveyor will bear in mind that the Federal Capital should be 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 ...

As Prime Minister Rudd has observed in two speeches in recent weeks, it was undoubtedly Australia’s good fortune that Andrew Fisher’s government was in office for the majority of the time from 1908 to 1915. He inspired those around him. Fisher was determined to be a genuine nation-shaper and nation-builder. As Prime Minister Rudd has pointed out, he bequeathed to his adopted nation an enduring legacy, particularly as ‘a social reformer who helped embed the great tradition of the fair go into the nation’s soul’.

Canberra’s early history has powerful, inextricable links to the formative years of my own party, the Labor Party. I look forward to the opportunity to regularly revisit this compelling story in the coming years as we head towards the centenary of the first Canberra Day on 12 March 2013.