Senate debates

Tuesday, 21 August 2012


Centenary of Canberra

7:01 pm

Photo of Kate LundyKate Lundy (ACT, Australian Labor Party, Minister Assisting for Industry and Innovation) Share this | | Hansard source

All members of the Australian parliament are aware, I am sure, that Canberra's big centenary year of celebration, commemoration and conversation is only a matter of months away. There is no doubt that the days clustered around 12 March 2013 will be absolutely full of events and activities for the whole community. There will be major announcements, a specially commissioned symphony, fine food, fine company and plenty of fun and festivities all around the lake. And that is only in the single beautiful autumn month of March.

On Canberra's 99th birthday a few months ago, courtesy of the centenary preview brochure, we got an inviting taste of the full 12-month program. The centenary's creative director Robyn Archer and her hard-working team have established something truly special for this city and for the nation.

The build-up years to 2013 have been a wonderful part of the ride so far. Since 2008, Canberra has meaningfully recognised a succession of key dates. There were the years of the so-called 'Battle of the Sites' to find the best possible place to locate the new national capital—a city that then Governor-General Lord Denman imagined would resemble 'the City Beautiful of our dreams'. Then there were the tricky challenges of the city survey, as well as the torturous, five-year trek to determine the borders of the Federal Capital Territory. Water access and supply a hundred years ago, as now, loomed large. The first Commonwealth infrastructure had to be conceived, confirmed and created.

Yet no date commemorating the busy activity before 1913 can equal the high significance of 23 May 1912. That was the day of the announcement to the world of the names of the prizewinners in the international design competition for what was called, in the original documentation of the Department of Home Affairs in 1911, 'the Federal Capital City of the Commonwealth of Australia'. I have the privilege of delivering my speech in Romaldo Giurgola's remarkable building, this beautiful Parliament House, just months after the exact centenary day of the original Canberra competition announcement. For me, in my home town, this is a symbolic occasion to cherish.

The multitude of stories surrounding the design competition a century ago are now a part of folklore. There were the four international expositions in the Australian colonies in the last decades of the 19th century that dramatically raised the bar of local expectations and local expertise. There were also the talented Federation founding politicians from right across the continent who embodied the determination and ambition necessary to build a capital from the ground up; a capital that would be as the inspired instructions of the Minister for Home Affairs, Hugh Mahon, memorably prescribed:

… a beautiful city, occupying a commanding position … embracing distinctive features which will lend themselves to the evolution of an object, not only for the present, but for all time.

Then there were the switched-on design professionals of the era—those architects, engineers and surveyors who made it their business to meet in Melbourne in May 1901, intentionally to coincide with the opening of the first Commonwealth parliament. They did this in order to encourage the nearby politicians to embrace the highest standards of city design for a new capital which section 125 of the Australian Constitution confirmed would be built.

The Prime Minister at that time and throughout the key centenary years, Labor's Andrew Fisher, understood the importance of symbols to the new nation. He wanted a distinctively Australian Coat of Arms, complete with a kangaroo and an emu. He wanted a currency replete with Australian images and icons and a national capital where, as he put it in his fine speech on 12 March 1913:

… the best thoughts of Australia will be given expression to.

Then there was the Minister for Home Affairs in that talented second Fisher Labor Government between 1910 and 1913, the legendary King O'Malley who was extroverted, eccentric, sometimes outlandish, but a man determined never to be upstaged by anyone or anything It was King O'Malley who took charge of the design competition and international controversy soon followed. He would make the rules, first announced in April 1911. He would have the last say on the winner and placegetters in the competition; and he would determine the design to be implemented.

The process evolved into something far more coherent and transparent than that, but it remained sufficiently contentious that no fewer than two Australian architecture institutes and the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects boycotted the competition. Despite this, despite the errors of judgement and despite the unwanted prominence of personality, arguably the three best designs in the 137 announced entries were awarded the prizes—each of them absolutely committed to the idea of the 'City Beautiful'.

Third was France's Alfred Agache, who would go on to re-design Rio de Janeiro and give us the iconic city so much admired today. Second went to the internationally renowned Finnish architect and town-planner, Eliel Saarinen. And first place, as we know, went to the visually stunning entry No. 29—originating in arguably the most progressively designed city in the world at that time, Chicago, and submitted by Walter Burley Griffin, in close collaboration with his wife and professional partner, Marion Mahony Griffin.

On this day last year, the Acting Director-General of the National Archives of Australia, Stephen Ellis, accepted on behalf of his institution a 're-discovered national treasure'—the 16th and last rendering, the last drawing, the missing drawing, in the original suite of extraordinary panels that comprised the visionary Griffin entry. The 16th drawing, the 'Key to the View from the Summit of Mt Ainslie', was believed by the professional design community in Australia to be either lost or destroyed. Through a succession of fortunate circumstances, it turned up—to be unrolled on the dining room table of Dr David Headon, who happens to be one of my advisers and also the Centenary of Canberra's History and Heritage Adviser.

Dr Headon's continuing passionate interest in Canberra's rich past recently led to a second, even more significant discovery. On 23 May, less than a month ago, and on the precise centenary day of the international competition announcement, Chief Minister of the ACT, Katy Gallagher, handed back to Minister Simon Crean, representing the Commonwealth and the National Archives of Australia, the last precious piece of the Griffin entry puzzle. Accompanying the 16 drawings in that original Griffin suite was a 29-page, unevenly typed prose document, outlining the Griffins' interpretation and explanation of their design panels. The National Archives has, presently, two original 'copies' of this document, the significant blue-spirit copies—but not the precious original. But now they have the original. The original was immediately put on public show in the Presiding Officers Gallery here, in the parliament—and what a provocative document it is. It breathes the human history of that time, and it will soon be given long overdue conservation attention by the National Archives of Australia staff.

So while we will relish the substance and subtleties of the National Capital story throughout 2013, it is also important to continue to illuminate this story with meaningful social, cultural and political contexts. The build-up years have enabled this to happen. In a dynamic and meaningful way, we have been alerted to the vital, ongoing role played by the national treasure house, our cultural institutions—their nurturing and fertilising of the nation's memory—and to the need for all of us to play our part, no matter how small, in the rich narrative of Australia's national capital. A mature democracy demands no less and a citizenry respectful of its past would settle for no less.

I look forward to the program of events that has been forecast and worked so hard upon by Robyn Archer and her team for the centenary of the national capital celebrations. I think it will be a true celebration that will be able to be shared by every single Australian, with pride, enthusiasm and an eye to the future, as always.