Thursday, 27 June 2013
Since 2008, I have been privileged to deliver no fewer than 10 adjournment speeches on various aspects of Canberra's superb centenary history. It has been, for me, quite an unforgettable journey and one that I will always treasure. It has taught me so much about the quality, and the often unrecognised quality, of Australia past and present when viewed through the revealing lens of the nation's unique bush capital city.
For this reason, nothing has given me more pleasure, as a senator for the Australian Capital Territory, than to be an active participant in Canberra's 2013 centenary celebrations. The year has plenty more in it, plenty more to come, but it will surely not be possible to surpass what we have already had, with Robyn Archer and her centenary team putting on such a great show.
The constraints of time tonight do not allow me to dwell on the mass of artworks, activities, conferences, speeches, concerts, events and exhibitions so far, but I would like to mention just a few of the year's highlights in this, no doubt my last centenary speech before the next federal election.
I start with the big March weekend, a few months ago, when Canberrans welcomed so many interstate and international visitors to this city. Andrew Schultz's Centenary Symphony beautifully captured in music the sense of celebration we all felt as we gathered around the lake having supper on that beautiful evening, witnessing a sensational musical score and one of the most elegant fireworks displays this country has ever hosted.
How appropriate it was to share such a special time with so many descendants of the original Canberra founders; Federation-era pioneers and personalities, including the present-day Lord and Lady Denman—the couple remarking, on the day of their return to England, that it had been the 'best week' of their lives. They were not alone in this. I am thinking, for example, of the audience lucky enough to be present at the memorable speeches given by the Governor-General, Ms Quentin Bryce; then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard; Chief Minister Katy Gallagher and then Minister for the Arts, Simon Crean, at the Foundation Stone site on Federation Mall. It was a pristine March morning, a beautiful autumn day on the Limestone Plains. Each of their presentations paid homage to the lofty sentiments of their equivalents 100 years ago. For a few unforgettable moments, the past and present were beautifully intertwined.
Then there was the Australian Ballet's specially commissioned Garry Stewart work, Monument, inspired by Aldo Giurgola's Parliament House design, which electrified packed houses at the Canberra Theatre last month. And we are not likely to forget in a hurry the assault on our senses provided by Patricia Piccinnini's Skywhale in recent weeks—a true triumph of balloon, breasts and any amount of purposeful hot air. I do not think Canberra public art will ever be the same again.
Less controversial this year but no less remarkable has been the string of centenary exhibitions at the national institutions that began, appropriately, right here in Parliament House last January when I had the honour of launching an exhibition entitled But Once in a History: Canberra's Foundation Stones and Naming Ceremonies, 12 March 1913.
If I were to single out one exhibition for special mention, then it would be the National Archives' Design 29, which is fortunately running until September, so you have time to get there to absorb the sumptuous artistry of the sixteen large renderings produced in Chicago in the Northern Hemisphere winter of 1911-12 by Marion Mahony Griffin and her team—a suite which comprised the visuals of Walter's entry, No. 29, in the international competition to design Canberra. For aficionados of the nation's capital, this exhibition is, quite simply, compulsory viewing.
Collectively, the treasure-house institutions during this special year continue to immerse visitors in a bygone era—an era of intense optimism, just before the outbreak of the Great War, that was largely shaped by the vision, energy and enterprise of Labor Prime Minister Andrew Fisher's second Commonwealth government. As this energetic government went full term, 1910 to 1913, with a first-ever majority in both houses of the parliament, Fisher was able to establish some of the fledgling nation's first vital areas of national infrastructure.
As we know, there had already been three talented non-Labor Prime Ministers before Fisher—Edmund Barton, Alfred Deakin and the formidable George Reid—but it took a Labor government to understand the precise nature of the pressing issues confronting the nation and fearlessly to pursue the best courses of action.
Andrew Fisher and his government were doers who, in defiance of the nay-sayers, implemented programs in the national interest—nation-building programs designed to last. The laying of the first foundation stones of the capital and the naming of the city in March 1913 were just one small yet significant part of a series of progressive initiatives. On his watch, Fisher established a national currency as well as the first national public bank, the Commonwealth Bank, the people's bank, becoming the very first Commonwealth Savings Bank customer on the 15 July 1912. Fisher also recognised that one imperative of an Australian Federation was the need to embrace remote Western Australia, and thus he immediately had work commence on the Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie railway. In addition, the Fisher government developed a busy social welfare program that included the milestone Maternity Allowance Act, the Commonwealth Workmen's Compensation Act and important, democratising changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Act. In short, the Labor government of Andrew Fisher trod courageously where no previous federal government had been willing to go.
In an entirely different era, a hundred years on and, amidst unprecedented national and global challenges, the Labor government of our era has demonstrated the same resolute attitude. While it has rarely gained the recognition it deserves, this government has done the blue-collar hard work, establishing the National Broadband Network and the game-changing National Disability Insurance Scheme. For the nation's schools, the government has implemented a national curriculum in key learning areas, introduced the MySchool website and injected an unprecedented level of school infrastructure funding the length and breadth of the continent. This Labor government has put a price on carbon, directing some $3.7 billion into aged-care reform; introduced paid parental leave and partner pay; and increased the pay for eligible childcare workers.
This is a record that any national government in any era would be proud of—much less a minority government. The last Liberal government under John Howard managed a paltry legislation record despite, like Andrew Fisher one hundred years ago, enjoying a majority in both houses. Fisher acted with urgency and purpose, while my reflection on the Howard government is that they squandered a rare opportunity in divisive pursuit of an outdated, ideological agenda with Work Choices. So, as the next federal election gets closer in Canberra's big centenary year, it is timely to reflect on our historic credentials as the party of gutsy leadership on some of the big national issues.
Sixty-five years ago almost to the day, another great Labor Prime Minister, Ben Chifley, highlighted, as he put it, 'things [that] are really worth fighting for'—principles on which you give no ground. Despite all of the challenges of recent years, this has not changed. It will never change, and that is what makes us different to our opponents—100 years ago, now, and in the future.