A majestic folly soars
Jon Stanhope and tree experts Dave Jamieson and John Banks examine the fire ravaged areas that would become the arboretum. Photo: Gary Schafer
It's only 8am, but Jon Stanhope has been up for hours. Something about the light, he says, and force of habit.
There was a time, not that long ago, when he would have spent those hours striding through the National Arboretum in Canberra, inspecting the fledgling forests and making a few calls if he spotted any signs of neglect.
Instead, he's thousands of kilometres away, in his office on Christmas Island, where he is governor of 2000 people. It's quiet. He has time to think. But talking over the phone about the arboretum seems to come as a relief.
Jon Stanhope is assisted by Barry Nash, in the collection of an Irish strawberry plant at the site of the National Arboretum. Photo: Martin Jones
Stanhope may have taken himself far away after retiring from ACT public life but today he's keen to indulge in a bout of introspection - of retrospective self-examination.
And why not? In just a week, one of his most cherished projects - the National Arboretum Canberra - will finally have its grand opening, 10 years after it was conceived. And it's on this very topic that Stanhope has, in many ways, the most cause to wonder at how he withstood the seemingly never-ending political turmoil that dogged him during his time as Chief Minister of the ACT.
"At different times in my political career, I do plead guilty to naivety," he says, in that familiar, forthright tone.
"The responses or reactions weren't what I expected when I launched into certain projects. The arboretum [is one], and public art's another. And the community just took me by surprise."
Not in a good way. Need it be said, even 10 years on?
Few people know the arboretum better than Stanhope. For almost 10 years, he watched it take shape, from an idea, a vision in his mind's eye, to a paper plan, to a hilly expanse of newly turned earth and, finally, to a series of forests, many of which show every sign of one day being great.
Of course, for Stanhope, there's no ''one day'' about it; trees, by definition, are great, and majestic, and the best thing for a city in recovery, as Canberra most certainly was 10 years ago. Back then, in a community focused on rebuilding 500 destroyed homes and ensuring the city would be protected against future disasters, most people scoffed at his suggestion that the 250 hectares made vulnerable by bushfires should be transformed into a vast international arboretum.
And, back then, he couldn't imagine how anyone could possibly disagree that filling the hillsides with exotic forests was a great idea.
"I thought that the arboretum was just a no-brainer. I thought it was just such an obvious thing to do with that site," he says, still with a measure of disbelief in his voice.
"What else were we going to do with it? Cut the trees down and just allow it to regenerate? Turn it into a great big blackberry patch? You can't win. I just assumed people would think it was a great idea, that they shared my love of trees, that they'd share the vision."
It turns out there were very few people who could stare into the future and see forests - 100 of them - beyond the bureaucratic trees. Katy Gallagher was one. As the then treasurer, she approved funding of about $50 million for the project to go ahead. Prime Minister Julia Gillard was another, for when Stanhope went to her personally and asked for extra cash, she didn't hesitate to approve another $20 million of Commonwealth funding for the project.
"You can always trust the women," he says, adding his wife Robyn to the list.
"This particular project I think just epitomises how hard it is in politics these days to do anything that requires long vision. It's interesting that governments and politicians these days, we're never flavour of the month, but we're decried for our lack of vision and we're criticised for wanting in courage.
"But you know, by jingoes, you've got to be up for it to do something a bit out of the box."
Today, Stanhope is most proud of the fact that he stood his ground, that he never once considered giving up on his plan for an arboretum instead of a blackberry patch.
A decade and $70 million later, and the arboretum is a week away from its grand opening, with 100 forests to coincide with Canberra's 100th birthday. Aside from the 42,000 trees, there's a visitors' centre with a cafe and shop, a function centre, walking paths, and an almost-complete million-dollar playground. The site is set to open in a dawn ceremony with all the pomp and splendour that daybreak on hillsides can bring. And Stanhope will be there to see it happen.
He's also keen to correct the record before the various misconceptions about the site take hold. To understand the arboretum's genesis, it's necessary to go back, not to the devastating firestorm that tore through Canberra in 2003, but further, to 2001. There were fires around Christmas that year as well, destroying the large commercial pine plantation that had been there for decades. ACT Forests acted quickly and, within months, a million Pinus radiata were replanted on the site. Although these new trees were spared the wrath of January 18, 2003, their presence was, in hindsight, a future invitation, in drought-stricken Canberra, to go ahead and wreck the place.
In the weeks after the fire, as the city reeled in shock and began tallying its losses - four lives and 500 homes - Stanhope commissioned former Commonwealth ombudsman Ron McLeod to lead the first official inquiry into the government's response to the disaster.
Of the many recommendations, the one Stanhope had been most expecting was that the recently replanted forest would have to go.
"The forest that burnt, the forest that, in fact, created the ember storm into Weston Creek, was a Pinus radiata forest of exactly the sort that had been replanted on this site," he says.
"And one of Ron McLeod's recommendations, which I accepted without discussion, was that, right, there would be no commercial logging operations of softwood forests pursued between the western edge of Canberra and the Murrumbidgee River."
But there remained the problem of a million recently replanted and, in view of the devastating fire storm and forecasts of more years of drought, potentially lethal pine trees.
"I had this issue with that particular forest that, while there was no immediate urgency, the trees grew quickly and they would become a fire hazard and I was determined that I would not allow that to happen," he said.
At the same time, as part of his recovery strategy, Stanhope became determined to restore some of the iconic Canberra sites that had been destroyed by the fires - the Cotter Reserve, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve and Mount Stromlo.
"I made that promise repeatedly, that we the government, we the community, would restore those iconic, favourite, Canberra spaces to something greater than the fire itself had destroyed. In other words, we would not allow the fire to have victory over us. We would have victory over the fire."
To those three sites, he added a fourth - the pine forest that is now the arboretum. Unsurprisingly, the debates that ensued within government were vigorous. How would these spaces regenerate, and should they be allowed to recover naturally. Should there be mass plantings and, if so, of what, and how much would it cost?
As the city slowly recovered from the shock of the firestorm, things started happening. Mount Stromlo was replanted, and became a top-notch mountain bike precinct. The wildlife sanctuary was restored, with a new playground, increased research capacity and an upgraded walking trail.
That left the problematic pines on the Tuggeranong Parkway. There was no question that the pines had to go, leaving a vast empty site that would be driven past by thousands of motorists every day. Why shouldn't it be something worth looking at?
And here is where Stanhope and what he terms his "little agenda" kicked in.
Stanhope is, first and foremost, a tree lover. He's also a long-term resident of Belconnen, a fact that hasn't always sat well with his love of trees. As anyone familiar with the various districts of Canberra will know, the practice of planting a mixture of exotic and native trees in the suburbs began and ended more or less with the inner north and the inner south, where the streets are shaded by thick summer foliage in the warmer months, and explode in a riot of autumn colour come March.
"I didn't support the planting decision that was taken when Tuggeranong and Belconnen were developed to essentially plant natives only," Stanhope says.
"It was a new landscape plan with a new landscape theory. I think it's a pity, and I always felt it was a pity as a resident, that those who call Belconnen or Tuggeranong home have never had the advantage of those wonderful autumns. There's a strong ideological debate to be had about this. I was always, whenever I raised these questions in government … [asking] why can't we have some more exotics, but of course it was always as though I was suggesting something completely outrageous."
To this institutional resistance, Stanhope would always counter that Canberra already had a very fine Botanical Gardens, one that was filled entirely with native species.
"I'd always thought it a pity. Whenever I go to one of the capital cities around Australia, and even around the world, I always visit the Botanical Gardens, and there's no similar experience in Canberra, except walking through some of the leafy suburbs of south Canberra and north Canberra," he says.
"It's a similar experience but it's an urban experience. I'd always had this deep desire for Canberra to have a more traditional style of botanical gardens, so I pursued that agenda."
The government's first instinct, Stanhope says, was to allow the site to regenerate - to become, in effect, an extension of Black Mountain. But the official advice from the Non-Urban Renewal Taskforce that had been set up in the wake of the fires was something more along the lines of a planned site. Such as an arboretum.
Even in a spring chicken of a city such as Canberra, urban myths do take hold remarkably easily. There is another myth related to the arboretum that Stanhope has long given up trying to correct, the one that "it's all down to Walter Burley Griffin".
"Of course, there's sort of an obligatory post-facto justification for why there should be an arboretum: 'Oh, well, Walter suggested there be an arboretum on Black Mountain so just by extension we'll extend it over here a bit'," Stanhope says.
"But I can tell you now, as the decision-maker, as the driver, Walter Burley Griffin and his plans for arboreta never entered my head."
That's not to say that arboreta were not at the top of his mind, though. There were, in fact, several arboreta scattered through the Brindabellas and Namadgi National Park that were destroyed in 2003, and Stanhope had already had discussions with Territory and Municipal Services about whether to restore them.
"The consensus was that it was too hard, too expensive, too difficult. And I felt heartbroken at the loss of those arboreta, and I know that played into my thinking about this arboretum," he says.
"I used to visit those places quite frequently, and I felt their loss quite strongly, and that was in my thinking in terms of, well, what can we do about that, and it all fed into this vision."
So then, what does one do to turn such a vision into reality? Why, launch an international design competition, of course.
"The current design [by Melbourne landscape architects Taylor Cullity Lethlean] was recommended and I accepted it. I was conscious that we needed to do something well. I initiated the design competition, I appointed a very high-profile selection panel, and I accepted their recommendations. And then I took the issue back to my caucus and cabinet, as one does, and pushed it through. And then I funded it."
It wasn't until the project was under way, though, that the public finally started to take notice.
"Of course, it was a battle to start with. We had to remove the trees, we had to prepare the site, we had to do the initial work, we had to go through a tree-selection process, we had to find our way. And it's probably true, on a large 250-hectare site, there was a stuttering start to work," he says.
"And then the drought hit and it didn't look very flash and the weeds were up. It did look ratty. But then my political opponents seized on it, and began to use it for political purposes. And then, I have to say, the media played the role that it plays in these things and gave it a lot of oxygen … I really copped it from all sides. But I was resolute, and I know there were an awful lot of people, including within government, who were beginning to shake their heads in wonder."
He laughs out loud at the memory. His self-described agenda may frequently be referred to, even today, as "Stanhope's folly", but he says he will always consider it one of his greatest achievements.
"[As] you reflect on your political life, there are a whole range of things you do that you feel proud about, and I feel proud about the way in which the governments I led invested massively in community infrastructure and community services such as health and education. I am proud of how we managed the major service provisions for people in Canberra," he says.
"But the arboretum, as something of sheer beauty, and something that Canberra people can love, and that will be there and will endure and that's special and that would not have happened but for me, stands as something that I'll always be proud of."
He's the first to admit that his pride has often spilled over into a sense of propriety. The project was managed out of his office while he was chief minister, and openly micro-managed through his regular daily walks. It was he who, on a morning back in 2009, discovered that 140 beech saplings had been stolen in the night, and duly contacted police.
"I almost know all the trees personally," he says. "I go around and count the trees that are dead, and all that sort of stuff. I drove the department mad."
It's here that the sense of distance he now has comes back to the fore. You can't count dead trees from the other side of the country.
"I must say, this is a nice interlude for me," he admits. "I love Canberra. I'll live the rest of my life there and I'll die there, but it's good for me to be over here in the middle of nowhere for a while. It's just about letting go, I think."