ACT News


Capital's temporary obsession

WHEN THE guns finally fell silent on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the world began ledgering the indeterminate cost of pitting the industrial machinery of war - tanks, artillery, machineguns and airborne bombs - against the arcane cavalry and infantry charge.

So many millions of dead and missing. And a generation of millions more who tried to resume post-war lives in England, Germany, France, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere with the scars, physical and mental, that could never heal.

In global terms Australia's loss was small: about 60,000 dead (including some 18,000 who remain missing or could not be identified upon death on the European Western Front), and another 155,000 wounded. But for a young newly federated democracy with a population of less than five million, the impact was utterly catastrophic.

The Federation's capital, Canberra, had been named with rallying optimism in March 1913. But the war that atrophied a generation of Australian men had a similarly profound impact on how the purpose-built capital might come to symbolise the ideals, hopes and egalitarianism of a new nation.

Outside the capital it has long been disdainfully viewed as an introspective insider preoccupation to rake over the symbolic meaning of Canberra's urban, monumental and bush landscape.

And due to the unedifying politics of the 43rd Parliament for which, in other parts of the country, Canberra is a euphemism, this has never been more acutely the case. This presents a great hurdle to those organising Canberra's centenary celebrations.


The trick, perhaps, is to get the nation to understand that the Canberra story is not some fairytale of comfortable life in ''the bubble''. No. It is a gritty post-WWI yarn about a nation that was stoically mourning its lost while soberly getting on with a practical task of nation building.

Indeed, Canberra's face and the way it was sculpted is far more an embodiment of a sombre Australian post-war consciousness than the universally celebrated atmosphere of peace from which the colonial federation grew. It is worth recalling here that other nations (remember Gettysburg and the Bastille?) had far more painful births in cordite and cold steel.

Chicago landscape architect Walter Griffin had planned Canberra as a city for a country of ''bold democrats''. At the southern end of his land axis (for the benefit of those who live elsewhere, it intersects with the water axis in the lake that bears his name) was to be his ''capitol''. At the other end, at the foot of Mount Ainslie, was Griffin's ''casino''.

Like much of his plan, Griffin failed to adequately articulate his intent for the capitol, beyond it being a sort of national clearing-house, a forum-like meeting place, a celebration of Australian history and a repository of its people's archives. It was to stand, geographically and therefore symbolically, above the legislature. Homes for the prime minister and the governor-general were also sited just below the capital on Kurrajong (today's Capital) Hill.

Ditto the casino, envisaged as an open air European-style pleasure garden incorporating a theatre, small al-fresco restaurants and a beer garden.

But the impact of the great losses of Gallipoli and the Western Front changed everything.

Most of the grieving would never get near the soil of the Dardanelles, the Somme or Flanders that held their boys and men. So, instead of a beer garden and open-air restaurants and a theatre, the foot of Mount Ainslie became home to the Australian War Memorial - a place for the grieving to mourn their dead and missing and to acknowledge those who endured.

Kurrajong Hill was largely untouched until ''new'' Parliament House opened in 1988.

Reflecting the post-war austerity that nearly scuttled Canberra completely, in 1917 Australia instead won a ''temporary'' parliament. It lasted 60 years.

No casino. And no expensive fancy capitol. But the war memorial and the parliament that bookend the land axis today symbolise Australia's history as it happened, not as it was envisaged. They also represent enduring national sentiments today.

At one end the Parliament lends the city its unwarranted infamy. At the other stands the country's foremost secular shrine. The reviled and the revered. Those who decide on war.

And those who are sent to fight it.

And what of the Prime Minister's Lodge?

Well it was never granted the commanding view afforded by Kurrajong. Instead it ended up as yet another temporary structure at 5 Adelaide Avenue, Deakin.

Land was set aside elsewhere, including on Stirling Ridge, above the southern bank of the Molonglo and what would, after 1964, be the lake.

A recent re-think of the plan for the national capital would have the PM's pad notionally relocate to Attunga Point, right on the lake's southern shore.

But best not hold your breath waiting for the first sod to be turned.

Political inertia - underpinned by the jingoistic belief that the punters will not abide pollies spending money on themselves, especially in Canberra - will almost certainly ensure it won't happen before the capital turns 150.

Here in Canberra there is a new frisson about a new Lodge, since the National Capital Authority recently launched a public consultation for the Attunga Point proposal. Many of those who ride bikes and walk through this majestic site will no doubt be opposed to shifting the Lodge there.

Outsiders, of course, will scoff at what they regard as such pervasive Canberra NIMBY-ness.

And perhaps they're right. Just as the rest of the country has convinced itself that it doesn't want Canberra at all, let alone in its backyard, the people who live here need to consider the symbolic importance to Australia of a beautiful, architecturally ambitious permanent home for the country's foremost political leader - not the short-term inconvenience it might bring them.

Stirling Ridge holds its own unique symbolism as the height above Stirling Park - the old Westlake where the men who built Canberra lived, initially under canvas, before going on to build a modest but tight knit suburb and an even closer community.

There is admirable ambition behind the $120,000 contest to design the new Lodge at Attunga Point. But don't hold your breath. Renovations on the original Lodge are about to start.

A new Lodge is purely hypothetical until the punters get the politicians they reckon they deserve.

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