Jon Stanhope, Administrator of the Australian Indian Ocean Territories, (Christmas Island and Cocos / Keeling Islands) at his home on Christmas Island. Photo: Wolter Peeters
About two weeks ago, an anonymous letter arrived in the mail for former ACT chief minister Jon Stanhope. It wasn't from a fan.
"Can you believe, I received an anonymous letter from Canberra almost wishing that I would rot in hell for inflicting the [Belconnen] owl on them," Mr Stanhope laughs in disbelief. "I received an anonymous letter, here on Christmas Island, wishing me into purgatory for inflicting the owl on them. But I love the public art."
Island life agrees with Mr Stanhope and his wife Robyn. The pair have been here almost six months and they look tanned, fit and relaxed. Geckos sing from the ceilings of their sprawling 1920s home, which comes with the job, and the clicking of crabs' claws echoes through its corridors at night. After 10 years at the territory's helm, Stanhope is enjoying his new role as the administrator of Christmas Island and the Cocos/Keeling islands.
The giant owl sculpture is back, on the corner of Belconnen Way and Benjamin Way after a refurbishment. Photo: Graham Tidy
Life in a place so tiny there is no recycling system, and the plane network that flies tourists and temporary workers in and out of the place is subsidised by the Commonwealth, is a far cry from the bruising world of Canberra politics. But Mr Stanhope is not one to quietly fade into the background.
Christmas Island has this week been at the heart of the asylum seeker debate, with almost 1000 people arriving in the past week on about a dozen craft.
From his front door, Mr Stanhope can look out over the Indian Ocean and see boats approaching on the horizon. He keenly watches navy vessels charge out to meet them, and he often walks down to the jetty to stand alone at Flying Fish Cove watching the human cargo unloaded at the port. It pains him to see women carrying babies and elderly people in wheelchairs being helped onto the dock after risking their lives on rickety boats over 200 nautical miles at sea. He says the influx of asylum seekers presents unique challenges to Australia's Indian Ocean territories.
On the one hand, there is almost full employment on the islands, with many people working up to five jobs. On the other, the predominance of fly-in, fly-out workers puts great pressure on the cost of housing and food. Fresh produce is particularly expensive. On Wednesday this week, an iceberg lettuce with a use-by date of March 22 was on sale at Stanhope's local supermarket for $14.53. It was half-rotten.
But back to the public art. It is, as Stanhope acknowledges with a grimace of irritation, often understood to be his "legacy" to Canberra. "It was never meant to be [a legacy] but it's developed a life of its own, and sometimes I find it a bit frustrating when people say to me, and they do, and I see it reported constantly, that oh, they're your great legacies, the Arboretum and public art.
"And really, I'm prouder of the fact the ACT has a human rights act and a human rights-compliant prison than I am of public art. I love the public art but I will never as long as I live understand the community's reaction to public art. Every other city in the world, every other city that pretends to be a city, or a great city, is not embarrassed or self-conscious about showing its creative side; in fact they glory in it."
Stanhope says there are three more works to be rolled out in the public art program he initiated, and confesses he gets a "huge perverse boost" from knowing there'll be "the usual outrage" when they're released.
After nearly two years away from the helm, Mr Stanhope is philosophical about public life. He misses the cut and thrust of politics but he believes he stepped down at the right time. Ever the student of history, he points out that he was one of just six government leaders in 113 years of Australian politics to resign voluntarily (he joined Sir Robert Menzies, Neville Wran, Steve Bracks, Peter Beattie and Bob Carr). He is the only Labor leader to have handed power to a deputy who subsequently won an election in their own right.
Mr Stanhope is a close friend and staunch supporter of Chief Minister Katy Gallagher but admits: "It's hard to give up being a leader; it's hard to give up power. It always sounds dreadful and you hesitate to say it, but the hard thing about giving up politics is giving up power."
But it's a move he wishes more of his federal colleagues would take.
"I actually have a personal view that far too many politicians take far too long. I have to say, I'll be controversial, I think one of the issues we have in our federal caucus is that there are far too many people who have been there far too long, and at different times I have even mused that as a party we should almost put a time limit on the number of terms that you can serve in a Parliament.''
Asked about last week's tumultuous federal leadership contest, Mr Stanhope says he regards former regional affairs minister Simon Crean - who called for Julia Gillard to open a leadership ballot and pledged his support for Kevin Rudd - as a friend.
Mr Crean recommended to cabinet that Mr Stanhope be appointed as Christmas Island administrator, and Mr Stanhope is not one to forget a favour. And he believes the Labor Party also owes Mr Crean a debt.
"I'm not sure what Simon had in his mind in relation to the leadership issue last week, but as a member of the Labor Party … I think Simon has - I don't know whether wittingly or unwittingly; I'd like to think wittingly - cleared the air in relation to the leadership and I believe Simon Crean has done the party and the Prime Minister a tremendous service, although perversely he's lost his job in doing it."
Canberra remains close to the Stanhopes' hearts. They plan to return and eventually to retire here. But retirement could be a while coming.
"I still have an urge to be involved, and I love Canberra, it's home and it's where my heart is," he says.
He doesn't have many regrets from public life but he does have one recent regret. He wishes he hadn't thrown that letter wishing him eternal damnation away. He would have liked to show it to us.