Washington DC sets Canberra a capital example

When it comes to honouring politicians and great achievements, Canberra can learn from the grandeur of the US capital.

Oceans of ink have been spilt on these pages over the years on the matter of Canberra planning, with a good solid stream of that flow drawing comparisons with Washington, District of Columbia.

The verdicts were not always too favourable to the ACT (''a country town''). Children growing up here in the 1960s and 1970s, like me, read of the majesty of the US capital while living the winter greyness of a ''city'' that seemed to have been laid out like a wonderful garden, but with someone forgetting to include people.

As we grew, we learnt to appreciate and extol the treasure we have. Yet a recent week in Washington led to a question about just how well we do the big, national aspects of Canberra.

Washington, blanketed in snow or not, is pretty special when it comes to the big tickets.

Take the Library of Congress. It boasts the largest collection of any library in the world, housed next to the Capitol in several magnificent buildings, the most elaborate of them named for Thomas Jefferson, the second US president.

Jefferson, several years after leaving the presidency, devoted his own library of 6487 books (at a price of $23,950) to restart the Congress collection after the British set fire to the Capitol in 1814.


Like the library, Washington's memorials are definitely on the grand scale. Our former chief minister, Jon Stanhope, holds a love of statuary that is to be supported vigorously - but could we ever expect anything on the scale of the Lincoln Memorial (opened 1922) or the Jefferson (1943)?

Stanhope, fondly remembered for his many honourable battles with the Howard administration, had to fight the Philistines with his statue proposals, too. Progress now is encouraging, from Al Grassby in the Civic cultural centre to the startling representation of prime ministers Ben Chifley and John Curtin walking to Old Parliament House from the Kurrajong Hotel.

But could the bulk of Canberrans think big enough to have something on the scale of our cousins across the Pacific?

And who should get top billing? Henry Parkes and Alfred Deakin for the establishment of the nation? Billy Hughes or John Curtin for leading us through war? And where to place them?

Washington's mall is designed in a kite shape, with the capitol (Congress) at the head, Lincoln at the tail, Jefferson on one wing (across the Tidal Basin) and the White House on the other. The Washington Monument is in the middle, towering over all, as the general himself would have done at the then tall height of 183 centimetres, leader of the Continental Army through the War of Independence and president for the first eight years of the union.

Canberra's parliamentary triangle is great, especially the water access across to the Australian War Memorial. Dare we turn its Constitution Avenue corners into something special? The present City Hill to honour first chief justice Sir Samuel Griffith or a collection of judicial figures? Blamey Square to be converted into something a little more spectacular at the Kings Avenue corner? And while we are discussing that particular spot, we have to note that ''Bugs Bunny'', the Australian-American Memorial of imposing size, was a gift from our American allies. Why can't we think at least as big as it?

On other comparisons, we fall not so short.

Our High Court, opened in 1980, is great, a marker of the time. The US Supreme Court in Washington (1935) is terrific too, just far more classical in style (but with only the one courtroom).

Again, it took us longer, but our galleries, library and museums are finally filling in the triangle (and slightly beyond, in the National Museum and War Memorial's case). With their increasing exhibitions and general openness, they are bringing more people in touch with their national city, their nation and themselves.

While ours are great, Washington's Smithsonian Institution is something else again, in sheer size as well as range. It is more than vast: 11 museums under the one umbrella on the mall, all well-crafted, child-friendly - and free.

Yet our Questacon, notwithstanding former prime minister Kevin Rudd's abhorrence, stands up OK on a pound-for-pound comparison, matching the monolith with the cleverness of a design that keeps children moving and having a greater proportion of exhibits they can really get to grips with.

Yes, beyond the science, the Smithsonian has vast other galleries and historical fields into which we are only really just starting to venture, but the Smithsonian sits in a country of 316 million people, more than a dozen times our population.

While we might feel Canberra still has some way to go, history itself (or the lack of it) can largely be blamed.

Australian Federation in 1901, while of course a laudable and peaceful achievement, lacks a little of the founding forge on which Washington and the US can draw.

They have a Declaration of Independence (''life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'', 1776), a constitution (''We the people … in order to … secure justice, insure domestic tranquillity … and secure the blessings of liberty'', 1787) and the Bill of Rights (''to prevent misconstruction of [constitutional] powers'', 1789).

We have but one of those three, a constitution. Ours starts after the first nine dusty sections of a 1900 Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. And it is no rattling read either, comparing about as well as our ''home girt by sea'' does with ''the rocket's red glare'' when we look at anthems. And let's not start on flags.

But we have a parliamentary site and building of which we can rightly crow. No matter how much some of us still love Old Parliament House (the Museum of Australian Democracy), we must acknowledge that the Richard Thorp-Aldo Giurgola creation atop Capital Hill is a unique and perfectly adapted home for our legislators.

Some of us can still remember the day in 1980 when it emerged as the winning design, a huge model rising from its covers in a ceremony at what is now known as the Shine Dome.

It remains breathtaking.

Washington's is not too shabby either, just, again, more classical, though it is probably fair to say theirs is filled with a few more excitements than ours.

For example, the painting in the cup of the Capitol's impressive dome features George Washington in purple robes in the hands of 13 angels/maidens representing the original 13 states.

While that could be seen as excess, the system of each state contributing two statues of national figures to Washington is great. These figures populate various halls in the Capitol and only four have had to be replaced because someone judged more worthy came along later (like one Ronald Reagan from California and a Gerald Ford from Michigan).

While I am all for some good, old Aussie shoulder-shrugging when it comes to power, and to so many present political matters, couldn't we - just maybe - stretch ourselves a little further when it comes to showing off the history?

♦ Andrew Fraser is a Canberra criminal lawyer.