Federal Politics


Party, but look to the next 100 years

Today marks the start of Canberra's centenary year; the celebration of which moves into high gear in less than 10 weeks. On March 11, a series of festivities will be staged in and around Lake Burley Griffin to mark the 100th anniversary of the day when Lady Denman, wife of the then governor-general Lord Denman, gave the city its name and when the first foundation stone was laid near what is now old Parliament House. Many Canberrans will view the centenary as an opportunity to let their hair down and party, and certainly Robyn Archer, the event's creative director, intends people to enjoy themselves. However, the centenary also represents an opportunity for discussion about where Canberra is headed, and will be like in 2113.

The development of Canberra from an almost treeless valley in 1913 to a confident and thriving city of 375,000 people today, is not unique. The creation of cities in places where they would not normally take root has been going on since Washington D.C. was built in the early 19th century, and indeed shows few signs of diminishing in countries such as China. What sets Canberra apart from many other ''artificial'' cities is the blend of political and design idealism that underpins it - though, ironically, it was the petty colonial rivalries, which made the selection of a national capital from the existing cities so problematic, that drove this approach. If not for the federation of the Australian states, and the constitution of 1901, which imposed on the federal parliament the duty of creating a national capital, Canberra would not exist. This involved the consideration of a number of different sites and the transfer of land from NSW to the Commonwealth under a special Seat of Government Act. An international competition for the design of the new national capital was held in which entries were expected to integrate the themes and concepts of the ''city beautiful'' and ''garden city'' movements, then much in vogue.

Walter Burley Griffin's winning design displayed these characteristics to the fullest, but its real genius was the way it made use of the site, moulding itself to Canberra's topography rather than seeking to impose itself on it. The Commonwealth also decided to establish a unique leasehold system of land tenure for Canberra, one it felt would constrain the city's development by uncontrolled private interests and safeguard its long-term interests.

As anyone who has built an architect-designed house knows, construction of a complicated nature never entirely goes entirely according to plan, and so it proved with Canberra. World War I and the lack of money ensured an inauspicious start. Burley Griffin, who had been appointed director of design and construction, was sacked in 1920 and his plan subsequently altered. So slow and fitful was progress that by the time of the Great Depression in the 1930s not a few people wondered whether there was any point in the government persisting with Canberra's development. Luckily, prescient administrators continued to plant trees extensively.

The start of World War II gave Canberra's development a much-needed boost. The election in 1949 of Robert Menzies - a true believer in Canberra - and the establishment of the National Capital Development Commission in 1957 also proved decisive in the development of Canberra, both as an administrative centre and as an agreeable city of atmosphere and individuality.

The commission's vision for Canberra could never be said to have been inspired or soaring; and it probably gave too much precedence in transport planning matters to the private car. But its vision has survived the passage of the years and the advent of self-government. The Commonwealth, through the National Capital Authority, still retains planning control over the Parliamentary Triangle and outlying areas, but seems largely to have disowned the city it nurtured. Many Canberrans feel the territory government has, through its polices of infill and commercial development (particularly in Civic), not safeguarded the legacy of Burley Griffin, Menzies and the National Capital Development Commission particularly well. By any objective measure, however, Canberra remains a beautiful city boasting the finest of civic facilities.

There is no reason why Canberra should not continue to be an efficient, convenient city with easy access to the coast and the mountains. But that will depend largely on land use and management, and on the maintenance of the standards and objectives that have steered its first 100 years.